Pandit Sharda Sahai

Pandit Sharda Sahai

Sharda Sahai was born in Benares in 1935, a direct descendent of Pandit Ram Sahai, the founder of the Benares style (“gharana”) of tabla playing. With the inherent gift in his blood of the finest traits of the Benares baj, he began at an early age to learn tabla from his father, the late Pandit Bhagwati Sahai. Following his father’s demise in 1946, he became a disciple of the inimitable Pandit Kanthe Maharaj, himself a disciple of Sharda Sahai’s grandfather, Pandit Baldeo Sahai. Sharda Sahai started his professional career at the age of nine, performing both as a soloist and as an accompanist. He made his major public debut when he was sixteen, appearing at the Italee Music Conference in Calcutta with the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. His professional activities in India have included appearances as soloist and accompanist at all of the important music conferences and festivals as well as performances with every major artist of North Indian classical music.

He was awarded “A Grade Artist” status by All India Radio in 1965. Also in 1965 he founded the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya, an institute for training in classical music and dance, located in Benares. Sharda Sahai has performed over one thousand concerts worldwide. His solo performances have been broadcast on All India Radio’s prestigious National Program. His accompaniment experience includes every major artist of North Indian classical music- among others: sitarists Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, and Nikhil Banerjee; sarodists Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan; violist V.G. Jog; and dancers Gopi Krishna, Birju Maharaj, and Sitara Devi. In February, 1970 Sharda Sahai made a highly successful tour of Europe, the United States, and Canada with sarodists Amjad Ali Khan.

His tabla playing made a powerful impression everywhere he played, and in September, 1970 he returned to the United States to accept an appointment as Artist in Residence with the World Music Program at Wesleyan University. He remained with Wesleyan University for five years, during which time he was also a visiting professor at Brown University and Berklee School of Music. Sharda Sahai’s superb ability as a performer is matched by his ability as a teacher. Few Indian musicians of his calibre have held as many teaching positions at such prestigious western universities.

In recent years he has been dividing his time between busy teaching schedules, ongoing summer tabla training programs in the U.S. and Canada, and the administration of the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya in the U.K. In the U.K., he was a Senior Lecturer at Dartington College of Arts for six years, and he currently teaches tabla at Leeds University and at Oxford University. Sharda Sahai’s reputation as a tabla virtuoso in India and in the West is unmatched. His position as the direct descendent of Pandit Ram Sahai, the founder of the Benares tabla baj (style), has endowed him as the bearer of a prodigious and closely guarded repertoire of composed material.

As the fountainhead of the Benares Gharana, all of his performances are paradigms of the popular and respected Benares style. Many of the younger generation of tabla players and even some older players, from within the Benares Gharana and from outside the gharana, look to Sharda Sahai’s playing as the authoritative model of the Benares style- a style which many tabla players attempt to emulate and incorporate into their own repertoires. Though Sharda Sahai is a guardian of tradition, he is extremely well versed in fusion of North Indian classical music with other styles. He has accompanied the well-known South Indian violinist L. Shankar, and has performed jugal-bandi (duet) concerts with the leading exponents of the South Indian mridangam: Sivaraman, T. Shankaran, and R. Raghavan. In the West, he has performed with the Avant garde composer John Cage, and the internationally acclaimed percussion group Nexus.

At EXPO ‘86 in Canada, at EXPO ‘88 in Australia, and at the Commonwealth Drum Festival in England, he performed with the World Drum Ensemble, a conglomeration of over one hundred drummers from around the world performing on the same stage. Few musicians in the world attain Sharda Sahai’s level of virtuosity. Whether he is demonstrating his mastery of the tradition or his versatility in adapting to different styles, his performances are spellbinding. Amidst the modernization of India and the real danger that the important traditions of Indian classical music may become diluted and faded, it is comforting to know that one can still experience a performance played as the founder of the Benares Gharana in the 1700’s would have played it. The tradition lives through Sharda Sahai.

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