Sitting Down With: Pandit Vikash Maharaj and Prabhash Maharaj PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Arun Deva   

Continuing a Tradition of Musical Families

FOR MANY IN THE YOGA community, an introduction to classical Indian music comes through joining in a kirtan and feeling the bliss, devotion and energy of this call-and-response musical form. This participatory spiritual group musical experience is one facet of Indian music. Throughout the centuries Indian music evolved from a simple village genre, to a genre of spiritual ballads called bhajan, then to complex classical compositions known as raga.

In India, these musical traditions have been passed down within generations of families across centuries in lineages or schools known as gharanas. Within these, masters have repeatedly performed the music composed by their grandmothers and grandfathers while also introducing contemporary improvisation and innovation.

Pandit of the Banaras Gharana who began his training on the tabla (a pair of hand drums) and later studied and became an internationally-lauded master of the sarod. Along with the sitar, the stringed sarod is one of the most ubiquitous instruments of North Indian music. Its deep introspective sound creates its signature ambiance, both melodic and healing. The complex instrument contains between eighteen and nineteen strings, some of which are played directly with a coconut shell pick, some of which provide a drone and some of which vibrate sympathetically.

While sarod maestro Pandit Vikash Maharaj is passionate about the classical traditional music of North India, he also played his own compositions, and has been a featured artist at international crossover festivals such as WOMAD. He has performed internationally with musicians from a variety of genres ranging from classical Indian to modern American jazz. He and his son Prabhash Maharaj, who accompanies him on tabla, are frequent visitors to Southern California, and have entranced many with their hypnotic and healing vibrational melodies. In addition to his musical work, Vikash Maharaj is a founding member and supporter of the nonprofit People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights,which works to eliminate exploitation.

Pandit Vikash Maharaj & Prabhash Maharaj
Pandit Vikash Maharaj & Prabhash Maharaj

In-between Yoga studio gigs on their recent foray throughout California, the father and son musicians took some time to talk toArun Deva about family bonds, music, theraga of desire, Tantra and hope.

Arun Deva: One of the threads that runs through and holds your family together is music. You are from a lineage, or gharana who has been continuously studying and playing music for fifteen generations. I recently had the pleasure of visiting you in your home at Varanasi where it was so encouraging to see your closely knit family. I am sure there is good a reason for that! Can you tell us what it means to be in such an illustrious gharana?

Vikash Maharaj: Gharana means that the mother’s side and father’s side both belong to the music family traditions of India. I am fourteenth generation, so my sons are fifteenth generation. It comes from son to son.

AD: And daughter to daughter?

VM: Yes, when a girl is born the girl also becomes an artist and continues the tradition.

AD: Prabhashji, I was amazed at how close you and your two brothers are. The relationship between your whole family is so beautiful. It reminded me of my childhood because I grew up in a joint family with cousins, yet I saw them as brothers and sisters. The world we know today is so very different. Do you feel you and your brothers will continue this tradition solely for the sake of tradition, or because your heart calls you to continue it?

Prabhash Maharaj: It’s a tricky question, because you never know what will be happening next. At the moment, as you saw, my brothers and I are like three bodies and one soul. I believe as long as we are in tradition and following our gharana we need each other. As soon as we forget our culture to follow some other tradition, it’s not going to be long-lasting. But now, yes, I believe we are going to be together all the time.

AD: Panditji, You are from a gharana that plays tabla, but you decided to play the sarod; now one of your sons plays the sitar, another son is continuing the tradition with the tabla and the third one is going to be a great vocalist. How does that change the tradition of the gharana or is the importance of the gharana that everyone play music?

VM: In my family, artists are not only tabla players; there is the greatest vocalist from India, and a famous kathak dancer also: vocal, instrument and dance, all three are there.

AD: Prabhashji, are you playing tabla because you feel you need to continue the tradition of your family or is this your choice?

PM: When I was two years old I started with my grandfather who wanted me as a tabla player, but when I was six or seven and I could think on my own, the tabla was still there with me. So truly, I don’t have any option to go anywhere. If you are living with someone, if you keep living with them you eventually have to fall in love with him or her. Same has happened with me now; I have masters’ degrees in music and sociology, but tabla is everything for me.

AD: I think you just described the perfect formula for making a relationship last. That may explain why your family is so tightly-knit. Pandit-ji, please explain what a raga is.

VM: Raga describes certain notes. Between the seven notes we take the major and minor notes and from there we are changing the mood and timing. If I use the minor notes that are going to the morning, where I use the major notes they go to the evening. We call each a half-part of the raga. We make two parts of the raga: uttarana and puravana. From there we are changing the notes and defining the raga.

A raga is like the structure of the seven chakras [energy centers] in the body.

Seven notes are there; if we little bit change the chakra to bigger, it is like a chumbak, a magnet. Which is stronger? Which of the chakras is stronger will try to pull. We put minor notes on that point, to see which one is stronger. Is the musical note re stronger or the note sa? Which one is pulling to his side? So the chakras are trying to pull in this way, and the note re is pulling in his way, and the note ga is pulling in his way, and then the body is shaking so strongly, as if it is asking, which way should I go? The raga is like this.

AD: It sounds like you just described the physics of desire.

VM: [Laughs] Yes I think so. It is important why people are singing. One specific raga I may love so much but everybody’s temperament is different. If we are four persons sitting here, everybody favors different notes. As a musician, I have to choose to go towards everybody’s soul, everybody’s chakras.

AD: Raga has been defined as desire. Why do you think that is? Is that valid?

VM: My teacher has explained to me that raga is the part of the body, the part of nature, the part of the atmosphere which you are carrying within you and which you have to bring out. You can play and if you feel happiness,peace, healing – that is the music. But music you cannot explain fully with words. If you go in the village, and one man isplaying bansuri [flute], even he does not know which note he is using. He is a simplemusician. But you are struck, “Oh my God,how beautifully he is playing!” Real musiccan stop you, shock you. It is like a wonderin front of you.

AD: People come from your concerts telling how moved they were. So, when you say, raga means desire, are we not referring to raga as something which evokes emotion?

VM: Yes. During our performance we always use the nine moods.

AD: Could you describe these nine moods?

VM & PM: Yes, krodha (anger), karuna (compassion), happiness, surprise, excitement, weeping, shyness, softness and hardness. These nine moods you have to show in the music to fulfill the raga.

AD: Prabhash-ji, when you play, you are keeping a beat, a count. I know that sixteen is very often the count. While you are keeping count, are you also feeling the emotions you are creating in the music?

PM: Yes I do, but there are so many things to say. There are three types of performing I do: tabla with kathak dancers, with instruments, or with a vocalist. While I’m performing with kathak dancers I do not have time to put my emotions in it. You have to play just rhythm, just beat; just go with the counting. While I’m performing with my father I can give my all emotion to my tabla playing. Sixteen beat is a very common beat. It’s one of the very difficult taals (rhythms) to compose but normally people understand the sixteen beats. So I do give it all my emotion. Without emotion there is no music.

AD: Pandit-ji, I’m going to go back to the concept of family bonds: how close they are and how inspirational. I know this sense of closeness has carried through many generations in your family. Do you see this tradition continuing in other gharanas?

VM: Ah, this is a very nice question and very hard also, because we are going into the twenty-first century. There are a lot of changes in the gharanas. Many gharanas are breaking down in Varanasi because of the children’s natures; they are looking just for money. It is very difficult to feed the family with no money. If there’s no food in the stomach there is no tradition, no devotion, there’s nothing. If there is food in the stomach, everything is there. The whole world is happy.

PM: Before they had court musicians and the kings were feeding them and their family, and paying them to keep the tradition alive and sing at the court. Here our governments, not only the Indian government, any government, are not supporting musicians.

AD: Does this imply one of the reasons the gharanas managed to flourish in the past is due to the royal houses, which no longer exist? Is there a way for you to create your financial future so the gharana tradition can continue?

VM: Yes, that is partly why we are here. We can continue our tradition because we are living on hope. Hope is our biggest power for so many generations.

When I was a kid a word we learned in school was seva, selfless service. Today this word is forgotten. Everybody is looking to money. But money is not important except for security. Like for example, I am just saving for the future… but nobody knows what is in the future! So you are working to collect money, and you lose your family, your tradition, your everything, for that money. And when you need that family, the family is far away from you. Only the money is in front of you. So on one side you are working for the money, and one side you are losing your family and tradition. But we are happy because we still are carrying on the tradition in my family. Now my grandson was born, and he plays sitar.

AD: I take great heart for our future as long as there are families like yours. You mentioned some time ago that fifteen generations is the genealogy you can trace, but that you believe that your ancestry, the history of the gharana itself, goes back at least 2,000 years. What do you base this upon?

PM: We have written the history for fifteen generations, from 1520 in Varanasi where we come from as court musicians. Before that also there were musicians. Sculptures capture everything. At the time of King Ashoka there was the biggest school of music in Varanasi and this school is where we are living now, known as Kabir Chaura. There are sculptures there of Ram, Sita, Hanuman. In the oldest temple, there is a statue of one person playing tabla, another person is dancing and another person is playing another instrument. You can see this in the Sarnath museum. [Just outside Varanasi.]

AD: Lets talk about Varanasi for a moment; it is the home of the Hindu God Shiva and Goddess Parvati, yes?

PM: It is the home of Lord Shiva. The city has so many names and nobody knows how old it is. It is older than the Vedas, and was known then as Kashi. The Vedas were written over 5,000 years ago and already Kashi was there, which is why they say it is the oldest living city. Even then it was a city with all the activities and religions that are here today: the Vedas, music, philosophy, Yoga. Yoga came from Lord Shiva. So yes, it was the city of Lord Shiva. No other city has been described at that time, other than Varanasi.

AD: Shiva is considered the form of God associated with Tantra. Pandit-ji, you have mentioned that every child born in Varanasi is born a tantric, can you please define Tantra?

PM: Tantra means healing. Not only to meditate, but healing everything, healing the atmosphere, the vibrations that surround you. When I am sitting in the Tantra, I can understand all the sounds that surround me. So when I catch these sounds to talk with them, to move with them, that is Tantra.

Tantra is also an instrument. Anything you shape is Tantra. If you keep staying with the same shape a thousand times, that becomes a mantra. Like the phrase, “Om Namah Shivaya.” In Tantra, you create the shape of Om Namah Shivaya, when you create that shape a thousand times it becomes mantra and when you do it a hundred thousand times you get the power of yantra and then you can do anything.

AD: An interesting thing I found out about Kashi when I was there this time is that the Ganges River turns her flow from south to north!

PM: Himalaya is the north side of India. She [the Ganges] comes from the north to the ocean in the south. She comes south through Allahabad, Rishikesh, Kanpur and so on but to get to Varanasi she had to turn to the north, which is unbelievable, and then from Kashi she again turns back to the south!

AD: Why? Do you think she was honoring Shiva?

PM: Yes. Let me tell you the story. Ganga is the older sister of Goddess Parvati. Parvati loved Lord Shiva even though Shiva was supposed to be married to Ganga.

AD: Oh? I’ve never heard this version of the story before.

PM: Yes. When Ganga saw Parvati doing the tapasya [strenuous Yoga] to get Shiva, Ganga ran away from the Earth and climbed to the heavens. Then when King Bhagiratha called her back to Earth she said, “But when I come down, no one will be able to hold me except Lord Shiva!” That way she was able to touch Shiva by coming into his hair. And he is still holding her and letting her come to the Earth from his jatta [matted hair]. This is why Ganga has to come to Varanasi and why she made the turn.

AD: You have generations of music in your family, and I feel that the music keeps you Raga is the part of the body, part of nature, part of the atmosphere which you are carrying within you and which you have to bring out. You can play and if you feel happiness, peace, healing – that is the music. together because it’s in your blood. How important is it to keep the family as a unit?

Raga is the part of the body, part of nature, part of the atmospherewhich you are carrying within you and which you have to bring out. You can play and if you feel happiness, peace, healing – that is the music.

PM: Music is the boundary in my family. When a baby is born everybody is quiet; nobody is making noise. Then that baby is taken to the eldest in the family and in one ear he gives the melody, and in the other ear he gives the rhythm. And only when this is finished that everybody celebrates. The whole neighborhood knows a baby has been born! From birth, we are listening to this music. We know the language of music.

AD: As the elder in the family, it is your responsibility to pass on the tradition. Do you have a particular style of teaching?

PM: There are so many ways to teach the student. If you are a teacher you have to recognize that you are like a father, and to see them as a son or daughter. You don’t have to show as though they are paying you money, and for that you are teaching them. That barrier has to break down.

When a student comes to you like family, you have to give a hug. You have to carry them, teach them how to flow, how to increase themselves. Yesterday I was the student of my teacher, and now I am a performer. Today my student should be as a student, but tomorrow they should come as a performer. I want to be fully open; I want to give however much I have.

AD: This may explain why when I stayed with you I felt so much like a part of your family. I believe your music is magical. Would you explain why people should come to your concerts?

PM: I want to give my emotion, my music, very simply to the audience so they can recognize the society, the culture of the music of India. We want to communicate devotion.

You have seen our relationship on the stage, our playing style, our devotion. We are performing very classical Indian music but also folk music of traditional North India. They should come to hear the originality of Indian music and the power to heal that is has.

AD: What is the connection between your music and Yoga, especially given the fact that you play in so many Yoga studios and so many yogis are so completely attracted to your music? Is it the Yoga of Music that you bring?

PM: Actually we are not saying our music is Yoga. But we are saying that a Yoga is born from our music.

Pandit Vikash and Prabhash Maharaj, their tour schedule and their recording can be found online at: The father and son musicians will be offering the Yoga born from their music at Bhakti Fest, a three-day celebration of music, Yoga and ritual to be held in the desert at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center September 11 - 13:

Arun Deva is an Ayurvedic practitioner, Yoga teacher and proprietor of Arunachala Yoga and Ayurveda; originally from India, he lives and teaches in LA and is an a devotee of the healing power of music:

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