Nov 21, 2012 Sharda Sahai
Pandit Sharda Sahai, the legendary tabla virtuoso, was widely regarded as one of India’s great ambassadors for tabla being at the forefront for the spread of Indian music in the East and West. As a performer, composer and educator, his contribution to the field of tabla was unmatched and achieved after long years of dedicated study under his father Pt. Bhagvati Sahai, and his illustrious guru Pt. Kanthe Maharaj.
Pt. Sharda Sahai’s life began in humble circumstances in Kabir Chaura, the musician quarter of Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). His early years were marred by one tragedy after another. He lost his father at the age of seven, then his eldest brother died and finally he lost five members of his family when his house collapsed. It was the stories that his teacher Pt. Kanthe Maharaj told him of his illustrious ancestors that fired him with the determination and resolve to live up to his family name and become one of India’s great tabla players.
With the loss of so many members of his family Pt. Sharda Sahai had to start earning a living from the age of eleven making his debut with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan at the Italee music conference in Delhi. When he was twenty-three years of age he decided to devote two years to perfecting his technique and expanding his repertoire of traditional pieces. This was to be a great sacrifice as his family was struggling to make ends meet. However his family members supported him.
When he returned to the stage in 1960 it was not long before he was performing almost every day of the year. His fame spread and he was in great demand as an accompanist of instrumental music, vocal music and dance. In 1970, Pt. Sharda Sahai was introduced to the West when he toured with Ustad Amjad Ali khan. He had numerous disciples, many of whom are now successful concert artists, teachers and composers.
Pt. Sharda Sahai’s contribution to Indian music is phenomenal for the length of time and the consistency with which he has contributed to the spread of Indian culture. His career began at the age of eleven to old age. He operated in two main areas, performance and training. He provided audiences in India, USA, Canada, Australia, and several countries in Europe with traditional solos lasting up to two and a half hours and as an educator he taught everyone who actively sought his help with sincerity and great skill.
His motto was “teach every student as if they are to stay a lifetime with tabla” He never tired of placing the hand of a new student on the tabla. The freshness of his approach to teaching hooked his students, whatever their age.
Pt. Sharda Sahai was a perfectionist. His skill on the tabla had been honed over years of practice and thoughtfulness. Pt. Sharda Sahai was acclaimed wherever he went as a great performer and a great teacher.
Pt. Sharda Sahai was also an incredible entertainer. His performances were punctuated with often humorous explanations of some of the complexities of his rhythmic permutations, combinations and improvisations, and with stories and anecdotes surrounding some of the composed pieces he performed.
Pt. Sharda Sahai was true to the traditional Benares style of tabla playing and at the same time performed with artists from other cultures to explore different contexts for his music.
Always a visionary, Pt. Sharda Sahai composed music for both tabla ensembles and for ensembles made up of percussion instruments from different cultures. He performed for documentary films such as the BBC’s ‘Land of the Tigers’ as well as scoring for films (including ‘Sixth Happiness’), worked with the avant-garde composer John Cage and inspired numerous Western composers to create a repertoire of composed material for Western Percussion.
He was the recipient of numerous awards and honours from his own country and from all over the world, including the title ‘Tabla Samrat’. Pt. Sharda Sahai was awarded the Fellowship of Leeds College of Music (alongside musical luminaries such as Sir John Dankworth and Django Bates). His recordings by the prolific WOMAD label and the release in 1983 of ‘Art of the Benares Baj’ earned him a worldwide listenership. In 2004 he performed a tabla duet with his son, Sanju Sahai, at Saptak Music Festival, resulting in a landmark music release ‘Gurukul – Lineage of Benares Tabla’.
In 1985 ICCR (Delhi) appointed Pt.Sharda Sahai as their representative on the staff at Dartington College of Arts where he remained for six years. As Senior Lecturer he trained students in tabla playing and theory and was very much at home in the Rabindranth Tagore tradition of education as practiced at Dartington.
He was greatly loved by music lovers and students worldwide. In 2004, his 70th birthday was celebrated at the South Bank Centre, London, by a confluence of musicians from India, Canada, America and the UK who joined him before a sold out audience. Pt. Sharda Sahai received a long standing ovation, which left no one in doubt that he was indeed ‘Tabla Samrat’ – one of the few Kings of tabla.
From his humble beginnings in Kabir Chaura, the musician quarter of Benares, Pt. Sharda Sahai dedicated his life to the art for which he was the custodian.
His contribution to Indian society and the preservation of Indian classical music and culture is immeasurable.
One year on, we remember the life and legacy of Pandit Sharda Sahai.
PANDIT SHARDA SAHAI, renowned as one of the greatest exponents of the Benares Baj and was instrumental in pioneering its development worldwide, most notably in Canada, America and the UK. He hailed from five generations of master musicians and whilst always faithful to the tradition of his ancestors he also was very much a musician of his time.
He was revered for his spellbinding solo performances, East-West collaborations, and skill and generosity as a teacher. His legacy continues through his disciples and students worldwide and in the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangeet Vidyalaya which he founded in Benares in 1965; to ensure that those outside of the tradition could have access to education in Indian Music and the Performing Arts.
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Nov 20, 2012 Sharda Sahai
In the mid sixties, with typical strength of mind, Pt. Sharda Sahai resolved to teach music to anyone who did not have access to learning in the guru-shishya-parampara system. In 1965 he founded the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya in Benares and in 1987 in London. His year was divided teaching in the UK, Canada, India and US in music residences.
He was the first tabla player to hold the post of Senior Lecturer at a university. His first appointment was in 1970 at Wesleyan University. In 1975 he was awarded a J.D.R.3rd Fund grant to lecture at Brown University. He also lectured at Berkeley School of Music (USA). He trained students in the art of tabla playing, lectured on rhythmic theory and supervised Doctoral students.
In 1985 Pt. Sharda Sahai was sent by ICCR to the famed Dartington College of Arts in the role of senior lecturer. This establishment was modelled on Tagore’s beliefs for education and Pt. Sharda Sahai remained there for six years as ICCR’s representative, thereby creating a generation of tabla professionals and enthusiasts. This lasting legacy was eloquently documented by its then principal, Peter Cox in his memoir “The Arts at Dartington.”
In recognition of his lifelong contribution to music he was made a Fellow at Leeds College of Music, Leeds University in 1997.
2006 marked the 25th Anniversary Annual Tabla Camp residencies led by Pt. Sharda Sahai. Participants ranged from professional tabla players to beginners. McGill University honoured him with a series of public lectures on the compositions of the tradition, history of the Gharana and ways in which Benares tabla is being incorporated into Western composition. This culminated in a sold out performance in the main auditorium of McGill University in the presence of the Dean of Music.
Pandit Sharda Sahai in his own words
Interview first posted April 2004 on www.tablaonline.com
by Sandeep Virdee
What are your earliest memories of music?
I started with just hitting the tabla when I was very young child. I think I was only just learning how to walk. My father used to get angry with me. He used to say: “Don’t hit like that, hit like this!” and he straightened my hand. From that time, I started to learn how to play the tabla.
And for my performance, my earliest memory was with Wajid Ali Khan Sahib of the Lucknow gharana. It was at a marriage ceremony in Banares. There was a marriage procession coming from Lucknow to Banares to Khan Sahib’s house. We were also invited. I was a child of about nine or ten at that time. And everybody was playing and then I also wanted to play. I asked one of the people if I could also play a little bit. They asked the permission of my teacher Kanthe Maharaj Ji. My teacher gave his permission and I played in public for the first time that day. It was big performance because there were lots of musicians and lots of tabla players there. They thought I would play about 10 to 15 minutes, but I played for one hour. The next day, a respected tabla player called Bansdeo Ji came to my house. I asked him to come in. But he said, first you tell me who is your teacher. I told him it was Kanthe Maharaj Ji. He was surprised. He asked: “Your father didn’t teach you”. I told him that my father was my first teacher. Bansdeo respected me very much and called me Ustad.
You were born into one of the few legacies of family tradition of playing, your father, Bhagavathi Sahai, was legendary. Can you tell us what influence your father and your mother had on your tabla playing?
Well, my father died when I was about seven in the 1942. But he was very sick before dying. But Kanthe Maharaj Ji was also a disciple Baldeo Sahai of our household. And when he came to see my father, my father asked him to teach my brother and me. He was very happy to teach us and give back something to our house. And then my younger brother and myself started to learn from Kanthe Maharaj Ji.
My mother helped me with my practice. She was not a musician but she knew about music as she came from a musical family. She understood music and she married into a tabla household. My elder brother and my father practiced everyday. And that habit I have picked up from them and I still keep. I may play half an hour, an hour or two hours everyday like my father.
When I became a student of Kanthe Maharaj Ji, I had to clean his house with a broom everyday. I woke him up early in the morning and arrange his breakfast. He gave me money to buy it and also gave me food to eat. That way I was respecting him. He also gave me a little bit of money every day, like one or two annas. At that time it was a lot of
money, maybe about the same a two rupees in today’s money. My house was very close to his. Nearly the whole day I spent there. But I had to make money in order to survive.
It was difficult. After my father died, my elder brother also died about a year later. And then our house also fell down and another six people died. Nobody could support the family. Soon, I started getting some money by accompanying Girja Devi, a well-known vocalist, who was learning at the time. I got 10 rupees a month for keeping Ektaal theka with her. I also got money from other places for keeping theka and also from giving tuition. So we were surviving like that.
Did you ever do ghanda bhandan with Kanthe Maharaj Ji?
No, we never done it. He said he couldn’t do it. I have never done ghanda with anyone. But I respect him fully. When he was old and not earning, I helped him with clothes and money. I helped him as much as I could. And at that time, I was very busy with playing lots of concerts. One of the artists that I played with was the Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna. He was young and not so famous at that time. I was getting 20 rupees for playing with him. Later I started getting two or three hundred rupees. I decided to give 25% of my earnings to my teacher. I had a family and I had to look after them too. I was over thirty when Kanthe Maharaj Ji died. I received about 20 years of training from him. I was with him everyday. Sometimes he didn’t teach me, but everyday I was with him. When he played in different places, he used to take me.
Tell us about your practice schedule in the younger years?
His teaching system is peculiar. He used to teach a group of people and each of them may have a short lesson of a few minutes. But we were practicing in his house. I was practising with Kishen Maharaj Ji. And he used to ask me how many times I could play a set of strokes. I said 5000 times. And there I was playing this sequence 5000 times. My teacher didn’t like this. He used to look at us while we were doing this. We were perspiring so much. He told us to do mental practice. My practice was early morning at my house. Then I practiced at Kanthe Maharaj Ji’s house and then again at nighttime at our house, if I was free. Sometimes, it added up to 16 hours a day. This continued for many years.
What about your breakthrough concert?
It’s very difficult to say. But when I was about 15, I played a big concert with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib in Calcutta at the Italee Music Conference. After that I was playing in many places with many different artists. I also went to the United States for a two month tour with Amjad Ali Khan. And while I was there Wesleyan University wanted me to stay and teach there as an artist in residence. I eventually accepted the post in 1970 and ended up being there for six or seven years. At the same time I took up a part-time position at the Berklee School of Music at Brown University. At this time, my family was in India and I was alone in the United States. I had four children of my own, but my brother and his wife died around that time, and I was then also looking after their three children. So bringing seven children to America was difficult because the insurance costs were high and it was very costly to bring them up. So I had to make and save money. And I also started playing tabla solo to survive and look after the family.
During the seventies and eighties, I also came to the UK and met many people involved in the tabla scene here. I started getting many requests from the Dartington College of Art in Devon asking me to come to the UK. Finally, in 1985 after another request I came with my family and children as well as my brother’s three children. And they all started getting education in England. I had contracts that lasted two years and these were renewed. And since then I’ve been in the UK.
You were born into the Benares gharana. Has that been a burden or something that you easily accepted?
I was always hearing that I had to carry on this tradition. Actually, at first I was very interested in vocal music and when I was young I was learning vocal but after a little while, my teacher told me that I had to play tabla. I had very little choice. Even my vocal teacher stopped teaching me and told me I had to keep the tradition going. And slowly I started hearing about my family. I felt bad and felt I had to do something.
However, when I was in India, I was not really playing the Banares style, it was more like a mixture of many different styles. It was whatever the public liked. The Banares style only started being developed after I went to the United States. Everything about the Banares style was in my head but it was only developed after I arrived in the United States. And when I gave a solo performance in Banares it was appreciated. So I started to develop that side.
You used to accompany other artists but then made the decision to become a soloist. What made you decide to go in this direction?
The low fees for tabla were one reason and the low status of tabla players during a performance is another. In the sixties and seventies, top sitar players like Ravi Shankar received 700 rupees for a performance but the tabla player only received perhaps 50 or 100 rupees. The status was also very low. Sometimes even our names were left out of the posters, it just said ‘with tabla accompaniment’. I spent my whole life practicing and yet you don’t get any recognition. Part of the problem is that there are so many tabla players, so I’m not sure what the solution is.
Is there a link between spirituality and being a tabla player?
Very much so. Without spirituality you cannot be a success on the stage. Without help and inspiration from above, I believe it is difficult to be a success.
What are your views on cross-cultural or fusion music?
I don’t really agree with fusion music, but sometimes you get involved in doing it for an income. Nowadays, you may don’t get a grant if you don’t do fusion. But music is music. They use their way, and I use my way. Nowadays, even western drummers are playing a little bit of tabla. I can’t change myself, they can’t change themselves. But I think it is difficult to mix two very different cultures.
Few tabla players play a single gharana – do you think the gharana system is relevant today?
Not really. The original bols do not change, it is only the style of playing that changes depending on who plays it. Two players, for example, will play the same kayda differently depending on the training and style of playing.
Nov 20, 2012 Sharda Sahai
In recognition of his lifelong contribution to music, Pandit Sharda Sahai was made a Fellow at Leeds College of Music, Leeds University on 11th November 1997.
Below you will find the presentation speech by Dr. Santokh Matharu at the Conferment of Degrees and Awards in The Great Hall, University of Leeds, UK, on conferment of the Fellowship by Chairman of the Governing Body , Mr R M Tebb on 11th November 1997.
And the acceptance speech by Pandit Sharda Sahai on receiving the Fellowship.
Presentation speech by Dr. Santokh Matharu MbCHB, ACLS, ECFMG at the Conferment of Degrees and Awards in The Great Hall, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK, on conferment of the Fellowship to Pandit Sharda Sahai by Chairman of the Governing Body , Mr R M Tebb on 11th November 1997.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all this evening to be part of a ceremony to honour one of India’s greatest living musicians. The award of the Fellowship of the City of Leeds College of Music is rarely given and I can say without hesitation that it goes this evening to a man who richly deserves it – Mr Sharda Sahai.
Mr Sahai is an internationally renowned figure and a man who has made a significant contribution to Indian music. He was a pupil of Pandit Kanthe Maharaj and began his professional career at nine years of age. He made his major public debut at sixteen. He has the distinction of being able to claim that he has accompanied every major artist of North Indian classical music and has performed over a thousand concerts worldwide. He has played, and still regularly plays all over India. He made his first international appearance over a quarter of a century ago and since then has performed and taught across Europe, and in the United States, Canada and Australia. He has held concerts in the Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic Hall in New York City and been seen and heard on Canadian and American radio and television. In 1965 he founded the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya, an institute for training in classical music and dance in Benares. He has taught in universities like the Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Brown University in Rhode Island. He is at present an examiner of the Benares Hindu University, as he has been for almost twenty years. He has produced various publications and his solo album, the Art of Benares Baj, is the first full-length LP recording of an uninterrupted tabla solo performance.
He follows in the footsteps of one of his forebears, Pandit Rarn Sahai who was the founder of the Benares style of tabla playing. It is thanks to Mr. Dharambir Singh that Mr Sahai was brought to Leeds, where he has made a major contribution to the Centre for Indian Music in this college. The centre has been established not only to teach Indian music but to enable students from different ethnic backgrounds to participate together and learn to appreciate and enjoy each others cultures.
Mr Sahai is not only an expert performer of the tabla, he is also an excellent teacher. Not all good performers are good teachers and not all good teachers are good performers, but Mr Sahai excels in both. His modern, you might almost say westernised style of teaching, is extremely successful with students who come from such a wide range of backgrounds. He is able to establish a close working relationship with each individual. He succeeds because he is able to generate in his students a passion, an enthusiasm and a dedication to their music. They in turn respect and admire the expertise and understanding he brings to their studies and realise just how fortunate they are in having such a teacher.
I have personally seen just how effective his teaching is, my own son, Daljit is one of his pupils.
And so It gives me great pleasure to commend to you a man of exceptional ability. He is a man whose talents and tireless pursuit of excellence, has educated and entertained numerous generations over the years. He has also brought to various communities across the world an insight into Indian classical music they would never otherwise have enjoyed. Mr Sharda Sahai, we would deem it an honour If you would accept the Fellowship of the City of Leeds College of Music.
Speech delivered by Sharda Sahai in acceptance of the Fellowship of Leeds College of Music, at the 1997 Convocation Ceremony of Leeds University in The Great Hall, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK.
I am very happy to accept this award of Fellowship of Leeds College of Music.
I am Gharanedar, Head of the tradition of tabla playing of my home town Benares. My great-great-grandfather founded this style of tabla playing which has been handed down five generations to me. Hence I would also like to thank my own teachers, my father, Bhagwati Sahai and Kanthe Maharaj. This is because I have been brought up in the culture of teaching called Guru Shishya Parampara where teachers have an enormous influence over their students’ development. We don’t ever forget them.
I may have been unusual in that I lost my father at an early age and have had to earn my own living since the age of eight. However, it was my father who set my hand on the tabia, by which I mean he gave me the correct technique on which I could build my career. After his death it was Kanthe Maharaj who gave me many compositions.
In the same way, because of our tradition, I need to thank God. Practising Tabla – we call it Riaz -is really a kind of worship. We need good health, patience, energy, strength and single-mindedness. We also need faith. People these days may say they had good luck and they had faith in themselves. When I was growing up we put our faith in God – Siva or Ganesh. Ganesh is actually the god of Tabla.
I am very proud of everyone here at Leeds College of Music and what they have done for
Indian Music. There have been courses in Indian Music there since 1991. These have been started by Dharambir Singh, sitarist and lecturer in Indian Music. He saw a big gap in the heart of the country, Yorkshire, where many people in Leeds and other towns wanted to learn Indian music but could find no structure for learning. Leeds College of Music has now offered that structure which is a blessing for everyone wanting to learn Indian music in the north.
Dharambir’s structure also allows for one to one teaching, which is the traditional learning method. I have attended two Indian Music Conferences here in the College of Music at which the question of how Indian Music is taught in schools and colleges was very much on the agenda.
In 1995 many people complained that through the education system no aspiring musician ever gained international performing standard. Also that there was a lack of modem text books written in English. This year much of the discussion was about the Guru Shishya Parampara method of teaching and how good musicians cannot be produced without it being incorporated into the educational system. Good musicians cannot be manufactured.
My school of music in India, called Gharana, has been going on for 200 years. This Gharana knows how to produce good musicians otherwise it would not have lasted so long. I try to teach according to the original method of Guru Shishya Parampara and make no difference between students and disciples. I always feel a duty towards the students and any time they need to know anything I am there to answer their questions.
Because of the pioneering work of the College here in Leeds I have been given an opportunity to pass on my heritage to students in the traditional way. Now there is a very important development, that of the new Leeds Centre for Indian Music and Dance, shortly to be established by the College with its partners in the City. This College has already become the focus for Indian music in the North so it is natural for this Centre to be set up here.
I have been involved in education throughout my career. It has also been a serious hobby because I have seen so many students unable to grasp the technique of tabia playing solely because of bad teaching. That is why I founded Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya – an institute of Indian music and dance in the UK with Dr Frances Shepherd. Through various projects we provide examinations of Prayag Sangit Samiti (the music university in Allahabad), training by an experienced vocal teacher from India, and many more. I am very happy that we are able to work together with Leeds College of Music for the cause of Indian music.
I have just come from a performance in which I improvised with a Jazz saxophonist, and drummers from Malaysia and Singapore. Music is a universal language and has given me opportunities to communicate with musicians and audiences from all nationalities and cultures. Because I don’t speak their language doesn’t stop my music from being appreciated.
I look forward to my continued connection with the College of Music and more opportunities to contribute to its work to develop Indian classical music as an important area of study in the college, and as a centre for Indian arts in the UK. The work of the College is very important for future generations.
Today is a very special day for me as it means that all the efforts I have made in my life, the tradition of which I am head, as well as the pioneering work in Indian music by Leeds College of Music are given recognition.
11 November 1997
PANDIT SHARDA SAHAI
Pandit Sharda Sahai, one of India’s most renowned tabla maestros, is being mourned the world over after passing away on 20th November 2011, at the age of 76 surrounded by his family in Ealing Hospital, London. Panditji was renowned as one of the greatest exponents of the Benares Baj and pioneered its development worldwide, most notably in Canada, America and the UK. Panditji hailed from five generations of master musicians and whilst he was faithful to the tradition of his ancestors he also was very much a musician of his time.
He profoundly touched all those who came into contact with him with his great wisdom, knowledge and humour. He will be remembered for his spellbinding solo performances, East-West collaborations, and skill and generosity as a teacher. His legacy will live on through his disciples and students and in the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangeet Vidyalaya which he founded in Benares in 1965 so that those outside of the tradition could have access to education in Indian Music and the Performing Arts.