Begum of Dhol

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Rani Taj, the only British Pakistani dhol player from Birmingham, United Kingdom rose to international fame in 2010 when she appeared in a viral video playing live in the street along with a recording of Rihanna’s song ‘Rude Boy’. Being a jat Choudary, she has faced challenges and prejudice based on gender, but every time she’s fought harder. By Yasmeen Maqbool

Not many girls find the love of their life as early as nine years and know what they want to do with themselves. Being the younger of two children, her mother always called her ‘Rani’, and not by her birth name Shahanara Begum, as most mothers do see their daughters as little princesses.

The nickname not only stuck, but automatically became her stage name too. Although, Rani played the dhol since very young, her first instrument was the viola.

She believes, “Viola has taught me the mental discipline of timing, listening skills and given me a general respect for music.” But Rani values both the instruments equally today. “They are different dimensions of the same musician,” she says.

It all began at the age of nine, when her mum took her to a Baisakhi Mela. “I saw these huge guys dressed in red, walk past me with these thundering dhol’s. This was the moment when I decided that I wanted to play like them and leave people buzzing,” she says. “I fell in love with the dhol the moment I experienced it,” says Rani.

She knew right then that if she learnt to play like her ustaad she would be the happiest girl in the world. But
it wasn’t an easy path that she had chosen for herself. “I feel that the music industry in particular can sometimes be what I call a ‘Boy’s Club’” she points out.

“I faced a lot of prejudice against girls infringing on what has traditionally been considered male domains. I have had to work unbelievably hard to be taken seriously as a musician and an artist,” Rani recalls. “But my mother, being the strong experienced woman she is, proved to be my rock support at every step of the way,” she says.

Her mother consoled with her and asked her to not retaliate or get influenced with the negative energy coming her way. She advised Rani, “Don’t let their fear affect you. Your music will win them over.”

Her mother sheltered Rani from a lot of the initial growing pains when many were not ready to accept a woman dhol player and dealt with the brunt of it herself. She found her the best ustaads and encouraged her to not only learn the dhol, but to also, respect and learn about all the cultures, religions and people that surrounded it. Rani says with pride, “I could not have asked for a better teacher.”

But breaking down these stereotypes will continue to be an on-going challenge for Rani. “I know that I have paved the way for many girls to be more confident in picking up the dhol, not only in music, but in whatever choices they make,” she says with pride.

She believes her style of playing has been influenced by several ustaads from both India and Pakistan. But most importantly it is the ability to be able to think in both the western and the eastern ways. Being culturally inclined in the right direction is important, she believes. “It is like the ability to speak different languages to be able to think in those languages. Thus, I not only think in those different styles, but fuse them where and when I think it is appropriate,” Rani says.

There are many genres to enlist in terms of dhol playing, but the Qalandari style of dhol playing is closest to Rani.

“This Sufi style is my passion and I could devote my entire life to it,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.

However, she also loves to fuse with hip-hop, bhangra, Bollywood, Latin Samba in particular, Pathaan Pusto, Calvin Harris, David Quetta and the list goes on.

As she has been raised in Britain, the American culture, Indian culture, Jamaican culture, Arab Culture and so on, haveheavily influenced her. Because Britain, and especially, Birmingham are such multicultural places, she has had the privilege to experience from diverse cultures.

Since her mother grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s and was herself influenced by the mod, punk, jazz, reggae, heavy metal, rock eras of transitioning Britain, she often encouraged Rani to listen to these genres which influenced Rani’s music.

A FEW TIPS THAT RANI SHARED ON PLAYING THE DHOL:

  • You have to love the people you are playing it for
  • Love yourself for playing an instrument that connects you to your roots
  • Practice, practice, practice until your hands drop off
  • Look after the physical body that plays it and enjoy the sound and beat it plays like you’ve heard it for the first time

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