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.