Bollywood’s dholak gharana

Rishi Majumder meets the family of Ghulam Mohammed, celebrated for first introducing the dholak in Hindi cinema, and finds that the beats still ring loud and clear

Photographer: Nilesh Wairkar

From L to R: Ghulam Mohammed and his sons: Mumtaz Ahmed, Aziz Mohammed, Masood Mohammed, Mohammed Iqbal, Khalique Ahmed

From L to R: Ghulam Mohammed and his sons: Mumtaz Ahmed, Aziz Mohammed, Masood Mohammed, Mohammed Iqbal, Khalique Ahmed

A son was born to Ustad Nobi Bukhsh, music director of musicals, in 1903 in a village called Naal, near Bikaner, Rajasthan. His first tabla performance was at the age of six, after which he continued to work as a child artist with the Jodhpur-Bikaner Theatre Company (J B Theatre Co.) and the Albert Theatre Company in Lahore. The Nawab of Junagadh presented him with a golden sword when he was 13, for the singing portrayal of a prince, prophesying he would grow up to be one of India’s great artists. He went on to specialise in the field of percussion, commanding the highest pay any musician did during the ’20s and the early ’30s (he was paid one rupee and 50 paise per recording when the staple was 50 paise) for recordings that were played as a backdrop to silent movies. He continued his work in theatre alongside this to become the
Chief Dance Director and Chief Director of Musicals. It was with the talkies, however, that Ghulam Mohammed fulfilled the Nawab’s prophecy.
Playing a part in this fulfillment is his fast-paced composition of Ghalib’s somber ‘Dil-e-Nadaan’ for Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954) and his presenting of ‘La De Mohe Balma Aaasmani Churiya’ in a format akin to rap, long before rap became popular in the West, in Rail Ka Dibba (1943). But his being the original music composed for Pakeezah (1972) (Naushad took over towards the end when he passed away during the making of the film), has placed him securely in the Indian music directors’ hall of fame. He is credited with introducing to Hindi film music instruments like the duff, matka, chimta, kharkaal, manjeere and lota.
His family’s claim to him introducing the dholak to Hindi film music with Sharda (1942)
is contested by the Sen family (descendants of percussionist Jamal Sen). But there is no contesting him being the first ever person to have recorded the dholak in a recording of Begum Inaayati Dera Waali’s in 1934. His six sons (each a musician in his own right) have grown adept at the instrument too, prompting Pyarelal Sharma of Laxmikant-Pyarelal to call their family the dholak gharana.
“Begum Inayaati rejected many tabalchis because they couldn’t give her the rhythm she wanted for her recording,” recounts Mumtaz Ahmed, the eldest of his sons. “She was skeptical about my father playing the dholak, an instrument used only in mujras, instead of the tabla.” Ghulam Mohammed had been invited to a wedding in Jammu by Uma Dutt (Shiv Kumar Sharma’s father) where he had seen many women playing dholaks to per
fection as one woman kept rhythm by tapping a small stone to the ground. To discipline the dholak in similarly to match the precision of a tabla, he thought, one should use the chhalla (the metal ring seen on every tabalchi’s fore-finger). “But the dholak was a different kind of drum altogether,” Mumtaz explains. “So he decided that the chhalla should be placed on the dholak player’s little finger. Where it has remained ever since…”
The idea of using the matka, in Sharda (1942), stemmed similarly, from Ghulam Mohammed’s wanderings through festival celebrations in Punjab and Multan. “He suggested to Naushad that a soft rounded sound would match Suraiya’s 14-year-old voice,” says Aziz Mohammed, the second eldest brother and an acclaimed percussionist in the industry. “And he knew exactly where to find it.”
Ghulam Mohammed’s unabashed use of rough un-engineered musical instruments in carefully crafted compositions took a new turn when he was music director himself. “He introduced the khanjari, chimta, kharkaal, manjeere and lota (a small brass pot) all at once in Doli (1943), for which he composed the music,” remembers Mumtaz. “It was a riot.” Literally and figuratively!
Mumtaz, while experimenting with acting, directing and production work, has remained faithful to music, his dedica
tion culminating in his work as instructor at the Indian Music School in Dubai. Having produced a musical called Tamanna, his dream now “is to produce a film some day, where all of us brothers compose the music together”.
Aziz, a talented tabalchi from a young age, was egged on into the field by both his father and his uncle Abdul Kareem, another tabla legend (his solo recital makes ‘Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re‘ in Kohinoor come alive even today). His hands have hammered away since at both the tabla and the dholak to sculpt famous melodies for famous films like Aaina (1977), where he’s done a solo, Leader, Sangharsh and many more. Mohammed Iqbal, whose heart lies with the congo and the tumba, has served as an essential aide to popular Qawwal voices Aziz Nazan (‘Jhoom Baraabar Jhoom Sharaabi‘) and Altaf Raja (‘Tum to Thehre Pardesi‘). He and brother Masood Mohammad have jointly released an album Paigaam and are currently working on their second release.
Yusuf Mohammed, like Aziz, is an industry favourite, and his expertise with the dholak and tabla has led him to work with popular music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and more recently, Anu Malik and Aadesh Shrivastav.

Khalique Ahmed, on the other hand, has taken his percussion skills live with shows for banners like Percept and Sahara. He’s currently touring Europe with an Indian music show called Bharti, and his dholak and tabla as hand baggage. The brothers are particularly proud of Javed, Mumtaz’s son, “whose left hand on the tabla is exactly like that of our chachajaan (Abdul Kareem)”. But some of their sons have taken to other fields – in business and service.
Their discontent at this runs parallel to their discontent at the way Hindi film music is created today. “I don’t want to sound pessimistic, because we have excellent music directors
even today,” says Aziz. “And I’m not against westernisation of music either. But the method has gone awry.” His brothers join in to lay down their contentions. Synthesised sound is in, they say, so even string, wind and percussion instrument sounds are strummed out on the keyboard, which can never have the same effect. “At earlier recordings, musicians were required to play an entire song together,” recounts Mumtaz. “There was live interaction among the musicians, through their sounds, which made magic that resonated in the recording.”
With recording studios being too expensive today, each musician is recorded separately, and their sounds are assembled technologically. “This often results in a musician not knowing what he’s playing for,” says Iqbal. “We are told about the general mood of the composition, but the complexities a musician used to work with earlier ceases to exist. Is our piece a sawaal (question), a jawaab (answer) or a paradox? Where do we fit in?”
As if to better voice this, in a language only they understand, the brothers settle down for our photo shoot, with musical instruments that their father presented to them as he did to the world and play out their sawaals, their jawaabs and their paradoxes.

the Dholak

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:



  1. Uday Joshi · January 18, 2010

    Can I get telephone No. of Azizbhai? or his address? Earlier this family used to stay at their Pali Hill bunglow. Do they still stay there?

    • rishimajumder · October 25, 2011

      no they dont stay anywhere near as fancy… dont remember exact address – did this article a while ago – if u want details still let me know (though it may take me a while to find them)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s