Profile: Pandit Lacchu Maharaj, unheralded rhythmic genius of Benares

Many superb Indian classical musicians were largely overlooked by the lottery of the recording industry, and thus have rarely been heard in full solo flight save by a few local devotees and eagle-eared connoisseurs. It’s tempting to place the late tabla master Pandit Lacchu Maharaj in this category – but while his extraordinary rhythmic accomplishments were often overlooked in his lifetime, things are a little more complex.

Lacchu’s drums did ultimately reach the ears of millions, via the many soundtracks he cut in his long career as a session musician. However, commercial success tended to come away from the spotlight, as he sat hidden in the corner behind whatever one-off crowd of singers and string players had arrived to record that day’s filmi hit. Instead, Lacchu earned his place in tabla history through years of spellbinding live shows, enchanting the crowds of Varanasi’s temples, auditoriums, and river ghats for many decades.

Born to a musical family in 1944, Lakshmi Narayan Singh ‘Lacchu’ Maharaj first learned rhythm from his father Vasudev. Before long he was playing publicly, displaying talents that drew the attention of India’s leading musicians. After witnessing the eight-year-old’s virtuoso performance in Mumbai, legendary mid-20th-century master Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa – hailed as the ‘Mount Everest of Tabla’ – reputedly remarked that he wished Lacchu had been born as his own son.

It is hard to trace a clear career arc after this. He enjoyed early success in Uttar Pradesh, and went on to be prolific across classical and film, appearing on hundreds of recordings and playing many thousands of concerts. Precious little of his non-filmi work seems to have made it to the realms of the publicly-available and English-searchable, but we can still trace some of its majestic resonance via other sources. An obituary in a local Varanasi newspaper offers a pleasing, if somewhat curiously translated, appraisal: “He played tabla in big events of the country and the world. He used to force everyone to dance to his beats”.

The few solo videos that I have managed to find showcase a breathtaking, immediately idiosyncratic style. Lacchu brings a playful touch to angular tabla compositions, with smooth bass drops and fiendish complexity giving way to sparse, almost absent-minded sections.

In the short video below, the turtlenecked maestro plays an exuberant, distinctly funky solo in drut tintal (fast 16-beats) – but not until he’s taken more than a few huge hits from his ceremonial chilla pipe. Honestly, the ragga jungle DJs I met in Bristol would be impressed by the Pandit’s lung fortitude here as well as his rhythmic dexterity…and his low-tuned bayan tabla actually sounds like a superdeep jungle/DnB bassline at points too.

n.b. I have Lacchu to thank for the name of my website (Raga Junglism)…credit to his curious style for some impromptu url inspiration. Actually I only got started in music writing via posting this on a techno forum and asking if we could find a funkier live jungle drummer anywhere in the world…naturally, we failed – but in the thread was Tim Garcia, now a fantastic JazzFM DJ, who happened to be looking for someone to interview London-based tablist Sarathy Korwar. Thanks for the lucky break Lacchu! I guess this means we have you to thank for Ragatip’s creation too…specifically, this exact video:

His recognition was probably hindered by the existence of a better-known namesake: Pandit ‘Lachhu’ Maharaj, a internationally-renowned kathak dancer from nearby Lucknow (they did, it has to be said, look a little similar in old age). But the tablist remained unfazed by his relative lack of fame, seemingly content to just drum away, focusing on music on his own terms.

Another local profile summarises his attitude: “He used to play tabla only on his wish, he never played tabla on anyone’s demand.” He often sat by the banks of the Ganges playing to the birds – speaking as a former Varanasi resident who has done much the same (albeit with much less groove), I can definitely understand why worldly success could seem so irrelevant to him in those moments.

However, it was not always so placid. He came out in loud support of social freedoms during India’s ‘Emergency’ (a period of martial law imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975-77), playing tabla while locked in jail for his part in the protests (…I guess the guards must have been fans). Around this time he had also formed a renowned partnership with vocalist Girija Devi, who recounts that “he would play for hours without repeating himself, new gatstukras and parans, leaving his audiences awestruck….such artists are rarely born.”

New info: After this article was originally released, I sent it to my sitar teacher Deobrat Mishra, son and disciple of our guru-ji Pandit Shivnath Mishra in Varanasi. In his words, “I knew him very well…he was great tabla player, and a great man. We were both in many baithak [house concerts] together, and he performed with guru-ji”. He even sent me a (somewhat impressionistic) photo of the pair on stage together (…more recollections from the Mishras to follow!)

Though Lacchu never became a household name, he did receive wider recognition towards the end of his life. The national government offered him the Padma Shri (India’s fourth-highest civilian award), but he turned it down, reportedly saying that “the appreciation of listeners and the thunder of talas [rhythms] is all an artist needs”. (n.b. his student Pandit Channu Lal Mishra would later go on to win the Padma Shrias a vocalist, proving the tablist’s varied pedagogical talents too.)

The old master died in 2016, aged 72, and was cremated at Manikarnika Ghat, the holiest river-shrine in Varanasi. He is survived by his wife Tina and daughter Narayani, as well as his nephew Govinda, a legend of late 20th-century Hindi cinema who also served a chaotic one-term as MP for Mumbai North. As a child Govinda learned tabla from his uncle, an interaction which surely helped lay the foundations for his world-famous dancing abilities.

Google even honoured Lacchu with a ‘Doodle’ in 2018 (although their accompanying blog post featured a bio of his dancing namesake by mistake…). To listeners he is remembered not only as an exemplary exponent of the Benares tabla gharana, but also as a playful, mischievous human being.

It’s easy to see why – in the performance below at an Italian ashram, the elderly Lacchu bubbles with youthful energy, sending booming bayan (bass drum) strokes echoing throughout the room and warmly greeting noisy infants in the crowd. He even messes with the audience, telling them that the (semantically meaningless) vocalised bol syllables of the composition are in fact “speaking a small poetry about the history of the tabla” (around the 25:25 mark). Damn, I hope there are more videos of the great man out there somewhere.

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