The word savage often appears in colonial descriptions of tappa, a quirky and dazzling musical form that revel in the art of the unpredictable. “Wild but nice when you understand it,” says 18th-century music collector William Hamilton Bird in Oriental blend (1789). Said Sarah Plowden, another 18th century Hindustani music chronicler, “A kind of hard, wild music without any tune.”
How the tappa traveled east, morphed into toppa, and became a staple of popular music in Bengal is a fascinating story of cultural and social changes spanning four centuries.
As the name suggests, the northern tappa, believed to have been inspired by the songs of the Punjab-Sindh camel drivers, literally stumbles over notes, words and rhythms, but with the singer absolutely in control of the reins of creation. .
“The game of notes, sentences and the use of aada taal [off-beat rhythm patterns] in tappa requires quite different vocal training and arduous breathing control, which explains its rare occurrence in concerts, ”said Shashwati Mandal, among performers of the Gwalior gharana form.
Despite this, tappa is often referred to as a classic “semi” or “light” because it contradicts the meditative style of khayal. A 1910/1911 recording of a Kafi raga tappa by British musicologist AH Fox Strangways describes it as a “light classical Hindustani vocal composition”.
“Believe me, there is nothing light about tappa; the range of harkats (pacy embellishments) she employs – it’s very complicated, ”said Shanno Khurana, veteran khayal singer, 95, and the form’s oldest living representative. “I used to hear the legendary Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi and Badi Moti Bai sing the tappa and marvel at their masterful mastery of music.”
The other formidable tappa singer of our time is Malini Rajurkar of Gwalior gharana, which, along with Benares, is the citadel of tappa.
Upon arriving in Bengal, the tappa frenzy subsided, putting poetry and bhav – not dynamic vocalism – center stage. Over the decades, the peculiarities of the form have been extracted and incorporated into an array of musical forms – devotions, folk and patriotic songs, jatra (theater), folk songs, etc.
Love and separation
A woman’s anxiety over separation from her loved one and the plea to be united are usually the themes of a tappa, mostly in two to four lines. As is the case in this classic Kafi from Rajurkar.
O miyan jaanewale, tainu Allahdi kasam, phir aare nainon wale / Aanda jaanda tussi man the janda / Aur sajan gale lag ja, sharshar matvale (O itinerant, you stole my heart, come back and hug me).
But to understand the evolution of the form, it’s important to go back to the 18th century and maybe even 100 years earlier.
Hereditary musician Ghulam Nabi Shori (1742-’92) was among the khayal geniuses of the 18th century Awadh court of Nawab Asafuddaulah. It is generally believed that in search of broader musical experiences, he traveled to the north where he heard the chants of camel drivers in the Punjab-Sindh region. Shori then integrated this music into existing Hindustani practices to make tappa.
Most of the songs in the contemporary tappa repertoire are attributed to Shori, his name appearing in the last line of two tuks (stanzas).
But in his essay, The origins and early development of Khayal, music historian Katherine Schofield quotes several 17th-century texts, such as the Mirzanama and the Tuhfat al-Hind, to establish that tappa was already common in Delhi 100 years before it was all the rage in Lucknow.
What Shori likely did was provide an Awadh makeover for what British orientalists William Jones and Augustus Willard describe in Music from India (1834) as the “very crude style” of the camel drivers.
“Tappas were sung in several languages and dialects of the north and west of undivided India, such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Multani, bannochi, derawali and saraiki,” Khurana said.
While Bengali tappas are often described as’ mishti [sweet], more lyrical ”, the charm abounds in the tappas of the north. A beautiful anecdote from Khurana’s life as a young bride in Multan best describes this. A Punjabi speaker married to a family who spoke Derewali and Saraiki, she struggled to understand conversations.
Summoned to fetch his mother-in-law’s paunkdi (better known in Punjabi as parandi, an ornamental hair extension), she sat down to write her own raga Kafi tappa to Derewali:
Van shver maindi paunkdi jhin aa / Dekhin dekhin kithai dhain pave na /
Phulaan da phumman, tareyaan da phumman / Dhain pave na
(Go find my parandi/ It is strewn with flowers and stars / It must never be soiled.)
Tappa travels east
In roughly the same decades of the 18th century when tappa was becoming all the rage in Lucknow, an educated, upper-class Bengali found himself falling in love with his quicksilver. Ramnidhi Gupta, better known as Nidhu Babu, was born just one year before Shori and lived four decades after him.
The pursuit of the elegant northern arts was in vogue among elite Bengal men at the time and Gupta found himself a Hindustani ustad during his stint as the collector of Chhapra in 1776-’94. This is probably where he first encountered tappa.
Nidhu Babu took the northern tappa and turned it into something uniquely Bengali. He slowed down his frenzied tempo and wrote up an impressive body of tappa, stuffed with love and pathos. These compositions, longer than Shori’s short lines, were later compiled into one volume, the Geet Ratna Granth (1837), to ensure their correct interpretation.
Various accounts say that Nidhi Babu’s songs were addressed to the love of his life, a certain Srimati – described as “concubine of Mahananda Roy, diwan of the collector of Murshidabad” in the essay by researcher Ramakanta Chakrabarty in 1986. Tappa by Nidhu Babu published in the Journal of the Indian Society of Musicology. The story of his tragic passion even made its way into a Bengali film Amar Geeti – with Soumitra Chatterjee in the role of Nidhu Babu – who presented one of his most popular and melodic compositions: Tumari Tulona Tumi Pran (You Are Incomparable), sung by the most famous performer of the Nidhu repertoire, Ramkumar Chatterjee.
“He was a pioneer of kavya gaan [poetry-centric songs] and prem and biraha were the dominant themes, although he wrote works of a patriotic and spiritual nature, ”said Devojit Bandyopadhyay, who has done extensive research on the history of theater music in Bengal.
Nidhu Babu’s tappas were something of a revolution in a musical landscape ruled by two extremes – classical devotions and erotic songs, according to Chakrabarty. His compositions strike a happy medium, placing romantic love songs within the classical framework. Although they never crossed the platonic line, the songs captured the attention of purists and conservatives for their “obscene” nature, according to its biographers.
Interestingly, in her day, Nidhu Babu’s tappas were considered too risky for women. Critics called his songs a mess and the women who sang them were castigated as licentious, academic Sumit Mukherji said in her article. Ramnidhi Gupta and cultural humanism in 18th century Bengal. “Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay portrayed a female character in his novel Bishbriksha [Poison Tree] as “shamelessly” declaring during a public function that she would listen to Nidhu Babu Tappa alone and nothing else, ”Mukerji said.
Among the most popular modern singers in the Gupta repertoire were Kalipada Pathak, Ramkumar Chatterjee and Chandidas Mal. Bengal was so captivated by the form that other tappa composers entered the music scene. Among them, the best known were Sridhar Kathak and Kalidas Chattopadhyay and Kali “Mirza” (he affected the airs and dressed like a great Awadhi).
Over time, says Chakrabarty, tappa has been assimilated into various forms of Bengal singing, including folk and drama. For example, Gopal Ude, a representative of the 19th century jatra, introduced it into theatrical music, ensuring its dissemination among the non-elite of rural Bengal and small towns.
Over time, the form became frivolous, says Chakrabarty, and fell from its pedestal of high literature and high music. His next rebirth was under Tagore, an eclectic thinker and composer.
If in Nidhu Babu’s hands the tappa slowed down, under Tagore’s baton it became a different genre – he woven its characteristics into all kinds of compositions to achieve a certain melodic and emotional effect.
Pramita Mallick, veteran exhibitor of Rabindra sangeet, calls them tappas “Rabindric” because they were very distinct from the genre shaped by Shori or even Nidhu Babu – the lyrics were longer, up to eight lines, and the playful harkats were been used to frame the beauty of poetry, not the other way around. They are also sung for the most part without percussive support.
“He had learned and admired Nidhu Babu’s tappa, but he had always refused to limit himself to one style or one guru,” Mallick said. “Poetry was paramount in his songs and he used any style or mix of styles he needed to bring out a certain vibe. So it went into patriotic songs, dhrupads, spiritual compositions, seasons [ritu] Songs; sometimes he only introduced a sentence or two with typical tappa structures.
One of the oft-cited uses of a Tagore tappa to create a certain mood was in the movie Satyajit Ray. Kanchenjunga, in which E Porobash Dress Ke (Who Will Live In This Foreign Land) was used to paint the isolation of a middle aged woman.
From the dusty camel-back trails of Punjab and Sindh to the courts of Awadh, Gwalior and Benares and finally the musical traditions of Bengal, there was one thing all forms of tappa did: make punch.
Malini Nair is a New Delhi-based writer and editor. She is Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.