Stories From The Field

Meet Satyaprakash Mishra, tabla artist, and disciple of
Benaras Gharana doyen, Pt. Kalinath Mishra

Satyaprakash Mishra

You are part of a lineage of musicians. What was the beginning of your artistic journey like? What influenced you to pick tabla in particular? Was there a specific turning point when you chose to devote your life to music?

My whole family is from Banaras, Varanasi, and we have one house in Varanasi and one house, two hours drive from there. We have a whole bungalow with agriculture farms out there, trees and everything. My dada-ji, my grandfather and my uncles — my dad is the sixth one in the house — are all singers. But when my Dad used to sit for riyaz with his father, he never used to do singing, he used to sing rhythms. So my uncle, who was the elder one in the house, said, I think he’s going to be a rhythmist. Why not give him something? So he got a small tabla and that’s how he started. So his first guru was his own brother, and then his brother in law, his sister’s husband, Pandit Mishra Ji, who is a renowned tabla player. And then he went to Pandit Kishan Maharaj-ji.

He struggled for 10 years to learn from him. Earlier, it was Gurukul panditi, Gurukul systems, Guru shishya Parampara. So all Pandit Kishan Maharaj-ji’s students, they used to go stay with him, and they used to do 10 hours of riyaz. They had a system: three hours now, then a break, then go, everyone will clean the house, then everyone will feed parrots, then they’ll go shoot, he had three guns, he was a king. Then they’ll come back, they’ll do two, three hours riyaz, then Maharaj-ji will get ghee oil, cashews from his house, and they’ll feed him. And then again, three hours. And then at night, everyone needs to massage their guru. That’s what their routine was for, like 5-10 years.

My dad couldn’t do that much. Because when he started learning, he was married. He was in Mumbai. But Kishan Maharaj-ji used to teach him on phones, one to two hours. And then my dad used to go to Banaras as well, once in two months for like 10 days. So that’s how they used to learn.

Then, he went to play with kathak dancer Sitara Deviji. Sitara Deviji took him because she used to call my grandfather, brother. She used to tie rakhi to my grandfather. So she said to my Dad, play with me. And that’s how he started his career. And then in Varanasi, the newspaper people wrote, that Padit Kishan Maharaj-ji’s] disciple played really well. And that’s how, in front of the news media, he accepted him as a student. That was totally dramatic. So that’s his story.

Now, I’ll come to my story. When I started, I used to play tabla since I was three or four, and I had interest, but I never thought I’m going to become a tabla player. I used to think, Oh, my father is a big shot, of course, I’m going to get work and stuff. But I was really introverted and I never thought I’m going to be an artist, I never had any goal in my life. Because we Indians, we process a little differently. We come from a very middle class family so we didn’t have that thought process, to have a career or anything. In India generally, we live with our families, till 20,21, 22. Now, everything has changed, of course, but in that day, no one used to say, what are you going to do?

So that’s how my career started. I got admission in two big colleges in Mumbai, because of my tabla. In academics, my percentage was 72%, and the cut-off was 90-95%. I couldn’t even imagine going to those colleges, but I gave an audition and they selected me in the music program. Then once I got into my college, then I understood what tabla is. And I met Zakir Hussain-ji, who is very good friends with my dad, and he said, Hey, do you do riyaaz? I was like, no. He said, you have your father, you have Saraswathi. Just value art. Why don’t you value it?

I never thought I’m going to make a career. And when even when I started my career, as I said, how, why did I start? My first show was in NCPA [National Centre for Performing Arts]. There were like 1500 people. And my name was announced and they were clapping for me and then from there onwards, you know? Yeah, it was a little bit easy for me because the platter was there. As I told you, I was in greed of name. People should roar. People should clap. I got into that greed of having a name onstage. You know, people shouting for me, people loving me. I never thought about money. I always thought, people should know who Satyaprakash is. I never thought of money. Still, I don’t think of money.

And when I met your Guruji, he is a gem. After seeing his dance, I was like, oh my god, a 70 year old man is doing this. Why can’t we do this? But everyone has their own body. Everyone has their own limitations. Everyone has their own luck. There are ten lakh tabla players in India, in the whole world, I think right now. Even in America, there are good tabla players, everyone plays tabla. But understanding music, understanding dance, understanding vocals, and understanding solo playing are all different aspects. My Dad says tabla players should know char mukh – four directions: tabla soloist, playing with dance, playing with instruments, playing with vocals. You should know all the four genres. In a way, you can say it was knowing that, and my luck that took me ahead.

Your Guruji, Chitresh Uncle, found something in me. [In 2014], my Dad was supposed to go to London with Chitresh-ji and his tour, Yatra. But he had a clash, he had to cancel his visa, and so Chitresh-ji said, I’ll take Satya [instead], and that’s how my luck changed. I learned tayari and upaj from my dad, of course. But being with Chistresh-ji, my whole perspective of tabla changed. I learned a lot. Of course, my guru, my parents, I can say they are everything behind me, but I always say that he changed my life. Yeah, he changed my life.

So even though you were very well connected, both in India and the United States in different ways, you weren’t solely reliant upon the name. You were still maintaining your own riyaz, your own abilities to succeed. During your time as a student, what kind of work went into your training? And how did that change as you moved into your early years as a career artist?

I really miss those days. What happens is, when you’re a student, you’re no one. When you come on stage, you’re everything. People start knowing you.

My schedule then was college, three hours riyaz, lunch, three hours riyaz in evening, a little bit of walking and then again at night. When you’re a student it’s amazing that you don’t have to earn, you don’t have to pay bills. You just sit. It’s madness. My three years from 10th grade to my 13th grade or 14th grade was amazing, you know. Six hours minimum riyaz and sometimes I don’t touch the tabla. It should be like that.

The first thing a musician has to do is sacrifice his life. I have not been to my relatives’ weddings for the last 15 years, because all the marriages are very far away.I don’t have good friends. I’ve made people in my life, but I never went for a coffee, or for a party or anything, you know, with my friends, because I didn’t have time. I was doing my practice. That’s what I sacrifice.

When I started my career, I used to be like a monkey, oh, five minutes here, 10 minutes here. There’s a stage of a musician: monkey, and horse. Now I’m at the horse stage until I’m 50. And after 50 is going to be elephant. Because after 50 years you start understanding. When you become a [professional] musician, things are different, because it’s my bread and butter. The riyaz has to be there and shouldn’t go off. It is there. But it is less.

And now of course you know I’m a business minded person. So then your bills screw you up. And also you have your commitments. So, a student is waiting for you or a dancer is waiting for you or a musician is waiting for you. They have to rehearse or they have to do class so you cannot say, no class today because I want to do my riyaz.
So now that six hours has become two or three hours. But when I get time, a real musician should feel guilty when he misses riyaz. That’s what a true musician is.

Even when I’m on tour, I’m doing my riyaz, either in the morning or evening, whenever I get time. A musician shouldn’t catch that “I only want to become a soloist”. You have to be prepared for your solo, but you cannot feed your family being a soloist. Because, you know, you’ll get a show in a month.

What is unique to your journey in establishing yourself as a successful artist, straddling a career that spans both India and the United States?

It is quite difficult to establish a foreign art form in some other country, but the love we, as artists, receive for sharing our time, it’s more [in other countries?] than anywhere else. I’ve been to Japan and China, and we had like 2000-3000 people in the audience. And they saw our value there. They wanted to touch us and they just felt happy. I have performed so many shows in the US, and it’s always a full house. That aura is something else, you know, that music is something else and we love what we get in different countries. Of course it is difficult to get things established. And once it gets established everything needs its time.

In India, there’s tons of musicians. So it’s difficult here. But due to my father, and due to the fact that I play a little well, I have a good name. People say good things about me because my art is such and I’m not a big maestro or anything. I play whatever I can play. But, I also have limitations. Ustads also have limitations. Pandits also have their limitations. So everyone has their own limitations.

India has given me a name through which I could be known. Everyone knows me everyone knows that I play. And everyone is happy with my playing. No bad comments yet. But playing in America, it’s helped me a lot. I respect people abroad because they give us per diems, two rehearsals which equals two per diems, which is okay. In India, they don’t want to give time. And they want 10,000 rehearsals on different days. I say, give us a nominal amount. Pay us for five hours. We’ll sit for nine hours. We want good music.

Performing in the US, of course, there’s a difference, because we fly 24 hours to go there. So our charges are different. We get different respect out there. And of course, when we come abroad, we charge a little bit more. For example if I charge $300 in India, I will charge $500 there, which is I think worth it because I’m coming all the way from India. More than money, I got to work with different music, like jazz in SPEAK. So I really thank Rina and Rachna that they believed in me, and I could give good music along with Jayanta da and Debashish da. He’s no more and we miss him of course.

In most careers, professionals receive stable incomes along with benefits like health insurance and retirement savings. Of course, this is not true in the arts, and many artists live from one concert to the next without a regular salary. How do you go about preserving the integrity of your artistic practice while sorting out those financial necessities?

I’ll be very frank, I got my platter ready. Not many musicians are lucky.

You know, you need to make more students, instead of hunting for shows. You need to make more students and you have to have 10 to 15 artists fixed with whom you’re playing regularly.

I can be busier if I start charging less. I’m charging more compared to others in Mumbai, but i don’t care. I mean I’m very happy with limited work but when Corona came, shows got cancelled, my two tours got cancelled, big tours, SPEAK — what to do?
Then my God helped me and I think my people helped me. You need to have good people. I have good work. I’m very happy.

A musician, whether dancer or anyone, they need to save. Wearing 10,000 rupees kurta is of no use. To be a tabla player I need to have magic here in my heart. Not on my kurta. For a dancer, you need to have good clothes, but not expensive. If you’re looking handsome, you do a little makeup, your dance speaks everything. Why do you want it to have that much expense? A musician should work smart.

I could make it through my classes and my shows. And, I mean, God helps, you know, you trust that Saraswathi, Lakshmi will come behind. That’s my logic. That’s my simple logic. You respect Lakshmi. And do this, you start seeing your bells like God. You have to feel it. You cannot say “let’s try to do it. Let’s try to evolve”. It comes from within. The inner magic.

Can you speak to the current state of financial support systems for Indian classical arts, especially comparing United States versus India?

Financial support in India is like, there is a group-ism here. Sure, the banks and some tea companies like HP, Hindustan petroleum, or some gas company, will sponsor, but there are only five to six events, which they’re going to sponsor. For a classical event, the auditorium is going to charge you one lakh rupee, which is like $1700. The tickets will be expensive because they have to be expensive, because the organizer needs to compensate for that, and then no one comes.

Even now in India, if there are 10,000 sponsorships in a classical event, they will be either for Zakir-ji, or for Kishan Maharaj-ji, or Rashid Khan-sahib. Only big names get that. Youth will get shows, which will be seen by big artists, but no money. A big artist is getting like $10,000 , and the same show pays a young artist $200. But those big artists are doing the same taal since 15 years. So the art itself is not innovative. It’s just the name you’re paying for.

There’s this contrary idea that venues or organizers say, Okay, what are your rates? You know, what do you charge to be the musician? But how often do we as musicians get to ask them what their budget is? So that we can judge for ourselves, however much their budget is. Or if you’re a soloist tell the organizer. You know what? I’m going to charge this much. That’s it.

When you go to the mall, they have the tags, $30 pant, $50 t shirt. Do you bargain with them? Then why are you bargaining with us? When you go into the mall, do you ever ask “who made this?What materials?”You’re getting that diamond ring for like $15,000. The person who made it must have got $300 or $200. Can you imagine? So this is the problem.

You’re almost teaching a lesson for other artists as well. If I’m charging $500, and the person who’s booking me gets to know that another tabla player is charging $200 0r $250, he’ll go to that person. So musicians need to know that, and not spoil the market. We musicians don’t care about money. We want to enjoy music. We want to get energy. But here nowadays it’s always about money. How much are you going to charge? Oh, can you do this much? Sometimes musicians who are sitting on the same rug, they’re gonna sit and compete with each other. This is stupidity. Why do you want to compare your budget or your art with the next person? Do you really know where you are? Where you stand?

What do you believe is our collective responsibility to improve the field of the arts for future generations?

First of all, future generation, along with their parents need to have patience. First, entering a school: Do you ask, “Are you guaranteeing my son will be an MBA graduate by this age?” Do I know that if I’m sending my son or daughter to school, is she going to be an engineer? Then how can you ask a kathak dancer, “will my son or daughter have a future?” This is a very big thing. I can not make a student an artist until unless they have patience. Let him come get friendly with the tabla, with the teacher, with the ghungroos. First, let that student, be friendly to that. Let him understand where he or she is, then think about future.

Secondly, teachers also need to be patient and need to change their way of teaching. In one year, can you understand whether this guy or this girl is going to stay with you and learn? But after one year, if a student is not capable and not interested, do you think that student should stop learning? Yes! I ask my students after they start, you don’t seem interested. We can talk to your parents and we can stop, you can take a break, you give them an option. If they accept that option is accepted, never take the student back. But if he’s going on, don’t give him a break. Give him support. Someday he will he will shine.

Earlier, it was easier because the competition was not that much. Twenty years back it was only five, six tabla players, Anindo Chatterjee, my dad, Fazal Qureshiji, who is Zakir-ji’s brother, is another league, and Zakir-ji, of course. My father, he learned of course, he learned from his Guruji till his 40s. Many gurus never used to give, they wanted their students always to be down and not to come up, you know, but many were like Pandit Kishan Maharaj-ji, their policy was if you want to make a name, you play shows but you create students, too.

In your ideal world, what would fair compensation for the arts then look like? What would financial support systems or even financial freedom for artists that look like?

I cannot see like that because I never thought about it. But a basic thing would be that first of all, I would sponsor artists. I would have some pension plan for musicians that pass exams. There should be a proper system for weeding out the bad, so that the people who should earn financial compensation are earning it. There should be exams, and there should be funds for musicians. There are many good tabla players who are young, who are 20, 21. I’m 29. There are 15 year old kids who are playing awesome. That does not mean they are masters. Spending time on stage is also something which we call experience. You need to respect that time which an artist has spent absolutely. First of all, have grades for musicians and according to that, each musician should get some amount so that they can support their family and they don’t have to think about doing 10,000 recordings or shows or classes.

A very basic thing is money. If you have money, if you’re supported, you can do anything, anything. Secondly, there should be people,We are artists. We sit in the house, we do our riyaz for six, seven hours, and we don’t get paid. That is for us, that is for our own satisfaction. But when we show this art to 500 other people, we expect something. We expect love, affection, respect, and of course a certain amount of money. We don’t really need one lakh two lakhs in Indian money, that’s about $2,000 or $4,000, for solos. We expect a certain appreciation because we are not asking that.
If you call me for a show, I do like 10 hours of rehearsal for a solo. For a production, it’s more, we are spending like 20 to 30 hours in rehearsal, sometimes nine hours in a day. And people know that. So, we expect people to support us with all the aspects. It’s not only money, it’s everything.

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