Asian Music and Dance

Zakir Hussain – Speaking a language, telling a story

Zakir Hussain Qureshi is, no equivocation, the most famous tabla player on the planet. And deservedly so. He arrived at that station through a combination of factors. Genes, nurture and nature all played telling roles. Both Zakir Hussain and his father, Alla Rakha Qureshi, belonged to a New Age of tabla musicians for their respective generations. Into the 1950s tabla players had specialised in maybe one category, tending to accompany vocalists, dancers or instrumentalists. Some gave solo recitals, developing reputations beyond tabla circles. Apex musicians both, they redefined tabla style and flexibility. 

Alla Rakha was born in Ratangarh, near Jammu, into a Muslim, Dogri-speaking family. He took 29 April 1919 as his official date of birth. There was no real tradition of making music in the family, past or present. Under the sway of music played by itinerant musicians who blew through his part of pre-partition Punjab, he took off to Lahore to study music. He succeeded in working his way onto All India Radio in Delhi in 1936 and its Bombay station in 1938. In 1943 he left AIR to work in the expanding film industry. As the ‘music director’ A.R. Qureshi, this all-round composer-performer put together the music to forty films. He then renounced this to become a classical tabla player, forming an early association with sitarist Vilayat Khan over a series of 78s and EPs for the Gramophone Company of India. Later, as Ravi Shankar’s right-hand man, he developed a national reputation and came to international prominence following their 1964 breakthrough in Japan. In the forefront of a New Age of Hindustani music, the parallels between his and Zakir’s careers and creative output pile up.

“I was, like, bored.”

Of the five Qureshi children that made it to adulthood – two, Bilquis and Munawar Hussain, did not – all three surviving sons, Zakir Hussain, Fazal Qureshi and Taufiq Qureshi, became acclaimed career percussionists. With a moralistic sleight of hand, daughters Khursheed and Razia were denied the chance to perform music, despite both having an abiding love and deep appreciation of it instilled in them. Razia’s unexpected death brought about a double bereavement, with their father dying a few days later on 3 February 2000. Khursheed heads the London-based Allarakha Foundation with her husband Ayub Aulia.

“…a speed where it was slightly ahead of where my hands were.”

The eldest of the three brothers, Zakir was born in Bombay on 9 March 1951. Tabla was another language to learn and master. “When I first started learning with my father, it wasn’t the tabla that he put in front of me: it was just sit and clap the time and sing the rhythms. That’s what he wanted me to do. For three or four years that’s what I did. From the age of say about 3 to the age of 7, I banged on the tabla a lot without really sifting through all that stuff sitting in my head. But from the age of 7 to 11 or 12, tabla was set aside for that period of time when I was with my father just singing rhythms. I was, like, bored. Why was I doing this? I should have been playing tabla!

“It occurred to me later that he was preparing my brain to be able to think that way, to speak that language, to instantly form sentences and paragraphs and, you know, to write PSs in my head – and get it to a speed where it was slightly ahead of where my hands were.”

In Dayanita Singh’s lost photo-essay book Zakir Hussain (1987) – lost as much of the run was pulped – she quotes Alla Rakha’s words: “From the age of 2 [Zakir] was repeating dhina din taka dhin [bols, rhythmic mnemonics] in perfect rhythm.” “In my early years between the age of 3 and 7,” Zakir recalls, “I must have played six‒seven hours a day. Between the age of 7 and 12 I must have played about three hours a day because school got heavy. That ‘singing lesson’ got in the way. After the age of 12 to maybe about the age of 17 or 18, I probably played about eight to ten hours a day.

“…he found an ally in a teacher by the name of Mr Sharma…”

“Apart from that I used to also go and play for dance classes in India – kathak dance – and I’d go play Bollywood [session] recordings. Those recordings went on all day. So, in the meantime when a violin piece was being organised we, the rhythm players, were at it, just, ‘Hey, listen to this!’ or ‘Play this!’ or ‘What was that you played?’ Stuff was going on constantly.”

At school in the 1960s he found an ally in a teacher by the name of Mr Sharma: “He was my father’s fan so he knew who I was.” He finagled it with the principal, Father Bento, that so long as school assignments went in on time, there would be certain relaxations made. A Dogra connection helped. Shivkumar Sharma had met Alla Rakha early in Sharma’s career and Dogri was their common language. A tabla player in his own right, the rising santoor musician was taking Bombay film session work – this was still pre-Bollywood in terms of nomenclature – to supplement his meagre classical income. Zakir was allowed to leave early. “At lunchtime I’d get out of school. Shivkumar Sharma would drive up in his Fiat. I’m in my shorts and stuff, with my tabla case that I used to bring to class. A canvas tabla case. I’d get into the car with him and go to the Bollywood recordings and play,” he laughs.

“Like any language, it has its grammar.”

A major influence on his development as a musician was recognising that learning drumming also amounted to linguistic studies. Had he seen Hindustani drumming as having a poetry or scansion to it? “For a student or a person who’s been initiated into the learning process of Hindustani drumming from the very beginning it means they have to study its language. So, just as I have learned to express myself in English, I have to learn to express myself in tabla language

“Like any language, it has its grammar. It has its rhymes and it has nouns and pronouns, its adjectives and verbs and all that stuff. In the process, when you learn the language, depending on your involvement as a student of that particular language, you develop your relationship with it. And that relationship, depending on its depth, would allow you to think of that as a basic language to speak in, to use on a surface basis. Or to explore it in its entirety – that means prose and poetry both.”

He pauses. “That’s what happens with the tabla language. When I’m playing tabla and teaching tabla and talking to the students, I’m trying to tell them to think of it as a language. To think of it the same as Hindi or English, Punjabi or Urdu or Farsi. And to try to imagine that, when you’re playing, you’re not playing rhythms and not just playing patterns. You’re composing a sentence. You are writing an essay or forming a paragraph. You’re telling a story in that language and speaking in that way. Or singing a song in that story or reciting a poem in that story in that language.” In essence this is what the musician makes of the potential inherent and stored in the musical narrative. Something similar applies to kathak dance, the etymology of which goes back to the Sanskrit word katha, meaning ‘story’. Music and dance alike can be received, appreciated and judged in terms of eloquence, concision and expression.

“I know that for my father and for someone like Kishan Maharaj [1923–2008] their understanding of tabla language was on all of those levels. With my father it was listening to the beauty of the words and how it’s coming together as a form, how the metre of the line is, and how it rhymes and tells a story. When you listen to somebody like Kishan Maharaj or my father recite, it’s almost like they’re singing or chanting or reciting a poem. Or in some way speaking a language, telling a story, being Shakespearean. Something like that.” He allows himself a personal interjection. “And me, having been my father’s student and being a great fan of Pandit Kishan Maharaj and very influenced in that style of playing, I’m also into expressing tabla as a bona fide language as opposed to ‘scat singing’ or rhythmic phrases.”

If he is listening to one of his own recordings, can he hear, for example, elation or sadness in the particular performance? “Yes, I can. My own, most certainly. But I can tell, especially having studied so many tabla players, what they are thinking at that moment… solo tabla players.” I agree. “…And how they’re seeing a particular conversation. I have listened to fifty to sixty of Ustad Thirakwa Khan sahib’s recordings and most of those recordings have pretty much a similar selection of pieces but every time you notice that there is a difference in the delivery, a difference in the emphasis on particular sections of the phrases. And why is that?

“I’ve learned what might be happening. I can close my eyes and listen to a qāida – a particular theme – being played. In tabla they create a theme and then they improvise variations on that. Your prowess as a creator is seen in your improvising of the theme. I can close my eyes and listen and say: ‘Oh, he didn’t like that.’”

There is an expression concerning imagination, perhaps a close cousin of creativity’s. It says ‘imagination, like a muscle, improves with exercise.’ How does he relate to that proposition? “That would imply to me the possibility that imagination can be put into play at any time. As if it’s a muscle.” It is a deliberate provocation and he knows it. He takes a breath. “For instance, say you’re a writer and you’re going to write a novel. You say: ‘I’m going to go to a cottage by a lake, live there for a month, and every day I’m going to sit with my typewriter.’ You sit there and you look out the window. The lake is there and you’re ready to write. But you’re still waiting for inspiration to hit you. You’re still waiting for something to spark your imagination. It’s not something that you can turn on and off, switch. That’s the way I see it. We believe in India that the knowledge in a teacher’s head is like a fast-flowing river – a very fast-flowing river – and it’s up to the student to get a cup out of it. A cupful or a bucketful, it’s up to the student.”

“…speaking a language, telling a story, being Shakespearean.”

He takes stock. “So, when you say it’s like a muscle I don’t know. To me it’s more like a scent. Sometimes a beautiful lady will go by you and there’s this jasmine scent and it stirs in your memory thoughts of something. It’s a scent of some sort. For me, the imagination is that scent that awakes the wind, the inspiration wind, to ride on, to be able to arrive on, and become. 

“Suddenly some special discussion took place.”

“For me, when I’m playing with, say, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma or I was playing with [sarod maestro] Ali Akbar Khan sahib there was never any prior thought given to what was going to happen on stage. We reacted to each other’s thoughts. Most of it was routine. You do this, I do that. You do that, I do this. But there were passages in the concert where that inspiration wind arrived with that scent and you sniffed it in the air. You both felt it and it happened. Suddenly some special discussion took place. You were both thinking the same thing. You were in total agreement with each other. It was like when you both think of the same thing [he does a pinky swear]. For me, the launching-point of the imagination is like that.”

If the thing that is truly you is the thing you cannot help but do, then you must be in a very good place. Zakir Hussain is in that most exalted place.



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