First Meeting with Abbāji (Ustād Allārakhā Khān)
Great Nakkārā Player – Ustād Dilāwar Khān
Playing with Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā
It was 1979 or 1980. I was working as the youngest tabla teacher in the city at the Gandharva Māhāvidyālaya Manḍal, one of the oldest music institutes in Ahmedabad. Our principal, Mr. Rāvjibhāi Patel, called me and said, “We are doing a national conference of Māhāvidyālaya Manḍal at Valsāḍ for three days. I am very happy with your playing and want you to play one solo and one accompaniment during the conference. We will all go to Valsāḍ the day before the performance in the morning by train, so be prepared for this event.”
At that time in my life, I did not understand the value of being able to travel with some of the greatest musicians of Ahmedābād and Gujarāt. I picked up Jhālāsāheb and Rāvjibhāi in my student’s car, and we arrived at the station at 6 am to catch the 7 am Gujarāt Express. At the station, we met up with Prānlālbhāi Shah (one of the best violin teachers of that time), Lāljibhāi Patel (best harmonium player), Neenā Shah (Rāvjibhāi’s student) and many young musicians.
Once we boarded the train, I was amazed to learn that all these senior musicians took great interest in eating snacks at each station. At the first stop, someone got off to get Fāfḍā and Jalebi; at Naḍiād, it was goṭā; at Baroḍā, yet another snack and the list goes on. Every stop was a new treat.
The next day, the second performance was my solo. I played pretty well and got a lot of applause from the audience. After my solo, I went backstage. There, I found internationally-known singer Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā. He was so impressed with my playing that he made me his accompanying artist for his program the following day. I was not too enthused about the idea, because the Tablā player generally only plays ṭhekā for vocal performances.
I thanked him for the opportunity and told him that I was not in the practice of accompanying vocals. I believe he understood why I said no because he immediately said that he wanted powerful Tablā in his vocal performance and that I had the freedom to play whatever I wished.
My First Meeting with Pandit Saxenaji
On the first death anniversary of my first Tablā Gurū, Panḍit Sudhirkumār Saxenā, I want to reflect on this great man who had immense knowledge of Tablā. I had a great love for him, and he had the same for me.
It was an evening in the month of February, 1971. My father told me that a big music festival, called Baiju Festival, was going on in the city, arranged by the Government of Gujarat. In addition, he informed me that Tablā maestro Panḍit Sudhirkumār Saxenā was coming to perform and encouraged me to attend. I was very young at that time, but I was learning and playing Tablā for more than seven years. My teacher, Mr. Narmadā Śankar Bhaṭṭ, was a senior disciple of Panḍit Saxenā ji. I requested my father to take me to the festival.
He took me to the newly opened Jai Śankar Sundari Hall. With great curiosity, I sat in the third row, waiting anxiously for Saxenā ji’s turn to perform. He was slated to play two items: the first, with Gujarāt’s great vocalist Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā, and the second with a sitārist.
When he came onto the stage, I was amazed by his presence and personality. He had a very small frame, not more than 5 feet in height. He wore a very nice kurtā and black koṭi. I would later learn that the koṭi was his signature style. Before him, I had already met many, many tabla players. Amongst of them all, he struck me as the most sober, most learned and calm person. His playing style mirrored his personality: neat, steady and balanced.
In his first item with the vocalist, he played nothing in vilaṁbit besides ṭhekā. I found this disappointing as I was expecting rolls and powerful drumming. But when madhya laya began with Rāga Megh, he played a small composition followed by a gat, which was enough to prove him to be the best student of Ustād Habibuddin Khān. In sitār accompaniment, he played some compositions, which I just could not understand at that time.
After the concert, I rushed backstage and touched his feet. I introduced myself. He told me he was coming back to Ahmedābād after ten days as a judge for the Gandharva Māhāvidyālaya competition. I told him proudly that I was participating in the same competition.
My father then arrived, did namaskar to Saxenāji, and asked him about me. Very humbly, Saxenāji replied, “I will be coming to Ahmedābād next week. Then I will get a chance to listen to him and give my remarks.”
With the determination to impress him at the upcoming competition, I returned home with my father and lasting memories of my first meeting with Saxenāji.
What happened next, I will write at another time.
Postnote by Gurūji Panḍit Divyāng Vakīl’s Student:
Panḍit Sudhirkumār Saxenā was one of the last Ustāds of the Ajrāḍā Gharānā. He spent many of his years in the care and service of the great Ustād Habibuddin Khān. He was the first professor of music in a higher-education institution in India, serving initially as a Professor, then Head of the Music Department at MS University in Baroḍā , Gujarāt. He passed away on November 30, 2007. He continues to live in the memories of his students and through his teachings.