The Benares tabla gharana was developed a little over 200 years ago by Ram Sahai (1780–1826). Ram Sahai began studying the tabla with his father from the age of five. At the age of nine, he moved to Lucknow to become the disciple of Modhu Khan of the Lucknow gharānā. When Ram Sahai was seventeen years old, Wazir Ali Khan, the new Nawab, asked Modhu Khan if Ram Sahai could perform a recital for him. Modhu Khan agreed, on the condition that Ram Sahai would not be interrupted until he finished playing. It is said that Ram Sahai played for seven consecutive nights, and that after this incredible performance, Ram Sahai was praised by all the members of the community and was showered with gifts. Shortly after this performance, Ram Sahai returned to Benares.
After some time performing in Benares, Ram Sahai felt the need to make a significant change in his tabla playing. For six months, he withdrew into seclusion, and worked to develop what is now known as the Benares baj or style of tabla playing. The philosophy behind this new style of tabla playing is that it would be versatile enough to perform solo, and to accompany any form of music or dance. The tabla would be able to play delicately, as required for khyal, or more aggressively, like pakhawaj, for the accompaniment of dhrupad or kathak dance. Ram Sahai developed a new way of fingering the tabla strokes; especially important is the sound Na, being played with a curved ring finger to allow for maximum resonance of the dahina. He also composed numerous compositions within existing compositional forms (gats, tukras, parans etc.) and created new forms, such as uthan, Benarsi theka, and fard.
Sharda Sahai was the 5th generation of tabla players in the family. Sanju Sahai, also known as Vishnu, is the current Head of the Benaras Gharana and represents the 6th generation and is one of the most sought after Tabla players of his generation. Both are the direct descendents of Ram Sahai.
Today, the Benares tabla gharana is well known for its powerful sound, though Benares players are also very capable of playing delicately and sensitively. The gharana is categorized into the Purbi (eastern) baj, which includes the Farukhabad, Lucknow, and Benares gharanas. The Benares style makes use of the more resonant strokes of tabla, such as Na (played on the lao), and Din. Benares players preferentially use the full-hand TeTe strokes, rather than the single finger alternation preferred by the Delhi style, though both stroke types are integrated into the Benares baj repertoire. Benares tabla players are successful in all forms of tabla playing, including tabla solo, instrumental, vocal, and dance accompaniment.
The Tabla solo is highly developed in the Benares gharana, and some artists, such as Anokhelal Mishra (disciple of Bhairow Prasad Mishra of 4th generation), Kishan Maharaj, and Pandit Samta Prasad, have become famous as tabla soloists. The direct descendants making up the 6th generation of tabla players are Chandra Nath Shastri (disciple of Anokhelal Mishra), Ramji Mishra (son of Anokhelal Mishra), Mahapurush Misra, Ishwarlal Mishra (alias Lallu), Chhotelal Misra, Radhakanta Nandi, Kashinath Mishra (son of Anokhelal Mishra), Bityut Banerjee, Deepak Sahai, Sanju Sahai and Shiv Sahai. The 7th generation consists of Kumar Bose (disciple of Kishan Maharaj), Aditya Sahai, Krishna Sahai and Shubham Sahai.
The Benares baj makes use of over twenty different compositional types, and has an enormously varied repertoire of each type.
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