Tabla mythology venerates those who cannot be separated from their instrument. It is said that Pandit Samta Prasad practiced so hard that his neighbours could see streams of sweat seeping from beneath his door, and that Pandit Pratap Mishra once played for nine days straight, summoning enough spiritual energy to transform a statue in front of him into a living form of the goddess Durga.
Various legends attached to Pandit Anokhelal Mishra include that his constant practicing eventually caused the marble floor he sat on to buckle under the cumulative vibratory stress. But the master needs no tall tales to impress – despite passing away over half a century ago, you can watch his extraordinary skills in action – including in the clip below, from a 1940s British documentary (“the delicate rhythms and cross-rhythms demand unusual subtlety and vivid sensitivity…the rapidity of his finger movements is amazing…”):
Though born into an impoverished family, he would eventually rise to be known as Tabla Samrat – the ‘Emperor of Tabla’. Some say his manual talents were first spotted via an obsession with playing marbles as an infant, and the young boy began training under Benares maestro Pandit Bhairav Mishra, absorbing his powerful style. He soon found great success as a soloist, but remained markedly humble throughout his career, sometimes sitting on the floor of a concert hall instead of the raised stage in respect for the seniority of forebears who had played there. Tragically, he died of gangrene in 1958, at the age of 44.
According to his student Chandra Nath Shastri, “He [lived a] very simple livelihood. He knew only the sadhana [spiritual practice] of rendering tabla”. Even by Hindustani standards, his obsessive states of focus could be extreme. Shastri recounts that, “His first son was seriously ill, but he was deeply engaged with his music. When he was informed about his son’s death, he replied, ‘It was gifted by god and also taken by him, so let me practice now’. After finishing his practice when he realised what he had lost, and broke into tears and could not touch tabla for a long period of time”.
Also…it is said Shastri became Mishra’s disciple in unconventional circumstances. The Pandit once visited Shastri’s father, a dentist, to have a tooth extracted. He was nervous, and the dentist suggested that he compose a short rhythmic piece in his head to calm himself. He completely absorbed himself with the task, and soon after the dentist asked what he had composed.
Mishra recited it, then asked which tooth was about to be extracted. “So you didn’t notice?” the dentist replied. This took Mishra by surprise, saying: “Doctor Sahab, your fingers are so good I could not even feel any pain…If you learn tabla then your playing will be better than anyone’s”. The dentist replied that he used to play, and was now teaching his two sons. Mishra asked for permission to teach them, and Shastri’s father agreed…
● Read next: Profile: Pandit Lacchu Maharaj, unheralded rhythmic genius of Benares – the mischievous, chilla-smoking maestro’s colourful life