Punjab’s pakhawaj is the perfect percussion instrument – so why did it lose out to the tabla?

With the predominance of the tabla as an instrument of percussion in North India, the pakhawaj has come to be associated as a percussion instrument played primarily in the South. But, in fact, the barrel-shaped drum has been played in Punjab since the time of the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606). Without the accompaniment of the pakhawaj, no Gurbani kirtan would ever have sounded quite the same.

The devotional musical offerings in gurdwaras, sung in dhrupad style, were traditionally rendered to the accompaniment of the rabab, a stringed instrument, and the pakhawaj. Bhai Mardana, who accompanied Guru Nanak on all his travels, playing the rabab to the Guru’s compositions, was famously gifted his rabab by Guru Nanak Dev himself.

In a kabit (a form of Punjabi oral poetry) by Bhai Gurdas, the first interpreter of Gurbani, writes about the popularity of the pakhawaj in the 16th century: “Ghar-ghar baba gaviyai, vajjan tāla mridañg rabābā” or, each home has become a resting place where kirtans are sung to the accompaniment of rababs and mridangs (another kind of percussion instrument).

The glory of jori

According to Bhai Baldeep Singh, one of the two well-known exponents of Punjab pakahwaj, if the migration of rababis to Pakistan post-1947 caused the eviction of the rabab from the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, then the disappearance of pakhawaj or jori had to do with the changing style of kirtan.

The Punjab gharana was referred to as the gharana of Pakhawajis, according to Pundit Arvind Mulgaonkar, a tabla percussionist. The glory of the recital of jori is self-explanatory – even a layperson can feel immersed in the swagger of the percussionists who play the mind-blowing intricacies of rhythmic patterns and mathematical permutations effortlessly, with ease and graceful movements of the arms.

This also explains its lost popularity. Difficult genres of singing, like dhrupad, are not the most popular. All the shabads…

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