Echoes of tradition: Hyderabad's 160-year-old tabla shop keeps legacy alive

CE checks out a more than 160-year-old tabla repair shop in Ramkote helmed by Mohammed Shoukath, his brother Mohammed Haji and his son Mohammed Shahbaz.
Hyderabad's 160-year-old tabla shop, Mahboob Ali’s Tabla
Hyderabad's 160-year-old tabla shop, Mahboob Ali’s TablaPhoto | Express

HYDERABAD: As we walked a little deeper into the old city roads of Hyderabad, we didn’t even have to ask for directions to reach our destination. The soft, enticing sound of hammering tablas guided us to a more than 160-year-old tabla repair shop in Ramkote. Hanging outside the shop were various instruments — dholaks, tablas, phakawaj, dholkis and many more. Inside, sitting on the floor, were three heroes, Mohammed Shoukath, his brother Mohammed Haji and his son Mohammed Shahbaz, busy giving the final touch to the tabla in their hands.

The story begins over a century and a half ago, with the skilled hands of Mohammed Shahbaz’s grandfather, Mahboob Ali, a maestro in the art of tabla making and other leather instruments who used to work for the Nizam. From Mahboob Ali to Mohammed Shoukath Ali and now Mohammed Shahbaz, it’s the third generation who still translates this tradition passing down the legacy of resilience.

This work is not as simple as it looks. From the meticulous drying of leather to the final tuning with the iron powder, each tabla is eight days of focused effort. Apart from tabla they also make most of the leather instruments like dholak, dholki, phakawaj, mridang, kanjeeri, congo, and bonga. The raw materials are brought from all over India including Delhi, Nasik, and Kolkata and are turned into instruments completely with hands. “It’s tough work,” Shahbaz said showing his hands with several cuts. “The leather needs to be pulled tight, which hurts the hands and sometimes tears the skin and bleeds,” he adds.

Technology has changed the music industry, even leading to the replacement of some traditional instruments with electronic ones. But, Shahbaz isn’t worried, he says with pride, “Our instruments have a natural sound and quality that no machines can compete with.” In fact, with more schools and colleges teaching music and increased competition in the field, our business is actually booming.”

The legacy of Mahboob Ali’s tabla not only resonates within the country but extends far beyond India’s border. From renowned Hyderabadi artists to international patrons, the sounds of Mahboob Ali’s tablas resonate across the globe. The shop still gets orders from Canada and London to Saudi Arabia, solidifying its place in the international market. Even big companies like Amazon are eager to stock their tablas, but for them, the most important thing is making sure every tabla is molded perfectly and given directly to the hands of the customers.

Mohammed Shahbaz
Mohammed ShahbazPhoto | Express

While as a tabla maker, Shahbaz takes immense pride in making and continuing this craft through generations, he also acknowledges the physical demands of the trade. “As a parent of two daughters and a son, I want to make sure that they are given proper education unlike me, I will encourage them to learn this skill, but I don’t want them to make this work as a means of their earning which need a lot of hard work.” This internal conflict shows the challenge of most of the traditional craft families of balancing respect for their heritage with the need to adapt for a sustainable future.

As an artisan, Shahbaz worries about the future of his craft since, in this fast-paced world, no one is interested in learning and preserving these skills. He is concerned that the craft, passed down through his family might end with his generation. However, he remains resolute and says, “We will continue this work as long as our hands can hold the tools.”

Like all other artisans, they may be also hidden behind the curtain, but their tablas will certainly continue to find their voice. The future may be uncertain, but as long as the rhythm persists, the legacy of Mahboob Ali will continue to echo.

The legacy of Mahboob Ali’s tabla not only resonates within the country but extends far beyond the India’s border

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