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When James Cameron's ambitious film, Avatar, released in 2009, critics noticed how the filmmaker had matched the splendid visuals with breathtaking musical grandeur. Among those who watched — and listened to — the film carefully was tabla player Aloke Dutta. In his unassuming studio apartment in Los Angeles, the India-born maestro had trained percussionist Michael Fisher who had thumped the tribal rhythm sets for Avatar.
"He studied with me for five years, became a very good tabla player and worked in the film. Whenever he needed to compose something or because a tabla part was not written, I helped. Some of those compositions are in my books which Mike, too, learnt," says Dutta. The 59-year-old has also helped Fisher with films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and American Beauty.
Dutta's student roster packs heavy star power — besides Fisher, several drummers with impressive discographies have climbed the steps to his apartment to learn the tabla. Among these are Danny Carey of Grammy Award-winning band Tool, English drummer Simon Phillips, Roy Wilfred Wooten, a member of the Grammy-winning jazz quartet Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and American percussionist Terry Bozzio.
Dutta himself began to learn the tabla at 21. He came across the mnemonic syllables of the tabla while growing up in the temple town of Bishnupur in West Bengal. Before he heard the baaj (rhythm), he heard the bols (the vocal interpretations of the tabla). "When my father was playing the tabla, there was nobody in front of him; no earthly sentiments, no job promotion or yearly two-dollar salary increase — nothing but the formless God himself," recalls Dutta.
His father, a teacher of tabla at Viswa Bharati University in West Bengal, wasn't keen on his son learning the tabla. Dutta only began learning the instrument after he moved to Shantiniketan and, one day, decided to create some rhythms. "My father liked my tone and thus began the training," he says.