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.
Click to enlarge.
Click to download.
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.
Jan 1, 2000 Articles
Competition in any form leading to outwitting others and securing a place of honour and envy has always remained a part of the development of the human mind. In the middle ages we know how even the great Moghul Durbar was not averse to the idea of music competitions and we have been handed down the story of famous duels between Tansen, the court musician of Akbar the great, and Baiju Bawra, known for his higher approach where, in place of the desire to outdo the other, he preferred to treat music as a vehicle to uplift one’s soul as well as that of the audience participating in the event.
Classical music, after the downfall of the Moghuls, was gradually becoming a subject of contempt, though in small pockets, it was still practised. During the early part of the present century, middle class society took upon itself the task for the propagation of Indian classical music which gradually led to music competitions.
Music competitions began to be held in many parts of India during the thirties but the ones held in Allahabad had a special attraction. These competitions were truly on an ‘all India’ basis. Allahabad University and the Prayag Sangit Samiti, Allahabad, held these competitions in their respective convocation halls that were beautifully decorated, and there was a healthy competition between the two organisations which were in control of true lovers of music. The period of 1930 to 1945 can be rightly called the golden era of music competitions in India and particularly Allahabad.
Students of the age of 5 to 25 years, both boys and girls, participated in these competitions on payment of a token fee which increased with age group. The competitions held age-wise were for boys and girls separately. In vocal music, competitions were held for Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khyal and Thumri. In instrumental sections, Sitar, Sarod, Violin and Flute were more popular then Israj or Sarangi. Kathak held the forte in dance. Later on, other forms of dance were also added. In percussion sections, Tabla held sway over Pakhawaj. There were separate sections for competitors of age below 10 years, 10 to 15 years and 15 to 20 years. The time allotted increased with age and ranged from 5 minutes to 15 minutes for each competitor.
Along with these regular competitions, a special competition for students, who were non-professionals and were not radio-singers, was held. The age limit was 25 years. There was no separate section for boys or girls. This was the most prestigious competition held in vocal music – Khyal, Instrumental, Tabla and Kathak style of dance. The duration for each candidate was 30 minutes. The competitor was also expected to sing, play or dance the lighter side of his or her subject for 10 minutes.
A few select number of Raags or Taals, generally not exceeding 3, were required to be prepared by the competitors and on the day of the competition lots were drawn by eminent artists and musicologists such as Prof. S N Ratanjankar, B R Deodhar, Rajabhaiyya Mohan Lai and Jia Lai. No accompaniment except Tabla was provided. All the participants were required to render the same Raag or Taal and, as it was held openly, there was no possibility of misjudgment. Audience reaction was also taken into account.
Generally, only competitors standing lst, 2nd and 3rd were given medals or cups and a certificate and in a special competition, only lst and 2nd prize-winners were awarded a cash prize.
But the most important attraction to all the prize-winners was a free pass to attend the music conference of 3 days that followed the competition. The prize-winners would witness the performances of artists from the nearest place to the dias. This was indeed a great incentive to them. Competitors from Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Patna, Jabalpur and many other places participated. Those were not hard times and musicians of rank used to come early to witness the competitions. There was great enthusiasm all through and the event was awaited upon by the whole city.
The winners of the special competition were also given a chance to participate in the music conference that followed the competition. They would be given the first item in one of the sittings. This was a great honour and was looked upon with ravish. It was natural for such a winner to get many invitations from various parts of the country.
Because of various reasons it is not possible to hold the competition every year but Prayag Sangit Samiti, Allahabad, holds it after a lapse of two or three years in its convocation hall. Competitors have to pay a nominal fee for each item of appearance.
But, in the meanwhile music competitions at state level are now being held on a yearly basis in various places in a particular state and the regional prize winners are called to the state Capital to appear for the final round. The regional competitions are held with the help of music institutions like Allahabad University. The finals are held in auditoriums owned by the State Governments. The prize winners, lst and 2nd, are awarded a handsome cash prize of Rs 1000/= and Rs. 500/= respectively and books on music.
Similarly such competitions are held by All India Radio to promote music and the prize winners are enlisted to sing on radio without appearing for audition tests.
Of late, important business houses have started taking a keen interest in such activities and the one that leads in such activities is the Indian Tobacco Company of India. This house runs a Research Academy in Calcutta which is doing laudable work in searching for new talent and one of the activities of this Organisation is to hold competitions all over the country in vocal music alone. The prize winners at all the Centres, about a dozen or so, gather in Calcutta for the final round and a select few are offered a 10 year apprenticeship under the guidance of a Guru. The student is provided with all the necessary requirements for this period and is assured a birth in the field of Classical Music.
Musicians had not become that professional then, way back in 1940, when I still remember how a small boy hailing from Calcutta with full Bengali attire of Dhoti, Kurta and pump shoes, stood bitterly weeping because his name had been announced and his teacher who was to accompany him on Tabla was missing. Suddenly we saw Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, the great Tabla-Maestro of his time, coming on the stage with the small boy to provide Tabla accompaniment. It was a sight still remembered by those like me who were also competitors. The Ustad played simple Teen Taal and he did not feel too small to play as he could not tolerate the sight of seeing a small boy weeping.
Competition provides scope to young talents to exhibit what they are worth and at the same time gives opportunity to them for introspection and one’s relevance in the context of the present day. It is this that keeps the flag of competitions flying and fluttering.
SHANTARAM V KASHALKAR
Sep 25, 1995 Articles
Sampoorna Sangeet Mela 1995, is the third Festival of Indian Music and Dance organised under the umbrella of Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya. The Mela is following in two traditions, the Festival tradition as described by Shantaram-ji, on page 10 and the tradition of the British National Federation of Festivals of Music, Speech and Dance. We are members of this Federation which is preparing to celebrate seventy-five years as an association.
Competition in the arts has a history that is documented back to Greek contests in 586 BC but in Britain the first contest is generally acknowledged to be the 1872 festival in Workington.
Many of these early British festivals were in rural districts and much can be understood about the people taking part from the literature of the time. In Tonypandy in 1899, the first prize for the Male Voice Choir class included “… a pair of boots for the Conductor,” and the second prize “… a pair of trousers for the Conductor”. One description of a Pennine choir reported in the Musical Times in 1908 included
“the .. choir consists of 40 voices, mostly cotton-mill workers and colliers, leavened by the inclusion of the learned village newsagent, whose decision is absolutely final whenever methods of pronunciation are in dispute.”
In 1904 the first association of competition Festivals was formed with a yearly congress to be held in London. At the same time as the development of festivals in rural areas, there had been a great growth in the number of festivals taking place in urban areas. In 1920 these festivals held their own conference in Birmingham to consider ways of increasing co-operation. Federation between these two groups took place in 1921, and throughout its history it has been generously supported by the Carnegie trust.
I remember well my experiences as a child, playing Schumann’s “Merry Peasant” very fast, perched behind an enormous grand piano in the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. I also remember my determination to practice harder after I failed to come first and the excitement when, the following year, my efforts were rewarded by receiving a better mark. As a young school teacher, conducting my first choir at the local festival, I saw the more experienced pupils at the local ‘High’ school walk away with the prize, yet once again, and many years later, as an adjudicator myself, I appreciated only too well the feelings of the candidates performing before me. My thoughts today, however are also with candidates parents. No parent will ever forget the first time his/her ‘little one’ steps onto the plat- form. It is a little like the first time you take them to the dentist. Will they be happy with the experience? Will the teeth demonstrate all your hard work teaching them how to brush properly? It is therefore very necessary that we all work towards making it a positive and enjoyable experience.
Music and Dance are creative performing arts, and learning to perform, as opposed to playing and dancing for oneself, is an art that cannot be learned without the opportunity to produce one’s art in front of an audience. This opportunity is one of the most valuable that can be experienced by the novice performer, and is provided by taking part in this Mela. In 1923, one of the federation delegates suggested that the purpose of competitions was “by means of them you make the singers not beat each other but pace each other on the road to excellence”.
Adjudicators are very experienced teachers and performers who will be looking for the strengths of the performers, and, if necessary, pointing out areas which may be improved to help them onto ‘this road to excellence’. Because they have themselves, grown up through the system, they are very aware of the feelings of the performers, and look to support, not humiliate. As suggested by a former Federation Chairman the aims of a competitive festival should be “choice without favour, correction without offence and praise without flattery”.
Acknowledgements to Dr Christopher Wiltshire for permission to refer to his history of the federation “The Road To Excellence”.
JILL SCARFE September 1995
Lecturer in Music