The Benares Gharana

The tabla baj that is today associated with the city of Benares was developed over two hundred years ago by the legendary Pandit Ram Sahai. A child prodigy in his native city, he became a disciple of Ustad Modhu Khan (grandson of Sidhar Khan of Delhi) a musician in the royal court of Nawab Asafuddaula in Lucknow. During his twelve year apprenticeship with Modhu Khan, Ram Sahai amassed a prodigious repertoire of compositions and mastered the art of improvised elaborations on a given theme. When he was 21 years of age he made his debut performance at the court of Nawab Wazir Ali and accomplished the astounding feat of playing a tabla solo which continued uninterrupted for seven consecutive nights without repetition of a single piece.

In the middle of his career Ram Sahai retired from public life and turned his attention to the creation of a new style of tabla playing. Through major changes in the position of the hand on the drum and a more efficient use of the fingers he increased the tabla’s range of tone and dynamics. In addition to composing numerous pieces in the existing forms he introduced several new types of compositions which have come to be associated exclusively with the Benares baj.

The new style was eminently suitable not only for solo playing, but for any type of music from heavy classical dhrupad singing (usually accompanied by the pakhawaj drum), to the lighter forms of thumri and tappa, to all styles of instrumental music, and lastly, to Kathak dance.

Ram Sahai’s innovations and the devotion to musical excellence of his descendants has produced what is today one of the most respected and popular tabla styles in India. The names of Pandit Durga Sahai, Pandit Kanthe Maharaj and Pandit Anokhelal Misra are remembered with awe and reverence by Indian musicians as being among the greatest virtuosi of recent times. Since their passing the high standards of the tradition have been preserved by the present generation of Benares players which includes such contemporary greats as Pandit Sharda Sahai, Pandit Kishan Maharaj and the late Pandit Shamta Prasad. A genealogical chart showing some of the outstanding members of the Benares baj is presented below.