On first death anniversary of my first Tabla Guru, Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the person who had great knowledge of tabla and great love for me and I too for him.
It was a evening in the month of February in 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 tabla maestro Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena is coming to perform and encouraged me to attend. I was very young at that time, but I was learning and playing tabla for more than seven years. My teacher, Mr. Narmada Shankar Bhatt, was a senior disciple of Pandit Saxenaji. I requested my father to take me to festival as it would be great fun.
He took me to the newly opened Jai Shankar Sundari Hall. With great curiousity, I sat in the third row, waiting anxiously for Saxenaji’s turn. He was slated to play two items: the first, with Gujarat’s great vocalist Mr. Rasiklal Andhariya and the second with a sitarist.
When he entered on the stage, I was amazed by his presence and personality. He had a very small frame, nor more than 5 feet in height. He wore a very nice kurta and black koti. I would later learn that the koti 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 vilambhit besides theka. I found this disappointing as I was expecting rolls and powerful drumming. But when madhya laya began with Raag Megh, he played a small composition followed by a gat, which was enough to prove him to be the best student of Ustad Habibuddin Khan. In sitar 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 Ahmedabad after ten days as a judge for the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya competition. I told him proudly that I was participating the same competition.
My father then arrived, did namaskar to Saxenaji and asked him about me. Very humbly, Saxenaji replied, “I will coming to Ahmedabad next week. Then I will get a chance to listen to him and give my remarks.”
With all mood and determination to make him happy in the competition, I returned home with my father and lasting memories of my first meeting with Saxenaji.
What happened next, I write at another time.
Postnote by Divyang Vakil’s Student:
Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena was one of the last Ustads of the Ajrada Gharana. He spent many of his years in the care and service of the great Ustad Habibuddin Khan. 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 of MS University in Baroda, Gujarat. He passed away on November 30, 2007. He continues to live in the memories of his students and through his teachings.