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In 1992 I wanted to run tabla classes in Oxford. I knew Hélène La Rue, curator of the musical collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and approached her for help in finding the right kind of venue for them. In response Hélène told me “you get the classes started and then we’ll move you to the Pitt Rivers Museum”. I was very happy because soon the location for my tabla classes was no longer a shut-down Jericho pub where I had started that same year but the prestigious Balfour building.
Many times I was able to invite Pandit Sharda Sahai from London to share the teaching with me – one of the best tabla teachers in the world and a well respected tabla player.
The Balfour building was a beautiful and remarkable place for tabla classes. Sometimes we ran more than one class simultaneously. I remember that we sat between glass exhibition cabinets. Also I recall an occasional Eskimo in a canoe wearing furs and wraps and collections of stone weapons and such like. Sometime later our classes were held just outside the music makers gallery, where the gamelan classes took place – the mixture of tabla and gamelan sounds is an unforgettable memory.
From time to time we arranged small performances for Hélène, when Indian dancers and singers came to visit Sharda-jee (Sharda Sahai) from his home city of Benares. It was wonderful for the musicians too to be able to go back to India and say they had performed here in Oxford. We also provided occasional tabla workshops for Hélène in the museum.
It was entirely due to Hélène that Sharda-jee gave a solo performance on tabla in the Ashmolean museum in July 1999. It was part of a series of concerts from around the world. There were i think five. They were early evening performances.
I told Hélène about my video script “Play Tabla” and she put me in touch with the Educational Technology Resources Centre - University of Oxford and amazingly she got funding from Oxford University for our project and so with this and other funding we "the group" were able to proceed with filming, editing and producing the video with the ETRC. This has been a very successful educational publication and I have met people who have learnt to play tabla through this video.
Hélène was wonderfully dedicated to us and made me and Sharda-jee feel quite special. On the few occasions when we couldn’t run the classes at the Balfour building, she insisted on us crowding into her tiny office, which was an Aladdin’s cave of all kinds of musical things. Our tabla group, which she named the Pitt Rivers Tabla Group, was sometimes quite large and sometimes quite small, and it usually met weekly from noughth week until 9th week in term time, until it sadly ended in 2008.