Its been 13 years since the world of music lost tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha Khan. DNA caught up with his son and tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain between preparations for the annual homage on February 3rd. Excerpts from an interview:
Your father elevated tabla from a saath-sangat (accompanying) instrument and brought it centre-stage globally? Have we been able to carry the work of pioneers forward?
When we talk of legends like Pandit Ravi Shankarji, Abbaji, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Sultan Khan saheb we are talking of really tall personalities who were institutions. They braved extreme personal hardships for their art.
As a child I remember accompanying Abbaji to private mehfils in the homes of the ‘beautiful people.’ While they wined and dined, musicians would wait in the kitchen and only come out when summoned. I personally remember bringing back large tiffin carriers with left-over food as honorarium.
From being made to wait in the kitchen to becoming the cynosure of attention and interacting with the who’s who has been a big leap. Music is no longer something that ‘respectable people’ keep children away from. We’ve had corporate czars and barons like Arvind Parekh and Brijbhushan Kabra taking to music.
If it weren’t for the masters we wouldn’t have audiences for Indian classical music across the world. As for taking their mission forward, we have a long way to go.
Many see you as the bearer of your father’s legacy vis-a-vis the tabla? How easy or tough has it been?
I’ve never wanted to fit in Abbaji’s shoes and am happy to walk in my own. My father made it categorically clear even when my brothers or me performed with him. “I don’t expect my sons to be me because what I’m doing is already done. They’ve to be better than me,” he’d say. “Photocopies are eventually consigned to the dust bin and only originals preserved.”
For example my brother Taufique has taken the tabla taalim and juxtaposed that grammar onto the African djembe drum creating a new school of rhythmology. Fazal on the other hand has created so many brilliant tabla artistes at his school while I’m left to travel around the world and create newer audiences through concerts.
But how did you create your own space considering you were following in the footsteps of Abbaji?
When I began there was an expectation that I play like Abbaji, but over the years (Laughs) luckily for me music lovers got around to accepting me for what I play. I can understand what you are saying. Look at others like Ustad Bismillah Khan’s son who has lost his way in trying to play shehnai like his father. Copying his father is one thing but taking his music forward is quite another.
That’s the reason I’m Zakir Hussain and not Zakir Hussain Allah Rakha Khan. And believe me there’s no pride when I say that.
You’ve carried on with the tradition of collaborating with international maestros just as Pt Ravishankar and Abbaji did...
Whether it is Carnatic stalwarts, the Shakti series when we collaborated with John McLaughlin or now on February 3rd during the homage when I jam with bassist Edgar Meyer, banjo maestro Bela Fleck (both from the US) or master percussionist Abbos Kosimov (Uzbekistan); one is trying to push boundaries and create spaces for inter-genre dialogue.
Now that solo tabla concerts are sell-outs do you feel difficult accompanying other artistes?
I firmly believe that the primary role of the tabla is saath-sangat. Which is why I enjoy being on stage with Shivji (Pt Shivkumar Sharma), Amjadbhai (Amjad Ali Khan) or Birju Maharaj. I look forward to these concerts. Unlike a solo concert where I am my own boss, here I have to strike a dialogue in the music-making process. This enriches and makes me a better musician and tabla player.
Between accompanying an instrumentalist or vocalist what is more challenging?
I’d have to say that accompanying vocalists is tougher, especially if you are with artistes of the calibre of Pt Jasraj or Vidushi Kishori Amonkar. The first 45 minutes can be very involved, intense and slow. You have to concentrate and focus because when things are slow, each beat is magnified a thousand-fold. Even a small chisel at the end of beat stands out.
Has it happened to you?
Yes it has. I remember I was once booed off the stage on day one of a festival at Nagpur within half an hour and the same audiences were eating off my hands the next within the first seven or eight minutes. Everyone has their bad day, if I didn’t I’d be God.
What do you feel about the shrinking space for classical performing arts in the media?
The social media is making conventional media obsolete. So its becoming necessary to hawk anything to keep going. I don’t blame the media. But where do you draw the line? Within the scheme of things, is it not possible to keep track of one’s responsibility and help nurture cultural legacy? How else will the coming generations know of our culture?
You open London Times and you find reviews of Western classical music concerts finding pride of place even if the concerts themselves have less than 200 people in a hall meant for 1,500. They do this because they want to highlight what they see as their socio-cultural legacy.
Here we have five pages of coverage of bulls***t politics and crime and another five of of Bollywood and who went to Cannes and who wore what and what have you... And of course they call it sports, but its almost always another five pages of cricket coverage. (Laughs)
But the media is not to blame by itself?
You are right. In the olden times if any of our hyper sensitive maestros would find the coverage by yesteryear critics like Mohan Nadkarni and Prakash Vadera, even a bit not to their liking they would call and create a scene. Editors and owners grew wary and stopped giving classical music any space. Our fraternity needs to learn to take valid criticism on its chin and move on. Look at Bollywood, some films do so well despite the criticism or should one say (Laughs) because of it.
What do you think of the younger lot of musicians?
Oh we have an exceptional talent pool. These youngsters are so committed, driven and focussed that one wonders why one didn’t have the same instinct as them at their age. They have the technological know-how and think up intelligent ways of using it to better their music.
The concert circuit keeps on seeing the same veterans. Why don’t many youngsters make it past that level?
Largely they just need the right kind of push so that the Indian Diaspora across the world gets to hear them. Once they click on those concerts, there will be no looking back at all.
There are of course some unfortunate instances where after one track or an album clicks the artiste believes s/he has already become a star. Now unless this is followed by something equally big or bigger, things can go downhill rather rapidly
Its been nearly a decade and a half since you composed music for Saaz. Why haven’t you done any more projects since?
Arrey koi hamey bulata hi nahin (Laughs) Jokes apart, you see once you take up something in Bollywood you’re stuck. There’s no telling how long a project will take. It is one of the reasons why the Shiv-Hari duo (Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia) gave up composing for films. They’d be on a concert circuit in interior Europe and they’d get a call from Yashji (the late Yash Chopra) asking for some modification to a tune they had composed. Inevitably one of them would’ve to drop the tour and rush back. I don’t need more stress than what I have.
And how about acting?
Oh no! Saaz was a fluke. I don’t think I want to ever act again. I’m done.
Homage from 6.30am at Shanmukhananda Hall on February 3.