Biography of Pandit 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. 

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