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The Maestro’s Death May 8, 2008

Posted by astralwicks in Blogging, Culture, india, music, obituary, People, Personal, Tribute, Writing.
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I just learnt the news that Kishan Maharaj passed away on Sunday. Today is Wednesday the 8th of April. His death was not front page news. Like IPL or inflation or the censure of our Members of Parliament. It figured nowhere in the news channels that I regularly surf, not even in the bottom scroll. It probably figured on Monday but not after that.

Kishan Maharaj was one of the greatest tabla exponents from India. The cliché ‘passing of an era’ can be applied to him without any hesitation.

During the years at Hindu Collge, Spic Macay (Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth) did a great service to the vagrant youth who passed time in smoky cafes fighting over diluted ideology or some girl. They made available to us the greatest musicians from the Indian classical pantheon.

Because of them I have watched Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Gangubai Hangal, L. Subramaniam, Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan, Bismilla Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Shobha Gurtu, Ajoy Chakraborty, and a host of other greats. It was all for free and the degree of intimacy made it all the more rewarding. You were at a distance of 10 feet from the artist! Not always but mostly. It was a lesson for any serious music or I might say life enthusiast.

I had heard a lot about Kishan Maharaj. Had also heard a few cassettes in which he featured. A blurry picture emerged of a man passionate about his music and uninhibited about expressing his emotions. As luck would have it, Maharaj ji was coming to play at St. Stephens that year. I think it was 1998. I was all eager to watch the maestro perform.

It is said that Hindu and Stephens share a road between them and nothing else. The auditorium of Stephens was full. The stage was set for Maharaj ji to come and perform. It was not a ‘Lec Dem’ or Lecture Demonstration in which the musicians play, sing and talk. It was billed as a concert.

In entered Maharaj ji. There was applause. He greeted us by folding hands and sat down. There was no tabla in sight. He was also chewing paan. He is from Banaras and people chew a lot of paan.

He boomed on the mike. His voice had a timber and quality that demands attention and silence when uttered. He began, in Hindi ‘I am not going to play today. Only talk. If you want to listen to my talk, please stay. Otherwise you know where the doors are.’

Nobody left although they were disappointed. We wanted him to play. He gave the reason. ‘I am just coming from … (some foreign place the name I forget) and at the airport I met a fan. He wanted something from me and I had nothing but my tabla. I could not refuse him and gave them away as a gift. And I play only the ones made in Banaras by this particular guy. So…’

He spoke as a friend. An elder friend who knows the affectations of youth; its impatience; ability to make mistakes; taken by fancy and sound and spectacle; youth still unable to form its opinion; a youth that doesn’t know the value of experience.

Maharaj ji began with the history of tabla and its journey. How from being an accessory it gained in prominence to become an instrument that took the centre-stage at various concerts. He could sing also and sang he did giving examples.

Panditji also spoke of the importance and over-importance of celebrities like Zakir Hussain. People who popularized the tabla but gave sole importance to the technique of playing fast so that the jugalbandi, (two musicians act as lead players, and a playful competition often ensues between the two performers) the most popular feature of a concert, hits the high notes.

He was critical of the emphasis on speed and laid emphasis on the slow build-up, the gestation, the slow simmer over the boil, the teasing journey to the climax.

He had many a paan during his talk of 2 hours. He made me see the culture and ethos of Benaras, the role of the mightly Ganga, he shared trivia about life on tour, the basics of tabla, its history, the art and technique of tabla. I saw a man completely in love with his craft and profession. A man who brooks no interference. A musician who doesn’t compromise. A critic who knows his criticism. A purist whose point of view made sense.

Maharaj ji without playing a single note made me his lifelong fan.



1. myexpression - May 8, 2008

wow… u r lucky…

2. gudus - May 8, 2008

I remember reading the news in the papers, on Monday, and thinking how sad my father would’ve been, being a huge fan of Kishan Maharaj. Unfortunately I never got to hear him play, nor speak. Thanks for writing such a beautiful tribute, your memories, so true, pulled me close, and I felt like I was there too that day.
Kishan Maharaj, hope you rest in peace. Farewell

3. Bharati Ghosh - May 8, 2008


4. astralwicks - May 8, 2008

@bharati thanks for the info

5. Sandeep Das - May 16, 2008

I am one of his students and by chance I came across this blog written about my guru.But I must say that many people who were close to him couldn’t have expressed the loss the way you have.It is a shame that we live in a country where it seems only 3 things matter these days 1)Cricket–where you lose more than u win
2) Fils stars and
3) Models…about the last two the least said the better.
Our media would have reported about the pussy cat of an actress not menstruating probabily but not this!!!!
The wes talks about bach and Beethoven…well Pt.Kishan Maharaj was like that.Pt.Ravi Shankar wrote a beautiful tribute in TOI!!!
But congrats to you.it is people like u who keeps my aith in this country of mine…which I really love but weep for now!!!

6. astralwicks - May 16, 2008

Yes, its a sad state. Churning out uni-dimensional successes that are mediocre, rootless and aesthetically ill-informed.

But, Panditji, he will be missed and always remembered.

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