A king in every sense

Pandit Kishan Maharaj 1924 – 2008

Pandit Kishan Maharaj 1924 – 2008  


A tribute to tabla maestro Pandit Kishan Maharaj who passed away this week.

He was a Maharajah in every respect. He reigned laya (pulse, cadence) but preferred to be conquered by strong emotions of both happiness and anger; because he hated to be anything but pure in thought and deed.

This pristine purity reflected in his inimitable art of tabla playing — always, till the last.

His volatile image and magnanimity, his immaculate dress sense and arresting looks, his booming voice and superb, spontaneous oratory, his razor sharp wit and love for poetry, his on-stage glamour and purity of art — all was too much to resist.

There was something in his majestic stance that sparked a sense of trepidation despite years of close contact. But like a true Maharajah, he enjoyed the company of likeminded — transcending all gharanas, genres, idioms. And for that reason, he loved Kolkata.

Usually a ‘gharanedar’ maestro like him would try to establish the supremacy of his own gharana, but he flouted the mythical loyalty and showered unconditional blessings on exponents belonging to other schools. With disarming frankness he exclaimed once, “Guru lays the foundation. That is imperative.

Therefore selection of guru needs extreme care: paani piye chhaan ke, guru kare pehchaan ke. But I bet no one can claim honestly that he plays only what was taught by his guru, because the world is so beautiful ‘ki har soorat kaleje se lagane ke qabil hai’.”

Artistic evolution

Discussing his own evolution he had said, “There was a time when I used to fly with the bols. Once my father snubbed me, ‘Do you want to become another Anokhelal or what?’ Yes, Anokhelalji was awe-inspiring, but Ahmedjan Thirakwa Saheb’s style mesmerised me. But I imbibed the essence of the beauty and put my own stamp on it.”

Despite tasting phenomenal success as a solo player, he declared, “Tabla is cut out to be a supporting instrument. Ravi(Shankar)ji and I during our heyday (’43 to ’54) believed in tempestuous virtuosity. It was hailed as ‘laya ki varsha’ by the discerning. I liked Amir Khan’s gayaki and, contrary to commonly heard stories, he never stopped me from playing my pieces; neither did Vilayat Khan! Frankly, one must wait for an opportune moment to say something without disturbing the main artiste’s chain of thought. Now, if I am in a mood to play a tukra, the sarangi player should not play his piece at that time. Both are bound to go waste then!”

Success, according to him, “lies in the askance by musicians for accompaniment. It too brings with it an infinite scope for innovations for those who have guts to fly.”

His penchant for complex rhythmic permutations and tihais fashioned famed fables. But he said, “I opted for aural pleasure more than mere skill. The baayan holds a special place in my playing. I also started the trend of reciting bols before solo playing. Such ‘padhant’ is an essential part of tabla solo playing now. Earlier no one dared to do so, for fear of losing the treasured compositions to masses. My style was appreciated because of its clarity — both oral and instrumental. My passion for poetry came handy.”

By his own admittance his other passions were painting, kite-flying and playing carom. He loved to collect perfumes. Hundreds of them! Good food was his obsession. Certain things like “lijbiji lauki” put him off, but rabri? Oh-oh! And clothes? “I am very fond of clothes and carry them off really well — be it Western or Oriental”, said he once — looking resplendent in a black floral gown on top of a silk lungi while having breakfast! “There was a time when, dressed up in breeches and hat, I used to go for riding and hunting.”

To kill ladies? “Ha, ha, ha . . . just the reverse! Raviji and I used to get numerous love-notes during our concerts. We kept them in our pockets to exchange notes later! I was married off early. Savita (Devi) came in my life for a while. Phir ek Bangalan bhi….”

The secret behind the huge red dot? “I apply this ‘roli prasad’ of Goddess Saraswati before I play tabla and feel so blessed! It energises and gives confidence to tackle even Ravana! God knows how many Ravanas I confronted in my life and what ‘durgat’ they had while facing me! But we artistes belong to one clan. The artistes know the worth of another.”

How true he was! During the Sankat Mochan Music Festival in the last week of April, celebrated musicians went to pay their respects to the legendary master. Overwhelmed with joy he suffered the final massive stroke.

* * *

* Born on the auspicious Janmashtami day, he was Krishna Prasad to his parents.

* Uncle Kanthe Maharaj, celebrated tabla maestro, groomed him after the untimely demise of his father, Guru Hari Maharaj.

* His sparkling debut at the tender age of 11 stunned all.

* Numerous awards including Padma Vibhushan (2002) were conferred upon the legend who took Benaras Baaj of tabla to new heights.

* Many of his disciples, led by Pandit Kumar Bose, are world famous names now.

* The end came on 4th May 2008. He was 84.

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