मार्ग // The journey
The search for the mystical 'na'
by Suchet Malhotra
It was the end of the summer of 2004, and three friends from Spain were visiting me in New Delhi—Valo, Moncho and Hugo. Valo was the eldest, and had already lived in India for many years, studying tabla under Ustad Hashmat Ali Khan on an ICCR scholarship. Now he had returned, bearing tales of a tabla made in Benares that emitted a mystical ‘na’ sound. I was intrigued, he was convinced; he had, after all already flown some 8,000 kms based on that fable, so I went ahead and booked train tickets for all four of us on the first available train.
The morning after boarding in New Delhi we arrived in Benares and made for Assi Ghat, where all the foreigners live on Indian prices. Finding lodging in Nagwa—the abutting village—we wasted no time and set off to look for the ethereal tabla. But we were disappointed, that day and the next, and for days after. All we found were overpriced shops and zealous shopkeers. The closest thing to a mystical "na” was a dayan with its kinaar removed, i.e. it only had a maidan and syahi, no chaati!
We all agreed that this could not be ‘it’, and had reached our penultimate day filled with disappointment, when I decided to visit an old friend of my parents. Dr Somani welcomed us with hot tea and savouries, and listened sympathetically to our tale. “The only tabla player I know who will have an answer to this is Pandit Kishan Maharaj, would you like to meet him?” Would we just! We were told to go visit the nearby Aghori temple and come back later, by which time Dr Somani—who knew Panditji well—would have an answer for us.
A few impatient hours later we had a yes; we were to visit that very evening! Sweets were hastily bought, faces scrubbed and new kurtas worn. A rickshaw ride to Kabir Chaura, a narrow lane and there it was—the house we sought!
We were ushered into a resplendent living room in the home of the master.
A short while later he appeared, all smiles and majesty. Our tale evoked a loud guffaw, apparently he found such talk of a magical tabla amusing, and our fantasy vanished in a puff. But we were all promised a pair of tablas vetted by Maharaj ji himself, if we would come back the next day. We agreed and were all rewarded by a treasured
It was then that Hugo spoke up—he wanted to learn from Maharaj ji!
Ever magnanimous with the genuine seeker, Maharaj ji agreed, and asked me to instruct Hugo about all the rituals. I organized the obligatory coconut, mauli and sweets and returned with Hugo, where I witnessed & photographed his ganda-bandha ceremony.
In those days, I played didgeridoo, and, upon being asked, played for Maharaj ji. He accompanied me on a conveniently available table, and stopped the exact second I did, even though I did not end my playing in rhythm! How did he do that I wondered?
He seemed pleased with my playing, and asked me to pay my respects at the temple upstairs, where the tutelary deity was Lord Ganesha. The large statue shows the elephant-headed God playing the pakhawaj; this had been fashioned by Maharaj ji himself. Festooned on the walls were his various titles, three rows deep. I returned to the living room vastly humbler than I had left it.
He then addressed me--“This circular breathing you do is not new, but under the guidance of a master, you can work wonders in the rhythmic work on this instrument”.
This was my cue—a master will seldom refer to himself as being an appropriate teacher. I, however, took the hint. “I can think of no better teacher than yourself Maharaj ji”. This was true, Pandit Kishan Maharaj was an acknowledged layakar. “Is that so?” he said, beaming a smile at me. However, his next words were, “Return to Delhi as planned, I have no time at present”.
Puzzled, I left Benares for Delhi, leaving Hugo to take daily lessons from the young Shubh, his grandson. Upon reaching Delhi, I narrated all to my mother.* Wise woman that she was, she instantly picked up the phone and called Maharaj ji, saying that under his guidance perhaps I would amount to something. Maharaj ji’s words were--“If you are serious about learning, return to Benares at once!”
Requesting him for a week’s time, I closed my apartment, took leave from my television job, and packing a few possessions and my best didgeridoos, I left for Benares, where I was met by Hugo, who had organized a room for me beside his own.
From the next morning on, a deep, intense, focused and serious taleem began. During my week-long absence, Maharaj ji had already fashioned a home-made didgeridoo with a length of pipe and a sawn off plastic bottle for the bell. He gave me sabak, and I was expected to continue it until he took it further.
He also gifted me a flat large bowl. I had to fill it everyday with the saliva (“lar”) that trickled down through the didgeridoo while I played! Only then could I go home. This took about six hours, and I was allowed minimal breaks for drinking water or the toilet.
I practiced in the temple, with the statue of “Babba”, Maharaj ji’s guru. After practice, we students changed the flowers daily, and also swept the temple, the entrance and the lawns. Finally, we fed and cleaned the cages of the 40 white pigeons that Maharaj ji so lovingly kept as pets.
Days passed in a blur. I woke every morning, cycled to Kabir Chaura, practiced from 9 till 3, cycled back. If I remembered, I ate lunch, but most days I was too tired so I slept until sundown, when the mosquitoes of Benares, large beyond belief, began their diurnal feast. I woke, covered in their bites, and practiced some more, and then I would take a walk by the ghat, or down the narrow streets, or just aimlessly. If Hugo returned in time (his lessons were in the afternoon, mine in the morning so we seldom met in the day, this was deliberately done by Maharaj ji so we’d not waste time chatting with each other), we’d share an evening meal, but he had his lessons and practice too, so mostly it was just about our own practice and lessons every single day. I lost weight, I got diahorrea, my beard grew, but I hardly noticed, I had stopped looking at the mirror.
But people noticed the difference in my playing; I’d get visitors on the terrace when I practiced, the members of Maharaj ji’s household commented, and occasionally Maharaj ji himself called me to play for a visitor, a sign I took to mean I was making progress.
Those were carefree days of joy in music, filled with the bliss of the presence of a master, free from worries, safe from the world. Alas, all too soon the time flew by and Maharaj ji called me and Hugo, saying the New Year had come and he was leaving for New Delhi; we were to accompany him.
As a Padma Vibhushan, Maharaj ji had a road named in his honour, and also travelled free First Class on Indian Railways. On such a train, with plush velvet-red upholstery, we made our way back to the world and our lives, having tasted a practice sweet and deep, under the watchful gaze of a wise and sanguine legend.
*Suchet's mother is Dr Bandana Malhotra who worked as a music critic for various
English dailies, and was later the dedicated music critic of the Hindustan Times
for a number of years.
Suchet Malhotra is a percussionist and producer. As a child, he learnt tabla with Sh. Paramjit Singh and his guru Pandit Pawan Kumar Varma in Chandigarh. After his parents moved to Delhi, he was accepted as a ganda-bandha shagird of Ustad Chhamma Khan of the Dilli gharana, with whom he learnt for many years. After his guru's demise in 1998, Suchet studied percussion-darbouka, didgeridoo, djembe, cajon, bongos and framedrum. In 2005, he went to Benares to study layakari on didgeridoo with Pandit Kishan Maharaj. The episodes narrated in this story took place from Dusshera to the New Year.