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A Suit and Tabla
Lessons on Arts Leadership
Robin SukhadiaTabla has always been an anchor and a gateway to my cultural roots. I was born to Indian parents, and I grew up in Canada and throughout the United States. My Gujarati parents faced many financial hardships, making it impossible for us to return to India for decades. I visited India for the first time when I was 21, and I took my first tabla lesson there on that trip. I had no idea that this experience of learning music would lead to years of study with a master and many trips back to India to go even deeper. I had no idea then that tabla would also help me connect to the part of me that wants to serve humanity through non-profit arts administrative work.
I had been practicing for months, preparing for a tabla performance that would be a milestone in my life. I would step onstage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall to accompany sitarist Rajib Karmakar and over 60 singers of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. We would be performing the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail’s epic oratorio, “This Love Between Us.” The nearly hour-long piece encompassed seven separate movements, each written in different South Asian languages, talas (cycles of time), and ragas (sacred melody patterns), in addition to featuring Western string and voice parts. The concert was sold out, with over 2,500 people in attendance. It felt like the pinnacle of the eighteen years I had been studying tabla, a classical drumming tradition of India and Pakistan.
I had been lucky enough to see many concerts in that world-class auditorium, especially because I worked across the street at The Colburn School, an internationally recognized community music school and conservatory. For the six months preceding the concert, I had been working 50+ hour weeks as a major gifts officer, but I also made sure I sat in my garage music studio for at least thirty minutes every day to practice Reena’s deeply moving composition. In the weeks leading up to the performance, there were mandatory evening rehearsals with the Chorale, too. Balancing a full-time job and parenting a young child while preparing for the performance hadn’t been easy.
Every seat within the towering balconies of the Walt Disney Concert Hall was taken, and the stage itself was brimming full of singers, instrumentalists, and ourselves. We felt cocooned by the audience, who were leaning into us with anticipation for the performance to begin. We were surrounded by the audience on all sides. The energy was palpable from the moment Grant Gershon, Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, directed us to play that night. From the first note to the last, the music enraptured everyone, especially the performers. The 10-minute standing ovation felt endless in the best way possible. Near midnight, I finally came home, still riding on the adrenaline of the entire day.
The next morning at 8:00 a.m., I was back at my desk, in my suit, preparing for a Board committee meeting, during which I’d have to make a major presentation about the crucial importance of raising more money for Colburn School’s community engagement programs, which helped low-income students take classes at the institution. I felt a bit like Clark Kent, my secret tabla identity hidden away, as I talked about fundraising numbers and goals. The experience of preparing and performing had given me a great deal of energetic sustenance and perspective. I felt like I was walking on air the entire day, comfortable, confident, and integrated. I felt alive, and I felt closest to my true creative self. I was taking all that I learned from the process of making music, listening, collaborating, and performing, and I was applying it to the very real work of supporting the arts.
Not every day is quite as dramatic as that one, but all of my days exemplify the life of someone who straddles the worlds of arts administration and artistic practice. What does it mean to do both, and can you do both without sacrificing excellence in either role? These questions are for anyone who works in the arts and wishes to balance their love and belief in art and music with the very real need to reshape the arts world through structural change. These central questions must be addressed and answered intelligently if Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities are to create and sustain meaningful social change in society. These questions are even more relevant for the post-pandemic world we will all be rebuilding.
The process of artmaking nourishes us and gives us great power to navigate the complex and fatiguing capitalistic, pandemic-driven world in which we currently operate. From our daily artistic practice, called sadhana in Sanskrit, we can gain humility and divine perspective about what is truly important in our lives. Any self-created and imposed ritual, which in my case is rooted in a musical practice, gives us control over each day’s frenetic pace. From there, we can better understand and undertake our mission-driven administrative work. Our sadhana also purifies us, grounds us, and gives us the energy we need to go on each day to raise the resources and build the networks required to sustain strong organizations that can make lasting impacts in the communities we serve.
My own experiences teaching music to unhoused children in India kept me on the path to deepen my studies. Over the years of studying tabla in India, I tried to always incorporate volunteering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) serving children who are living in the street. I made it part of my weekly learning to volunteer time as a music teacher and give back whatever I could to the local community. In Kolkata, where my Guru lived, I volunteered with the Rehabilitation Center for Children. In Ahmedabad, where my own family lived, I volunteered with Manav Sadhana at the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram. Through these NGOs, I experienced the revelation of receiving knowledge from my teacher, and the joy of giving that knowledge to those who couldn’t access it easily. When I returned to the United States after periods of intensive study, I raised money for these organizations, a practice I continue today. This give and take, the transference of energy and knowledge and resources, kept me going beyond the love for studying music itself. I view the act of connecting service to my artistic practice as spiritual, and it parallels tabla’s own power to uplift listeners through sacred sound.
Sometimes there is a real divide between the experience of sitting cross-legged on the floor with my shoes off playing ancient rhythms, and taking a donor out to lunch to discuss a legacy gift, or preparing a spreadsheet for a Board committee. However, I can see the importance of the administrative work I do in the arts. Ultimately, arts administration sustains my life, my family, and my art. I feel blessed to have such an interesting dichotomy in the way I make a living.
Tabla, Teentaal, and Rhythmic Cycles of Time
The sublime world of tabla begins and ends on the first beat of a cycle. Sixteen beats is a 4 x 4 symmetrical canvas of time. Teentaal is a primal rhythmic frame, establishing the boundaries within which classical Indian musicians can play. This sonic canvas can be stretched to encompass more expression between the notes, or it can be sped up to significantly tighten the intricacy of music presented in the frame. The sixteen beats of Teentaal each have a specific syllable that reflects the tonality of the tabla drum itself. The first “dha” of the cycle is called the “sam,” and it represents the beginning of the cycle. The ear always finds its way back to the beginning, without even having to count. This evolved system of music is taught orally, from master to student, without notation. One must first speak the language to play the drum. Teentaal is an intricate and expressive language evolving over centuries in North India, and it can only be learned through direct study with a master. Because of this tradition, Teentaal is extremely resilient and has survived pandemics, plagues, invasions, and colonization over centuries.
Dha Dhin Dhin Dha
Dha Dhin Dhin Dha
Dha Tin Tin Ta
Ta Dhin Dhin Dha
—Teentaal: tabla’s 16 beat framework of time
Knowing Teentaal is essential to learning tabla. With this key knowledge, the tabla player is in command and also in service. Teentaal holds the musical frame steady while also allowing it to evolve over time to accommodate every musician. Mastering the technical aspects of tabla can come only from the transmission of knowledge from a master, a guru. The process of learning the music is based on initiation, and the relationship between teacher and student is sacred and deep.
While I study tabla classically, and in the manner in which it has been taught from guru to disciple for centuries, I am always drawn to how the instrument functions in the modern world. My stage name is Tablapusher, and that word reflects not only that I am pushing tabla outward to new frontiers, whether they be electronic music or film scores, but also that tabla is pushing me. Tabla is a lens through which I see everything in the world. Its very deep and resilient system of language pushes me to take risks, to think more openly and collaboratively.
Tet te Kat ta ga di ge ne dha -
Tet te Kat ta ga di ge ne dha -
Tet te Kat ta ga di ge ne dha
—8 beat t-hai
From Music Education to Becoming an Arts AdministratorI grew up in Ohio and Indiana, mostly isolated from a larger South Asian community. My father managed some small motels, and what little money he earned was spent on records and a modest stereo system. Alongside Neil Diamond, Wings, Elton John, and the Beatles, he also played his large collection of Bollywood records. For a long time, the songs of Bollywood were all I knew of the musical traditions of India. It took many years for me to realize that tabla, sitar, santoor, sarode, and all the other instruments being played in those recordings had deep, classical traditions behind them. In 2000, I began studying tabla with Guru Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Tabla eventually became the lens through which I began to understand the immense depth of classical North Indian music. My passion for North Indian percussion grew over time, and I accompanied Chaudhuri to India twice in the following three years to continue my study of tabla and North Indian music.
It was on a trip to India in 2003 that I felt inspired to teach tabla after witnessing the impact of the service work conducted at the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad by Manav Sadhna, an NGO focused on empowering children living in slums through education and healthcare services. At the time, Manav Sadhna was providing music education to the diverse constituency of children they served, aiming to address the divisions among the poorest communities in a non-violent way, and to secure retention of their free schooling and healthcare programs. The ashram asked me if I could teach tabla to twenty children every day after they finished their regular school classes. The effects of the tabla classes were almost immediately observable: many of the children, normally unwilling to communicate with one another due to the religious and economic divisions, sat together, learning and playing music.
There were other changes. We saw a noticeable increase in attendance in math and literacy classes. The children in the music program became more frequent users of the healthcare services provided by the partnering NGO at the ashram. The individual and small group attention given to the children in music classes enabled dialogue across a wide range of sensitive issues, including sexual abuse, illiteracy, and domestic violence. Within a matter of weeks, the music classes filled up, and more music teachers were needed to meet the demand.
The most compelling part of my experience at the ashram was seeing how learning music was improving each child’s self-esteem. Rajiv, one of the boys in my tabla class, found his way to Manav Sadhna shortly after I arrived in 2002. The eldest of five sons, he told me how he helped his father fill bottles with cleaning agents to sell on the street. Sometimes the corrosive liquids would spill and burn his hands. Daily, he would roam Ahmedabad’s streets selling these toxic solvents to earn a few rupees. He told me that the promise of learning tabla attracted him to Manav Sadhna and encouraged him to stay. Six years later, Rajiv is able to read; he regularly attends school, continues his tabla and singing classes, and is involved in a dance drama produced by the children at Manav Sadhna. He is earning money for his family by participating in the handicrafts projects at Manav Sadhna, and he tells everyone, “Music saved my life.” Stories like Rajiv’s make it evident that music can significantly improve the lives of poor children and at the same time promote ahimsa, or non-violence.
It was soon after my teaching experience began at Manav Sadhna that a truly miraculous thing happened. Shortly after I arrived, Manav Sadhna received a $20,000 grant to support music education from Project Ahimsa, a US foundation focused on music education. It was an enormous sum of money to be allocated specifically for music. A donation of that size would be transformational, enabling the organization to develop and sustain programming that would impact children for many years to come. Manav Sadhna’s trustees asked me to lead the effort of spending the funds as effectively as possible, and measuring and documenting the impact of the grant. Over the coming months, I researched the real needs of the children, assessed conditions of existing instruments, determined what new instruments were needed, and, most importantly, evaluated how many music teachers would be needed to make a long-term impact on the students. Over a period of a few years, all the funds were spent helping to create and sustain a comprehensive music education program serving hundreds of children. The social impact of music was tied to health and education outcomes. Instruments were purchased, and new relationships forged with music and arts education institutions across the city. This experience was my introduction to philanthropy, community engagement, and the role of an arts administrator.
These early experiences of learning and teaching tabla while overseeing grants to empower youth through music led to the larger work I was meant to do and am still doing today. The process of becoming a musician helped me to understand that communities deserve investment, and that they need concrete skill development to access money and resources. I saw firsthand that peak creative experiences happen where resources are limited. I wanted my life’s work to be an attempt to shift the old paradigms that poverty was inevitable, that economic inequality was unsolvable, and that cultural divisions would always exist. I also wanted to test the notion that creative experiences could be amplified when a community of artists is given access to resources and skill development.
When I came back to San Francisco after six months with Manav Sadhna, Project Ahimsa invited me to present the work I completed in India using the foundation’s grant. Project Ahimsa then hired me as their international grants administrator, and I was sent back to India the following year with triple the amount of money to give away. In 2003, I expanded Project Ahimsa’s grantmaking to two NGOs in Kolkata while bolstering the existing programming in Ahmedabad. In 2010, I received a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship to deepen my work across six music education programs in Ahmedabad and Kolkata where I observed, documented, and strengthened each of the six programs I had founded.
My work in philanthropy deepened over time, eventually leading to my becoming the development director at artworxLA and the major gifts officer at The Colburn School. I went from being a music student to a music teacher; then I became a funder, a fundraiser, and a fundraising teacher. Through all these transformations, I continue to be a student of music. Today, I teach fundraising in higher education and publicly, and I write about my fundraising perspectives to empower others to be more effective fundraisers.
Giving more people the tools and confidence that they need in order to ask for the resources to manifest their vision is the most impactful way I know to decolonize philanthropy. We need to empower more people who have been marginalized, and who represent the underserved, to understand how wealth and philanthropy work and most importantly, how to build intergenerational wealth. For me, raising money means that everyone has what they need, and it balances inequality. I believe that it is important to invest in community, rather than to reinforce hierarchy and structural inequality. Teaching people how to fundraise is my investment in the wellbeing of communities, while my commitment to my tabla practice keeps me rooted in the arts community itself.
My belief in the power of music on human development, especially during childhood, propels the arts fundraising work I do today. The focus required to build authentic donor relationships, execute campaigns, analyze results, acknowledge gifts, and process donor history are merely administrative tasks that I gladly do to fuel my belief in the impact that music and art can make on the lives of so many. Being around the creative process of learning and expressing music is medicinal to me. Being around the creative process keeps me going and keeps me coming back to the relentless work of fundraising. The anticipation of the end of the fiscal year leads only to the day after that, when the fundraising cycle begins again.
There are many lessons that I gained from the process of learning tabla that have prepared me to be effective as an arts fundraiser. The cyclical nature of fundraising over and within the course of years mirrors the build-up and resolution, the creation and destruction, that are central to how ragas and talas are performed. Tabla has given me the tools to not get overwhelmed or despondent, even when the marathon requires supreme patience and control. The performance of the raga requires a similar level of stamina, perspective, and constraint.
I am lucky: before tabla, I worked as a consultant, and then I moved to San Francisco to join the Internet start-up boom of the late 1990s. So I already had the suit, though it fits much better today. These varied experiences helped me to integrate the idea that I can work in multiple places and contexts, and, like a good tabla composition, I can stretch or shrink to balance work and life.
Working as an arts administrator has reinforced the realization that my arts fundraising and operations skills do not work in isolation. Without tabla, there isn’t clarity, vision, motivation, or confidence when I am at my desk, in front of donors, or in a boardroom. My value to the sector deepens only as I stay committed to my artistic practice.
IntegrationLike all of the world’s great indigenous art forms, tabla demands a deep level of commitment from its practitioners. There is a spiritual journey associated with the quest to master the drum, requiring humility at the feet of a master. To learn tabla, one must be willing and able to make long-lasting, authentic relationships with fellow practitioners and teachers. These long-term relationships make the community around the drum so very strong and resilient. Tabla teaches us to support one another on our individual quests to reach mastery. Competition is superficial and irrelevant to the individual journey. We appreciate achievement, sometimes across many lifetimes, while being patient and humble in our expectations for change. These are qualities I learned from tabla that I now apply to my work as an arts administrator. Yes, we need administrators, but what we need more are collaborative creators. We need leaders who have integrated into their own ethos all the things that an artform like tabla requires: humility, patience, collaboration, dedication, inclusivity, and commitment to community.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, in his essay discussing the role of artists in collective healing, states:
This idea of artists playing a central role in rebuilding culture, especially during and after a pandemic, resonates deeply with me. Instead of hiding our craft, our artistic selves, we need to wholly embrace and celebrate our artistry. Honoring that which drives us is an act of self-love that will only make us more effective as change-makers, essential to evolving society and culture in the years ahead. I believe authenticity will foster more meaningful conversations and connections between people, and it will help us to move beyond inequality, division, and violence.
We have to deploy artists in our country not just to make art but to intentionally make culture. We must use our arts centers not just to show art, but to make community. The currency of arts organizations and the work of artists aren’t some extra side hustle things that America does; right now they are America itself, and that value should carry over into how we build the economy for whatever it is that’s coming next for us all.
When I am performing tabla onstage, or practicing for class, I am also an arts administrator bringing my perspectives on fundraising to the artform. When I am leading a fundraising campaign, collaborating with an organization’s leadership to solve a problem, I am a tabla artist, too. When I teach, I bring both the creative side of tabla, and the analytical elements of fundraising to my approach. This is the whole self that I bring to all that I do.
Additional ResourcesDas, Prato. “Swapan Chaudhuri Ji Showcasing Lucknow Gharana along With Ramesh Ji.” YouTube, February 4, 2019. Video, 5:35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKfgClEMakA.
Sukhadia, Robin. “Robin Sukhadia Tabla Solo Highlights | Jhaptaal | ITC Sangeet Research Academy 2011,” YouTube, May 21, 2011. Video, 6:25, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJSXJUxGYWI.
Sukhadia, Robin. “Robin Sukhadia Jhaptaal Tabla Solo Part 1 | Saraswati Puja 2011 Kolkata.” YouTube. July 18, 2011. Video, 6:17, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aZs1eR4Jro.
Sukhadia, Robin. “Tabla Explore Week 2012 | Eagle Rock School - Estes Park, Colorado.” YouTube, July 18, 2021. Video, 5:19, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfsndrv9my8.
Sukhadia, Robin. “North Indian Classical Music Playlist.” Spotify, November 2020. Playlist, 3:42;00, https://open.spotify.com/playlist/08pkb0Nu1NoSYRKynSaHSb.
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- Robin Sukhadia, “Rajib Karmakar (sitar) & Robin Sukhadia (tabla) - Raag Vachaspati in teentaal,” YouTube, November 24, 2017, video, 3:15, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkXu2BEiRuc.↵
- Tonality, “Tonality: This Love Between Us (Movement VI) by Reena Esmail,” YouTube, February 8, 2018, video, 3:50, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kCxF3BZVA0.↵
- Danny Kim, “Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri at LACMA Part 1,” Vimeo, May 15, 2011, video, 1:05:37, https://vimeo.com/25545446.↵
- Robin Sukhadia, “Rehabilitation Center For Children | Project Ahimsa Music Program,” YouTube, November 24, 2011, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr65QKqPNWY.↵
- Robin Sukhadia, “How to Cultivate Big Donors with a Small Staff,” Blue Avocado, July 5, 2019, https://blueavocado.org/fundraising/how-to-cultivate-big-donors-with-a-small-staff/.↵
- Robert Cuttieta, How to Raise Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).↵
- Ford Foundation, “Marc Bamuthi Joseph on artists as leaders of collective healing,” Californians for the Arts, November 20, 2020, https://www.californiansforthearts.org/antiracism-edit/2020/11/10/marc-bamuthi-joseph-on-artists-as-leaders-of-collective-healing.↵