Profile: Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Benares tabla powerhouse

Pandit Kishan Maharaj (1923-2008), a fearsomely gifted tabla master, left a firm stamp on the world of 20th-century Indian percussion. Born in Benares, he grew to embody the best elements of the holy city’s famous gharana, blending powerful rhythmic explorations with a sensitive command of the tabla’s melodic, vocalistic capabilities.

Born into a long line of musicians, he first learned the tala cycles under his father Pandit Hari Maharaj, but soon moved in to study full-time with his uncle Pandit Kanthe Maharaj after his patriarch’s early death. In his words, “music was the only education allowed in my family”.

Keenly aware of life’s fragilities and unpredictabilities, Maharaj studied hard, and was soon accompanying many of the era’s leading khayal vocalists, including Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, as well as countless instrumentalists and kathak dancers. He adopted a bold approach to making his name as a fatherless teenager on the pre-WW2 Benares tabla scene, describing the stage as “not only a temple to worship in, but also a battleground. To be a musician you must earn respect and promote the image of a promising, combative warrior.” 

The maestro’s uncompromising nature would persist throughout a long, illustrious career – he once refused to start a California concert until an Indian flag was found and flown alongside the stars and stripes behind him (it took an hour to arrange…but he got his way in the end).

Such antics proved little barrier to global acclaim, garnered through numerous tours with sitar icon Pandit Ravi Shankar as well as concerts with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Ustad Vilayat Khan – another lively, combative character (…surely their shared passions for fine clothes, fast cars, and rifle shooting must, in some way, have fed into the invigorating energy of their music).

Despite living at a generally relentless pace, Maharaj retained formidable rhythmic dexterity far into old age, performing tabla solos to audiences in Benares until shortly before his death in 2008, aged 84. He will forever be remembered for his buccaneering mastery of the tabla, with an ability to summon fresh geometric groove from every tala cycle, and his unique approaches to the tihai – Hindustani percussion’s characteristic three-part resolution pattern. He continues to command global attention via YouTube, with a variety of captivating performances filmed in temples and concert halls. Thankfully, his legacy is in little danger of being forgotten.

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