To hear Kishan Maharaj or his contemporary Ustad Alla Rakha play tabla – the two-piece hand drum now synonymous with the Hindustani art music of northern India – meant you knew you were in the presence of musical giants. It would be difficult to overestimate Maharaj's reputation as the living embodiment of the Benares style of tabla playing.
Through accompanying the sarodist Ali Akbar Khan and sitarist Ravi Shankar during the 1950s, Chatur Lal was the first maestro to introduce the tabla's polyrhythms and cross-rhythms to non-Indian circles. Lal died tragically young and, as the appetite for Hindustani music grew, Kishan Maharaj, followed by Alla Rakha and Shanta Prasad, took the tabla message into the wider world, especially at the height of the "sitar boom" of the 1960s. Many listeners were first attracted to Hindustani music through the exceptional potency of its rhythmicality.
Kishan Maharaj was born into a lineage of hereditary tabla players belonging to the Benares school of playing. Knowledge was handed down across the generations and some of it was jealously guarded. Tabla compositions from the innermost sanctum could serve as dowry. Kishan's father, Hari Maharaj, taught him initially for some three years, and the boy developed a prodigious ability to memorise and replicate on tabla what he had heard his father play. On Hari's death, his childless brother Kanthe adopted Kishan and, aged six, he began formal tuition with his uncle.
While still a lad, Kishan Maharaj began performing professionally. "Music was the only education allowed in my family," he once remarked. That education stood him in good stead. He accompanied many of the tradition's greatest singers of recent times, including Faiyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Bhimsen Joshi and Girija Devi, in a style that was subtle and unobtrusive. The same applied to his accompaniments for Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar and the fêted dancer Birju Maharaj.
The magazine Roots once described Maharaj as the "fearsomely talented tabla maestro" and his death ends a chapter in Hindustani music. Fortunately, much of his musical legacy is preserved. He can be seen in action in the films Banaras Utsav (2003), with the flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia in Maestros Perform (2006) and with the sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan in When Time Stood Still (2006).
Maharaj toured and recorded extensively. His recorded work appears on the UK-based Navras and Sense World Music labels. Among his currently available releases are When Time Stood Still (2006) with Vilayat Khan, Sympatico (2002) with the santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma and Echoes of Benaras (1991) with his Benares neighbour, the shehnai virtuoso Bismillah Khan. In 2002 Maharaj was awarded India's second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, for his services to the arts.
Kishan Maharaj, tabla player: born Benares, India 3 September 1923; married Beena Devi (one son, three daughters); died Khajuri, India 4 May 2008.