Retnasree Iyer: A path-breaking Woman Tabalist
Arts Speak

Retnasree Iyer: A path-breaking Woman Tabalist

Divya Menon

We live in the times of women empowerment and intense feminist movements; every arena of life bears imprints of the struggle of women to make their presence felt.

Speaking specifically about music, we have always been regaled by the artistry of stellar women musicians as vocalists and instrumentalists. However, until recent times percussion was rarely accepted as a space where women could prove their prowess. Percussion that calls for greater physical strength was always considered the bastion of male artists but proving these beliefs wrong are a number of young and talented women percussionists of today who by the sheer merit of their talent and perseverance, have made heads turn and carved a niche for themselves as pioneers and this short article is about Retnasree Iyer, a leading Tabla sensation from Vaikkom who is perhaps the only professional Tabalist from Kerala and one of India’s handful of leading female percussionists. She is the first female B High Grade Artiste of AIR and Doordarshan, Thiruvananthapuram.

Born into a musically inclined Iyer family of Vaikkom as the youngest of seven children, Retna’s foray into the world of music was certainly not serendipitous. With one brother being a Tabalist, another being a classical dancer and a sister trained in both classical dance as well as Carnatic music, there were always long sessions of dance and music at home, however, little Retnasree or Rethu as she is called lovingly at home was drawn towards percussion from a tiny age and went on to experiment with rhythm by tapping away on just about anything she could lay her hands on.

It was her father Ramachandra Iyer who spotted the immense talent in her and enrolled her for Tabla classes under Karikode Chellappan Master at the age of 13. Later she trained under a series of brilliant masters such as Jayakant Master in Hyderabad, Professor Manohar Keskar of Mumbai, Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Dilli Gharana and Arvind Mulgaonkar ji of mumbai, who tutored her until his demise. She also counts Ameer Hussain Khan Saheb who is the guru of her guru, Zakir Hussain Saheb through performance recordings and TV Gopalakrishnan as one of the greatest forces who have tuned and honed her skills to become a professional Tabla artist.

This post graduate in Chemistry, also holds a long list of certifications such as a Diploma in Tabla from the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University - Hyderabad, Tabla Visharad from Akhil Bharathiya Gandharva Maha Mandal - Mumbai. She has also completed MPA in Tabla from Shivaji University of Kolhapur. Having trained in all the six different Gharanas of the North and the South Indian taal system, she is currently pursuing her PhD in the Science of Tabla from the MG University of Kottayam.

Over a span of two decades she has accompanied mercurially brilliant artists such as Ustad Faiyaz Khan(Dharwad), Pandit Shailesh Bhagawath (Mumbai), Pandit Arun Kashalker (Mumbai), Varsha Nane (Pune), Moumitha Mithra (Kolkotta), Sawani Shendge (Pune), Dr. Sreeram Parashuram, Sameer Rao, Himanshu Nanda, Abhiram Nanda, Rajkumar Majumdar Santoor, Rakesh Chaurasia, Kumari .A. Kanyakumari, T V Gopalakrishnan, Abradite Banerjee, Kudamaloor Janardhanan, Haridas Santoor and so many more.

She has also been invited to perform at various celebrated festivals within the Country and across the border, such as the Soorya Festival Kerala, Swathi Sangeethotsavam Kerala, Thuryam Festival Kerala, Raga Leela Festival at Vienna in Austria and the Abdul Kareem Khan Festival, Miraj.

She has been training students in Tabla and her message for aspirants of this instrument is to cultivate devotion towards the instrument and to not study for the sake of contests. Deeply rooted in spiritualism, she aims to use her talent and training in Tabla to uplift herself spiritually.

The journey of this young lady in her art has been rather difficult and chock full of challenges. Trying to find training opportunities in a state where Carnatic music is more popular than Hindustani was a major hurdle that she crossed by finding masters beyond the State but then she also had to fight against gender bias and was often considered ‘too soft’ for the instrument. She was greeted with disbelief and often had to battle the male ego that refused to accept her talent.

Each day in the life of this young artiste is a long list of engagements in different towns and cities, as a solo performer or as an accompanist yet, this soft spoken lady with mild manners may come across as just another girl from a small village in Kerala, gifted but with an exceptional talent in those fingers of hers that create a magic that refuses to wane. Prodigious is the word that strikes one first upon meeting her and then ‘unassuming’. Simple to the core, she embodies the virtues that one often associates practitioners of pure music with and those very same virtues that are hard to come by in these exceptionally challenged times of commoditization.