Toronto Arts Foundation award nomination celebrates tabla guru Ritesh Das

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Ritesh Das; photo by Sean Howard

Toronto residents will not be surprised to see tabla guru Ritesh Das’ name on the list of finalists for the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Celebration of Cultural Life Award. The biennial award, inspired by Toronto Arts Council’s founding president William Kilbourn, recognizes the excellence of three senior arts practitioners. An award recipient must be an individual performer, teacher, administrator and/or creator whose work is a celebration of life through the arts. Previous recipients include the Juno-Award winning musician David Buchbinder. Mr Das, a genre-spanning composer and Founding Director of Toronto Tabla Ensemble, is not only deserving of being a finalist; he finds himself in fine company.

And this is not the first time that Mr Das has been honoured by Toronto Arts Foundation. He was awarded the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition in 2016. Even so, this nomination came as a surprise to him: “I don’t know how I got nominated, but it is an honour to be recognized for the work one does for the arts and country,” he smiles. The nomination is a thrill, and he is quick to thank the “nominator and the jury” for putting his name forward.

Mr Das descends from an influential artistic legacy. He was born in Kolkata, India, where artists who study and train there immediately recognize his parents. His father Prohlad Das and mother Nilima Das established an arts academy called Nritya Bharati – something particularly notable because they were among “the first to start a music and dance school in Kolkata after the departure of British” and independence of India. As a result, Mr Das grew up in a vibrant cultural environment with a constant exposure to music from infancy. He began his musical studies with singing, then learned to play the sitar, before devoting himself to the percussive art of tabla. His parents along with his kathak-dance guru brother Chitresh Das had a profound  influence on him – first as a student, then as an artist and now as a teacher: “What I do is because of the huge amount of experience I had watching my parents, their school, and their productions.”

Given that tabla is a centuries-old north Indian percussive artform intrinsic to Southeast Asian musical traditions, how difficult is it to promote and sustain it in a Western society, even a city as diverse and multicultural as Toronto? Can young people, who continuously inhale top-forty hits on Spotify and iTunes, appreciate the elemental sounds of bare hands striking the tabla – the intricate rhythm patterns and the limitless bols it can give voice to? Mr Das asserts an emphatic “yes”:  “Teaching tabla students in the west hasn’t been difficult,” he maintains. “Of course, there are challenges in teaching whether you are in India or the west. Both have their own pros and cons.” But as a teacher, he has learned – and continues to learn – ways to understand those challenges and work with students. “I guess if you love something, then there is always a way for achievements.”

Asked about the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, he offers that it “is an exciting ensemble to watch”, likening the institution he founded to a beloved perennial plant that is solid and growing: “rooted in North Indian rhythmic style, and branched and blossomed in Canada through various collaborations with other work, style and culture.” In addition to teaching regular classes there, Mr Das recently launched the first Toronto Tabla Youth Ensemble, featuring artists between 8 and 15 years of age. This undertaking is significant and compelling.  At present, he is very much “dedicated and involved in working with the next generation” through the Youth Ensemble. “These young ones are the future backbone and leaders of Canada. It excites me that I can contribute in shaping them through music.”

Ritesh Das in performance (photo courtesy of Ritesh Das and Melissa Das-Arp)

Since founding Toronto Tabla Ensemble in 1991, Mr Das has worked as both artist and ambassador to bring the artform into the musical mainstream. Clearly, his success is fuelled by love of his instrument, as well as curiosity about its potential. His compositions cross genres, and it is not surprising that lovers of symphonies and hip hop alike can find something in his music that appeals to their preferences. If anything can at once evoke the mystical and the modern, it is the tabla. And a synchronous chorus of tablas is mesmerizing: overlapping rhythms and timbres permeate the senses and burrow, like the best earworms, deep into the mind.

On top of it all, Mr. Das has a prolific output. He mentors young artists and participates in unique collaborations with musicians from all musical backgrounds, which have resulted in several recordings. Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s Firedance was nominated for a Juno Award for Best Global Album in 2000. Since then, Mr Das has composed, performed on and released 5 additional albums, and he co-composed the theme music to CBC’s Metro Morning with Donald Quan. Mr Das has recently composed 6 new pieces for the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s 7th album Bhumika (Sanskrit for Earth), due out in late August. In addition to tabla, the album features dholak, mridangam, ghatam, and other percussion instruments, including Japanese taiko, blended with melodic instrumentations for sarod, sitar, bansuri, violin, and chinese guzheng.

In the meantime, the Mayor’s Art Lunch is just around the corner. Based on Mr Das’ previous experience, this wonderful event brings artists of various disciplines and backgrounds together. Thinking back to when he received the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition, he notes with a twinkle that, “yes, the catering and floral arrangements were good.” But he is most looking forward to “meeting people”. In terms of the award itself, the topmost recipient will receive a $10,000 cash prize, and two finalists will each receive a $2,000 cash prize. A possible cash award means less to Mr Das than recognition by his home city for his contribution to the Toronto arts community and nurturing new generations of tabla players. This honour has long been his: bestowed by his students, fellow artists and Toronto audiences that he has hooked on tabla. And he’s happy to share it.

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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