Tabla Lineage Review – July 24, 2005

Article by Pete Lockett, from Rhythm Magazine, September 27, 2005.


15th Sep 2002

Review of the concert
15 September 2002
Purcell Room
South Bank

It?s what everyone came to hear – an extremely rare event – the direct descendents of Pandit Ram Sahai, founder of the Benares gharana of tabla, in duet on stage. This is the master, Pandit Sharda Sahai with his disciple Sanju Sahai. A performance of dazzling complexity, enormous power, lightening speed and clarity, deep seriousness yet sparkling with jokes. The last time this happened was in 1994. No wonder the Purcell Room was packed to overflowing. This performance was hosted by Jay Viswadeva of Audiorec.

The charisma around Sharda-ji is very tangible. He starts smiling even before the concert begins. He draws the people to him and his audience have to communicate. Speaking in English or Hindi depending on who he spotted he said at one point “we would like to play longer because I feel this audience appreciates our music”. There were also some important musicians there, to name but a few Fida Hussain (Harmonium), Dharambir Singh (sitar) and Sukhvinda Singh (tabla), Pratap Pawar (kathak dancer), and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (singer) who both threw a garland of flowers over Sharda-ji at the end of his performance.

However, I have to start this review at the beginning because Pandit Ramesh Misra was especially flown over from New York for the extremely challenging task of accompanying tabla. Ramesh-ji is master of one of the most difficult stringed instrument in the world, the sarangi. He is also a direct descendent of Pandit Ram Sahai. Ramesh-ji’s guru was the late Pandit Hanuman Prasad Mishra. The concert opened with a performance given by him with Sanjay Jhalla on tabla. Sanjay Jhalla is a very experienced tabla player who studied with Manik Rao Popatkar and more recently with Anindo Chatterjee.

Ramesh-ji is a wonderfully relaxed performer. He has been appearing at the South Bank for 27 years and his quiet confidence keeps the audience spellbound from the very first note. Ramesh-ji was wearing a gold coloured kurta and his sarangi is a very special instrument. Unusually coloured white he told me afterwards that it is also very old, about 170 years old.

He began with a thumri in the rag misra sivaranjani which was accompanied in ada tal also called sitar khani, a lovely lilting rhythm sixteen beats long. In it he touched on saraswati rag and a carnatic rag called sanmukhpriya. He then played a Dhun in khamaj rag. It was his own composition set in dadra tal (six beats). Sanjay Jhalla accompanied him very sympathetically in traditional dadra rhythm with short sections of rela towards the end.

Ramesh-ji’s last piece was a beautiful Gujarati bhajan by the great poet Narasaiyan. In it the poet talks to God telling Him that people are hurting. He asks God to help them as only He knows their pain. The Bhajan was accompanied by an eight beat rhythm called kaherwa. Happy sounds which ended with Ramesh-ji just lightly touching the strings in dabs of sounds.

Sharda-ji brought his own Ganesh with him, about two and a half feet in height and gilt finished. A truly lovely Ganesh which remained on the stage throughout the concert. Ganesh is the god of drumming so very appropriate for the second half of the programme.

It is very difficult to say anything about this Benarasi tabla performance without sounding unbelievable. A whole lifetime of studying tabla was in it. The tabla has a vast repertoire. The performance was improvised. The performance was composed. Both statements are true yet seem to be contradictory. There was everything I’ve ever heard in it and yet it was also completely new! Benarasi solo tabla playing can go on for several hours, if not days, but there was nothing left out of this one even if some things were telescoped. For instance the sound of a train with its noise on the track, the sound of its engine or the sound of it going over a bridge can go on for hours on tabla but we heard about three minutes of it simply because there is so much material to play. Nothing substantial can be omitted because then it wouldn’t be a true Benares performance and fun things like trains are a part of that.

Sharda-ji described this whole performance to his audience as, a taste of Benares?

Talking about fun one of Sanju’s improvisations turned into a tukara, a composition. It just happened perhaps by accident and that is all part of improvising. Sharda-ji broke in to explain that he had begun a ‘children’s tukara’ which they would now play together. At this point the tukara was no longer a children’s piece because they played it at break-neck speed!

They shared everything they played by passing the cue from one to the other so the flow never stopped. I think the Benarasi theka was passed from one to the other at least four times. This means that each had to be very aware of where the other’s improvisation was going so they could follow on the development in true Benares tradition. Sharda-ji never misses a trick. Once when Sanju paused a second to put more talc on his drum-head Sharda-ji improvised within that second! Things like that are pure delight! Another is the slow smile that deepens in Sharda-ji’s face when he is about to surprise us.

With compositions like chakradar tukaras where a whole piece is repeated three times and ends on the first beat of a 16 beat time cycle, Sharda-ji often played the first section leaving the second section to Sanju to then join with him for the last. But there were many things which they played together and some of them were extremely fast and powerful.They made a wonderful team because each so much appreciated the other?s playing. Sharda-ji left Sanju to play for what seemed like forever at one time and at another time Sanju fell out just to listen to Sharda-ji.

I cannot forget to mention the sharp Kat or loud Ghe on the drums, the silence and then the soft relas. What else was there? Hard relas; ‘the rabbit’ kayada (with phrases that seem to emulate the hop of a rabbit); gats; the wonderful layakari (changing the subdivisions of the beat) of a kayada, five against four, six against four, seven against four and finally eight against four so that the speed always appears to be increasing and of course there were many tihais and rarely heard tukharas, gats and fards.

The ending of this concert was particularly poignant. Sharda-ji spoke about his father who could play a gat (a composed piece) in different layakari so that the final version had changed and increased speed seven times. He told us that tonight they were going to change the speed of this composition five times and he would leave it to Sanju and his grandchildren to, hopefully, one day play it at the sixth and seventh speeds. Finally Shardaji explained that they were going to end with a particular composition which contained many different layakari. He said they practiced tabla all their lives but are only able to perform this composition once or twice in a lifetime. They said it first (speaking the bols out) before playing it – however out of pure fun and mischief Sharda-ji suddenly decided to play one other tukara first. He had been talking about people’s love for cricket and this was the ‘cricket tukhara’. It contains three long silences when the ball goes up and is then caught again on the stroke Dha. He didn’t play this last Dha but simply closed his hands around this make-believe ball.

We will remember this one all our lives.

Caroline Howard-Jones