Ustad Zakir Hussain is the last of the great tabla players in
Hindustani music, and the most eclectic in temperament. His father Ustad
Allarakha Qureshi of the Punjab Gharana of tabla and pakhawaj playing of Mian
Kader Baksh composed the music for 34 Hindi films to augment his meagre income
as an accompanist in Bombay, from the late 1940s into the 1950s. He lived in a
modest flat in Mahim, where he taught his sons Zakir, Fazal and Taufiq.
Although all were talented, Zakir was blessed with the most fertile imagination
and the ability to bring alive musical rhythmic ideas in his head flawlessly.
He is the most responsive to rhythms from all parts of the world, from Latin
America to African rhythms and has worked happily with their musicians to
produce sound that may well be called World Music.
Zakir Hussain shot to fame early in life, his mid-twenties. By that time his knowledge of tabla was comprehensive, as an accompanist to instrumentalists, vocalists, dancers, and also gave sparkling, pithy recitals as a soloist. His experience as a “session” musician in Hindi films in his middle to late teens not only brought much needed cash but also widened his experience of playing for various famous music directors of the time.
Nasreen Munni Kabir, a writer on Hindi films based in London has stepped out of her ambit to write his Life in Music, a series of conversations over a longish period. Zakir Hussain is at his most expansive and on occasion, illuminating.
He remembers his time playing in Hindi films with affection. “I must admit those days are a blur now. For two months, I would go to school in the first half of the day, and the second half would find me in some recording studio.”
The sessions began as a pragmatic exercise. His mother needed more money to buy a flat on Nepean Sea Road. His father was on tour abroad. Certain of her son’s talent she spoke to the session musicians she knew in Hindi films to find him work. “And so I ended up playing the tabla on many film songs—songs that were composed by a variety of music directors, including Naushad Sahib, Roshanji, Madan Mohanji and there were others, too. This was sometime in the mid-1960s. I was only a teenager.”
A tabla player must have a prodigious memory to recall seemingly endless rhythm cycles comprising particular sets of beats at varying tempi. Does it usually follow that the same person will have a similar memory for people? Evidently it does in the case of Zakir Hussain.
e remembers his time playing in Hindi films with affection. “I must admit those days are a blur now. For two months, I would go to school in the first half of the day, and the second half would find me in some recording studio. Some of my tabla player friends recognise my playing and try to jog my memory; ‘What about this song? And this? Is this you’?”
He continues, “I can’t remember the songs very well. There was Madan Mohanji’s music in Mera Saaya, S.D. Burman’s Guide and Dr Vidya. There were lots of films in production and I played alongside the session musicians. Many were from Goa. There was Mr D’Costa, Mr. Waghmare, Mr. Fernandes, Goody Seervai and of course young Kersi Lord. He passed away recently. There was also Lala Bhai, Maruti Rao Keer, Karim and Iqbal—they were great players of the tabla, dholak, dholki and other drums, I remember we did not call the musicians by their first name because you showed respect.”
Hindustani music went through a great change after World War II and the partition of India. Patronage for musicians vanished virtually overnight as the zamindari system was abolished and maharajas, rajas and nawabs found themselves in financial straits. The age of leisure and of unearned money was over. Musicians who had mastered the subtleties of their art over a considerable period of time because they (usually) had generous patrons—therefore did not have to struggle for daily bread although almost all had large families to support—were thrown on their own resources. Some were reduced to penury. The music conferences that began after the advent of the public address system in the mid-1920s had also changed the format of raaga music played and sung subsequently.
Each musician had to make their presence felt in the allotted time. The next paid engagement depended on it. The practising Hindustani musician had few options to supplement an uncertain income. They could teach in an institution, work for All India Radio as a staffer or take students (hopefully) from well-to-do families. Arvind Parikh, the sitarist, was from a wealthy Bombay business family. He became Ustad Vilayat Khan’s pupil at a time when he was the rising star of Indian instrumental music and needed the support of students from affluent backgrounds with contacts that would guarantee further well-paid engagements. Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan who had a major role in Zakir Hussain’s life and helped him master the tabla, were not so lucky. They had to go to the USA to change their fortunes.
n the early to late 1950s both played as session musicians and occasionally composed music for Hindi Films in Bombay. Ali Akbar Khan composed the music for Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan and created an immortal melody in the raaga mala format, “Hai Kahin Par Shaadmani,” sung with immense feeling by Lata Mangeshkar. He also played his sarod in the films of Bimal Roy and Chetan Anand. His playing in “O Jaanewale ruk ja koi dam” sung by Lata Mangeshkar, composed by S.D. Burman for Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) is unforgettable, as is his extensive playing in Chetan Anand’s Anjali. Ravi Shankar’s sitar was heard to great advantage in K.A. Abbas’s Munna, and the songs he composed for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (1960) are memorable. Lata Mageshkar’s rendering of “Jaane Kaise Sapnon Mein So Gayee Ankhiyan”, in raaga Tilak Shyam (Ravi Shankar’s own creation) is marvellous.
Thanks to their gifts as soloists and as a duo, they took America by storm. Allarakha Qureshi, with his vast knowledge, mastery of technique and patient, accommodating nature proved to be an ideal accompanist to both. It was a matter of time before young Zakir Hussain travelled to the US to serve a fruitful apprenticeship under both masters and, on his father’s retirement, becoming the perfect complement to their rich, diverse playing styles.
The young prodigy’s training under his father was strict yet caring. A man of few words, he would nod in appreciation or utter a good word when Zakir played well in his growing years.
Zakir Hussain’s mother insisted that he study in an English medium school although he started at a madarsa. His knowledge of English paved the way for success abroad, principally in America. The care given him in those early years by Ravi Shankar and, especially Ali Akbar Khan, was indispensable.
he rising young percussionist’s needs were answered unobtrusively. Asked by Nasreen Munni Kabir if the early years of struggle influenced his attitude towards money, he replied simply, “No. I was grateful to do what I was doing. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I got to travel, nobody was watching over me, I did what I wanted, ate what I liked, and when we went on tour, I slept in a room of my own and didn’t have to share it with four others. I had a radio and all that stuff. It was luxury. I got a lot of adulation too. I was content as I am now.”
He recalled that he had memorised most of the Quran, and had become a Hafiz (a title given at the madarsa). Because of his sharp memory he was also asked to recite a fatiha (the opening verse of a prayer). He could read and write Urdu, unlike his father Allarakha Sahib, who could only read the script but not write in it. This was the reason letters from him when abroad were so infrequent and worried his wife so much. He had to find someone who wrote Urdu to dictate a letter! Yet there was a rare oneness between Ustad Allarakha and his wife Bavi Begum and there was a great deal of love for their six children Zakir, Taufique, Fazal, Khurshid, Bilquis and Razia, which then was shared between five surviving siblings in later years; Bilquis died very young.
The young prodigy’s training under his father was strict yet caring. A man of few words, he would nod in appreciation or utter a good word when Zakir played well in his growing years. Dayanita Singh’s book on Zakir Hussain in the 1980s has photographs that prove the point. Allarakha Sahib was proud of his son’s musical achievements and the success that followed. He died at 80—on the same day as his 50-year-old daughter Razia, victim of a botched cataract operation—on February 2, 2000.
akir’s life has taken on the hues of modernity while retaining the traits of a traditional upbringing because of his parents. It was their love and generosity that enabled him to become a world citizen and still retain the best aspects of traditional Indian Muslim culture. He did not pine for home like musicians from an older generation, for example the great Bismillah Khan from Benaras, who singlehandedly made the shehnai a concert instrument. When listeners overwhelmed by his shehnai playing asked him to stay on in New York, Khan Sahib said, “Your city is beautiful and has a river (the Hudson) but it is not the Ganga!”
His cosmopolitanism opened doors for him in America. He had met Toni (Antonia Minnecola) his future wife in 1971 at Ali Akbar Khan’s music college in Los Angeles. He was 20. He remembers: “I could not afford to take her to a nice restaurant, so we went to Jack in the Box and then to Sausalito, about an eight-mile drive from San Rafael. We had ice cream, watched the full moon and walked along the bay. It was a very special evening filled with a sense that something great was making its way into our lives.”
Shakti was an unusual international band formed in the mid-Seventies and in 1975-76 was touring with another group led by Carlos Santana, already a big name in American pop music.
Seven years later, in 1978, they got married. There were three ceremonies: a civil registration, a Catholic wedding, and then a nikah. Toni became Zakir’s sheet anchor. They have been together ever since. They have two daughters Isabella and Anisa, who is married to Taylor Phillips and has a daughter Zara, seen as a toddler standing behind a tabla set with grandfather Zakir Hussain in a photograph from 2016 taken at a workshop in Fairfax, California.
Zakir went with his mother to the Sufi saint Haji Malang’s
shrine, a steep three-hour climb from Malangadd Fort near Kalyan. He was doing
his first chilla at age 16. It is a kind of musical meditation fraught
with its own dangers. But Zakir’s chilla was clearly successful.
(A Sufi-inspired practice of severe penance and solitude, the musician practises the instrument to the exclusion of all else for 40 days, with very little food or rest in an attempt to reach a level of skill impossible otherwise. There is no contact with the outside world.)
When his father, who was abroad, heard of it on his return, he was furious but calmed down after he learnt that Zakir spent hours practising his art. He was even more intrigued when he learnt from Zakir: You know I had this visitation. An elderly gentleman came and recited a rhythmic composition to me.
“I told Abba the composition was clear in my mind and I played it for him.” He was disturbed but asked Zakir to play it again for him which he did.
Allarakha Sahib said, “This is a very old composition. I have not taught it to you, and I know you didn’t know it before. Most of my students don’t know it either. Describe the man to me.” When Zakir described him, his father said, “This composition is by Baba Malang, and your description fits the saint’s description. Maybe you had a visitation from him.”
Zakir Hussain is a man with reverence for music and the spiritual as embodied in all religions. He flies to California every year on Guru Purnima to gather with his father’s students to pay tribute to their teacher Ustad Allarakha. He remembers one such event thus: “There have been times around Guru Purnima that I have gone to sleep and the next day when I wake up, I find a new rhythmic idea has popped up in my head. If belief has a place in your life, you accept, if not, you take it as the inexplicable.”
At the University of Washington, where he was studying and working, he met musicians like Abraham who taught African music, members of the Indonesian gamelan ensemble and others who studied jazz. The experience broadened his mind. He decided to do a second chilla. “I did not see any friends in those days. I taught at the university for about two-and-half hours and spent the rest of the day alone in my apartment. I had to cut off from everything to find my way again.”
Speaking further of the same time, he adds, “I believe that this second chilla gave me a new insight into how I could expand my instrument’s reach. It made me realise that adulation and applause are not the centre of creativity. Being true to yourself and to your abilities, standing behind your efforts without the fear of criticism should be your goal. This unshackling of the mind prepared me for my impending association with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib, Mickey Hart, John McLaughlin and other greats.”
Shakti was an unusual international band formed in the mid-Seventies and in 1975-76 was touring with another group led by Carlos Santana, already a big name in American pop music. Shakti comprised other gifted musicians as well: John McLaughlin (guitarist), L. Shankar (violin) and T. H. (vikku) Vinaykram (ghatam). The group took America by storm with their original sound. It was during this time that he found Armando (Carlos Santana’s percussionist) who played a solo on five conga drums. The experience amazed Zakir. He recalled: “I could see he was not treating the drums as only a rhythmic voice, he was coaxing as many sounds out of them as he could—exploring, cajoling, squeezing…Listening to him was like a symphonic experience in rhythm.”
Accompanist tabla players are chameleons expressing themselves and reflecting the ideas the main artist wishes to convey. If they are successful, they’ll become true exponents of all musical interactions.
Zakir remembers Armando with special affection: “I revelled in the fact that I had found something very special. Armando Peraza made me understand the harmonic and the melodic ability of the tabla. He planted the seed. Isn’t it strange how you have a tradition 10,000 miles away and it somehow fits like a glove with a tradition that belongs to another part of the world?”
He learnt a lot about sound recording as well as projection of sound on the concert stage. He is deeply attached to Shakti and all the members of the group. “The most important fact was that we, the Shakti team, were young enough to allow for musical ‘sacrilege’, and so we could ignore the restrictions imposed on us by our respective traditions in the interest of finding a road towards oneness.”
On the rhythmic tradition in Carnatic music, he says, “The rhythm system in south Indian music is very organised. Every student studies this basic formula that uses maths as the seed idea of improvisation.”
His opinion of rhythm in Hindustani music is different. “Accompanist tabla players are chameleons that are both expressing themselves and reflecting the ideas that the main artist wishes to convey. If they are successful at this, they’ll become the true exponents of all musical interactions.”
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan treated him like a son and he expresses his gratitude for the 10 years he spent with him from age 18 to 28. “I was a very young man, he was about 30 years older, but he treated me as a colleague. How shall I put it? The time I spent with him was special—we played concerts and travelled to many cities. I taught at his music college and when my class was over, I observed him teaching his students. He addressed everyone with respect and made you feel that it was you who was on the higher pedestal.”
Of Ali Akbar Khan’s playing playing Zakir remembers: “I must tell you Khan sahib was a man who rarely practised. [In his formative years he practised 16 hours a day under the vigilant eye of his father Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar]. A trait we all appreciated when he was performing on stage he never felt the need to please the audience.
“The entire musical fraternity around the world, including me, regard him as a musical genius, and I have noticed this about musical geniuses, including Khan sahib—that one day his performance was a sublime experience that would get you talking for the next 20 years, and on another day it was a more ordinary experience. This was simply because he was not worried about tripping and falling on his face. How did that matter?”
akir remembers the great Ravi Shankar thus: “Raviji had found a way to turn Indian music into an entertaining art form. He lit that fire. On stage, you could see his ability to charm. When he and Abba played together, they conversed with each other like two jazz musicians. In earlier times, this was not something that Indian music was all about. It was about the main guy and everyone else just following.”
Pandit Ravi Shankar worked extremely hard to get Indian (Hindustani) music accepted as a serious art form, on par with Western classical music, first in the US, and then the rest of the world.
Zakir Hussain speaks of other great sitarists with deep respect. Ustad Vilayat Khan was a favourite and so was Nikhil Banerjee, whom he calls a genius, albeit a self-effacing one. As for great tabla players, apart from his father whom he reveres, he speaks with humility and respect of Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Pandit Samta Prasad, Ustad Habibuddin Khan and Ustad Ahmedjaan Thirakwa, among others.
Among vocalists he accompanied early in his musical career are Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan, Pandit Jasraj, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (accompanied him as a boy) Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (as a boy). Zakir was an ‘accidental’ accompanist to the incomparable Kathak danseuse, Sitara Devi when just 16.
What makes Zakir Hussain unique? Is it his versatility? Is it his pleasant, helpful nature? His vast knowledge of table technique and the ability to transfer it to his playing? The answer to these questions is a “yes” but there are other qualities as well. He has never tried to trip up an instrumentalist, or vocalist, on stage, unlike some big names from the past. He has always recognised that the concert will succeed only if both of them play as one. He has given his best both to a master artiste and young emerging names.
This is what distinguishes him from fellow tabla players. There have been other excellent players immediately before him. There was Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan of Delhi Gharana, who died of drink and hubris when not quite 50 and, of course, Ustad Nizamuddin Khan, a self-effacing master of maintaining the glow of the rhythmic tempo (laya kilau), and also the left-handed Kumar Bose. But no one displayed such energy, enthusiasm or generosity of spirit.
It has been a richly satisfying life both musically and personally and Zakir Hussain has succeeded wonderfully as an artiste and a family man.