Lalita Balakrishnan: Tables to Tablas

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By Arielle Angel for Tom Tom Magazine

Photos by Andy Barry

Name: Lalita Joshi Balakrishnan

Age: 23

Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Lives In: Atlanta, GA

Past Projects: Transfusion, NaanViolence

Fav Food: Sushi

Fav Venue: Center Stage, ATL

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Lalita Balakrishnan destroyed two of her parents’ mahogany tables, drumming on them with pencils until there were dents in the wood. Her mother, an Indian classical singer, finally put her foot down. “If you’re going to break my tables,” she said, “why don’t you break a drum instead.”

She started studying tabla at the Pandit Jasraj School of Music Foundation in Atlanta, and has been there for six years, under the direction of Prithwiraj Bhattacharjee, one of the top tabla players in the world, himself a direct disciple of tabla greats Ustad Alla Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain. “You have to give up your ego, so your teacher can fill that space with knowledge,” she said. Young, but ambitious, 23-year-old Balakrishnan is eager to take her place in this elite lineage of tabla players, one that is still almost entirely male. “I know of only three women that are making a living off tabla in the world,” she said.

Balakrishnan started her own label, lalTAAL Records, two years ago to put out the hip-hop music she was recording at the time. “I’ve got an entrepreneurial bug,” she admits. These days, while she sometimes considers fusing tabla with other contemporary styles, she prefers to stay focused on “unadulterated” Indian music, citing pop music that poorly features the tabla, like Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It.” “That’s the kind of thing where you have this ‘exotic’ Indian sound in the background. Good for you. But what has that done for tabla? Nothing.”

Jazz and Indian music have more natural overlap, says Balakrishnan. Like jazz, tabla is more “spiritual”—not just notes on a page, but an improvisational medium that relies on the player to bring something of her own. Currently, Balakrishnan plays around Atlanta with jazz drummer Jared Lanham, exploring the “Indian-jazz trade off.”

At her parent’s insistence, Balakrishnan is in school for Psychology and Exercise Science at Georgia State (she graduates in December), but she says unequivocally that music is her future. “Anybody can get a degree,” she said. Balakrishnan sees the hand of fate in her picking up tabla around the same time as her illustrious teacher moved to Atlanta, and in the rapid development of her talents. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to do this,” she said.

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