Feel the Rhythm

An Austin attorney expresses himself through percussion.

Interview by Jillian Beck

Lumley Driver
Shiv Naimpally plays tabla at a performance in August 2011 at the Dougherty Arts Center in Austin. Photograph by Scott Squires.

The hauntingly beautiful sound of a violin reverberates as Shiv Naimpally sits crossed-legged on the stage, dressed in traditional Indian garb, awaiting his cue. With meticulous movements of his hands and fingers, he plays tabla—a small percussion instrument popular in northern India—complementing the music emanating from his fellow performer. Naimpally, an Austin attorney who drafts patent applications for clients, makes time to share his passion for music as often as he can—on New Year’s Eve, he played for crowds at the local Auditorium Shores celebration. “There is something special about communicating emotionally with the audience in a non-verbal way, just through musical expression,” he said.

Naimpally sees similarities in the precision and creativity necessary both for playing tabla and crafting arguments for patent claims; for each, he taps into the right and left sides of his brain. Even after hectic days at the office, which are many, Naimpally won’t let his head hit the pillow until he has spent at least 15 minutes playing. While his passion for music has grown over decades, he never considered performing as a career. He witnessed full-time musicians struggling to make ends meet and believes he is able to enjoy his hobby more since he isn’t depending on it for financial support.


What is tabla?
A tabla is a hand percussion instrument popular in northern India. It is used with classical (sitar), semi-classical, and popular (Bollywood) music. It is a crossover instrument in that you have probably heard it without knowing what it was. Several jazz bands, such as Shakti (with John McLaughlin), Oregon, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and the Fareed Haque group, have recorded tabla and toured with a tabla player. In addition, the instrument’s sounds have been sampled and can be heard on many movie soundtracks and television commercials.

Lumley Race Car
By day, Naimpally practices patent law at Campbell Stephenson in Austin. Photograph by Kelly Cameron Photography.

How and when did you get started with hand percussion?

My father, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, was a connoisseur of Indian classical music and had learned tabla, which he taught me when I was 10 years old. After that, my father sent me to Mumbai during several summer vacations to learn from my uncle, Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, a musicologist and professional tabla player (he had accompanied Ravi Shankar and other prominent musicians).


Do you prefer to play at faster speeds or slower tempos?
I’ll let you in on a secret—all drummers and percussionists love to play as fast as they possibly can. However, playing slow while maintaining a consistent tempo is actually much more difficult and can be equally satisfying. In Indian classical music, when the tabla player initially joins in with the main artist, the rhythmic cycle is played in such a way that the entire cycle can take about one minute to complete. For me, this part of the music has a meditative, unhurried quality. I think one of the key features of any form of classical music, whether Indian or Western, is that the music is unhurried and not always up-tempo. Listeners have to be more patient and introspective because the music is more nuanced.


What goes through your mind when you’re playing?
My primary focus is on maintaining a steady tempo and keeping track of where I am within the rhythmic cycle. I think it is important to play in a way that supports and enhances what the others around me are doing. In contrast, I sometimes hear drummers and percussionists who are oblivious to what is going on around them. Even something simple like lowering the volume of my playing in response to a musician reducing his volume has an effect because I avoid overpowering the musician’s performance.


Have you always gravitated toward music?
My father used to organize concerts, so my siblings and I grew up listening to and meeting many great musicians from an early age. I also enjoy photography and reading.


What do you enjoy most about tabla?
When I perform, I try to be a conduit for the energy of the universe to express itself. Performing, for me, is often a deeply spiritual experience, in which both the audience and I become closer to God. It doesn’t always happen, but that is my goal with every performance.


Tell us about a favorite performance.
I have two favorites. The first is when I performed with a Celtic folk band called Imaginary Heaven, when we opened for the Everly Brothers at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in front of 2,000 people. The second was with Sridhar Krishnamurthi at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The show was recorded and broadcast nationally in Canada on FM radio. Getting in my car, tuning into the broadcast, and listening to my performance on my speakers was an unforgettable experience. TBJ

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