Profile: Pandit Ram Sahai, fountainhead of the Benares tabla gharana

Pandit Ram Sahai (1780-1826) earned his place in rhythmic history as the foundational master of the now-famous Benares tabla gharana. When he was a young disciple of Ustad Modhu Khan, leader of the Lucknow tradition, the region’s Nawab (ruler) asked the guru if his seventeen-year-old prodigy would play a recital for the royal court. Khan agreed, on the condition that his young protégé could perform for as long as he liked – so long as he did not repeat any of the compositions he played.

It is said that Sahai entranced the audience for seven consecutive nights, showering the crowd with daring rhythmic explorations and bold, densely mathematical tihai (three-part resolution patterns)…while never playing any composition the same way twice. After his marathon display of virtuosity had finally drawn to a close, he received the immediate adulation of the Shah and his royal entourage, being rewarded with money, elephants, and precious gemstones. 

He returned to Benares in glory, garnering reverence for the ingenuity of his performances. But before long he became dissatisfied with his approach, eventually withdrawing from the hustle of the city in search of new rhythmic ideas.

Gharana lore holds that he retreated to the Uttar Pradesh jungle with his tabla for two years, practicing, meditating, and listening closely to the sounds of the forest. He gradually conceived a fresh, versatile approach amidst the birds and trees, which combined the powerful, open-handed strokes of Dhrupad drumming with the sensitive finger-touches of khayal vocal accompaniment.

His new style quickly earned the respect of his fellow musicians, setting the stage for a multi-generational lineage – many of his descendents and their disciples became era-leading tabla players too. His nephew Pandit Bhairav Sahai (1815-1894) is also said to have turned the heads of kings with his rhythmic skills – reputedly being awarded the title ‘Colonel of Tabla’ by the King of Nepal, who gifted him with jewels, weapons, and royal garments (…and a thoroughbred horse from his royal stable to carry it all back on).

In more recent years the direct familial lineage has been furthered by Pandit Sharda Sahai (1935-2011), and his son Pandit Sanju Sahai, who tours today’s modern world as a star soloist and accompanist. (Sanju also graciously checked over a draft of this post, and suggested a couple of alterations…and you can read my in-depth Darbar interview with him here, covering rhythm, food, and cross-cultural improvisation).

● Read nextThe Mughal Emperor and the Red Fort Kayda – another ‘tale of the tabla’, featuring deadly competitions and animal-charming rhythms

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