He haD just boarded the train from Varanasi to Mughalsarai, where a big concert was scheduled, when a conversation with the organisers’ representative left Pt Lachhu Maharaj seething. Even his favourite breakfast of dahi-chiwda didn’t calm him down. The tabla maestro was to play alongside his close friend and iconic vocalist Pt Chhannulal Mishra but he took umbrage at the representative’s behaviour. Till a few decades ago, tabla players were treated as accompanying artistes, but Maharaj was not having any of it. He got off the train in a huff, his tabla bag in tow, and announced that he wouldn’t play at the concert. “He had quite a temper. He was also known to play when he felt like it and if he didn’t want to play, no one could make him,” says Mishra.
The incident took place many years ago but it’s still fresh in Mishra’s mind. “I tried to placate him. I told him the guy was young and naive. Then I pleaded, ‘How will I sing without a tabla player if you don’t come along?’ Not only was he one of my closest friends, his tabla strokes, that theka — powerful when needed and delicate when required — was one of a kind. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s only because of you that I’m coming,’ and climbed up just as the train was pulling out of the platform,” says Mishra, recalling his long-time associate. Maharaj succumbed to a heart attack in a private nursing home in Varanasi in the wee hours of Thursday morning. The funeral was held at Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi. He was 72 and is survived by his wife and daughter, both of whom live in Switzerland.
Born in Varanasi, Maharaj trained under the Banaras gharana and began performing at an early age. At the age of 8, when he was performing in Mumbai, Ahmad Jaan Thirakwa, the man whose name was synonymous with tabla, had said, “Kaash Lachhu mera beta hota (I wish Lachhu was my son)”. Despite playing the purbi ang, Maharaj could play the styles of all four tabla gharanas.
He may have been a technically brilliant tabla player, but Maharaj didn’t find much fame in his lifetime. In fact, it was his namesake, the older Lachhu Maharaj — noted Kathak dancer and tabla player, Birju Maharaj’s uncle and the choreographer behind dance sequences in films such as Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah — who found much more attention and adulation.
“He refused to bow down to accompanying folk and light music. He also didn’t accompany other artistes too much. But there are very few artistes who were, and are, as technically sound as him. Not even one-fourth of a beat would go unnoticed,” says Mishra.
During the Emergency, Maharaj played the tabla inside the prison as a mark of protest. He also steadfastedly refused all awards bestowed upon him, including a Padma Shri and many state awards. “Applause from the audience is any artiste’s prize. He/she does not need anything else,” he would often say.
Though he accompanied many artistes in the course of his career, it was in his solo performances that Maharaj really sparkled. He would sit with his tabla, smoke a chillum for the first few minutes and then embark on a session that would last several hours. Thumri exponent Girija Devi, whom he accompanied on stage on a few occasions too, remembers his solo performances. “What was interesting was that in all those hours, there would never be any repetition. He would keep showcasing new gats, tukras and parans (compositional forms) for all that time, leaving his audiences mesmerised,” she says.