Music on his mind

Shubhangi Moharir
Friday, 15 December 2017

We caught up with tabla guru Shantilal Shah, who accompanied Pt Rajan and Sajan Mishra at Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav on Wednesday

Shantilal Shah, the noted tabla exponent, is a classic example of how one’s passion, dedication and hard work can make one’s dream come true. Born in Benares to Gujarati parents, all he knew and wanted to do since the age of 6 was to play the tabla.

His father wasn’t keen on him pursuing it though. “My father wanted me to become a businessman but that was not to be,” he says smilingly. 

The passion for the art made him leave his home in 1981 and he feels it was his good luck that he met all the right people at the right time in his journey of life.

He managed to learn from Pt Mahadeoprasad Mishra which laid a strong foundation for the artist in him. After providing accompaniment to vocalist Alka Deo Marulkar for her concerts, he came to Pune. “Here, I got to meet many prominent artists who provided me constant encouragement and support but hearing Pandit Suresh Talwalkar’s solo tabla on radio made me decide to learn from him,” he recalls. 

Between 1985 and 1998, Shantilal mastered his art under the tutelage of Panditji, in the guru-shishya tradition. “I stayed with him and it was just riyaaz from morning to night. Imbibing all the Indian values and discipline have made me what I am today,” he admits humbly. 

He also taught for 10 years at renowned Kathak dancer Shama Bhate”s institute Naadroop, thanks to her unflinching support and encouragement.

As luck would have it, his good friend and tabla player, Pt Vijay Ghate recommended his name to teach at the Pt Jasraj School of Music in Tampa, Florida. Later, in 2003, Shantilal moved to Houston to start his tabla classes. “I began with 10 students and today that number has reached 100,” he says. 

The interesting fact is that till date he follows the guru-shishya way of education. “I didn’t have to make a deliberate effort to do it, this is the only method I know,” he says honestly. “I learnt in the same way and am just passing on all the values, discipline and culture to my students. Values can’t be separated from culture in the Indian way of life,” he adds.

Shah believes in teaching with a lot of fun while following discipline and rigorous training. “I make my students play the tabla non-stop for 15 minutes with me. I also try to give them a visual interpretation of the bol or rhythmic word syllables through hand gestures. The most important thing I stress on is that they have to learn the syllables orally and not write them down,” he explains. Repetitive recitation translates into their perfectly playing the tabla.

Shah’s bond with his students coupled with his play way method of teaching and non-commercial attitude, have earned him lot of respect from both students and parents. In fact, students come from far and wide to learn from this Guruji, as he is fondly called. He also has an American student Jason Zinn who is staying with him and has dedicated himself to the art. The students and parents’ love for him is evident on the web portal tablahouston.com, which they have created. They also organise events like Laya Taal sadhana and Ghar Baithak, which provide an opportunity for the students to understand the different dimensions of the tabla as an accompanying instrument as well as for solo playing.

Shah’s unorthodox style of teaching has earned him tremendous respect in Houston. Little wonder then that he got a chance to perform with the Houston Grand Opera for their East west theme. His talent also found him a place in a short Hollywood film, Dancing In Twilight. 

This unassuming artist wants nothing more in life as long as he gets to play and teach his dear students his favourite instrument and that is the reason he was in Pune to accompany the wellknown artist duo of Pandit Rajan-Sajan Mishra at the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav on Wednesday.

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