The many moods of Ustad Zakir Hussain

Home is where the heart is and vice versa. For tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, nothing is more satisfying and fulfilling than talking about his legendary father Ustad Allah Rakha Khan. It was a rare treat for this correspondent to meet the tabla maestro in the house he grew up in. The comfortable body language and the ease with which he talks sets the ball rolling for a free-wheeling conversation on the 13th barsi (death anniversary) of his father, the state of classical music today, hunt for fresh talent and far too many fond memories attached with the house and his childhood. He starts off by narrating several fascinating accounts of the legendary musicians and dancers who have graced their South Mumbai Napeansea Road residence. “Right from Sitara Devi to Mehdi Hassan Saab to Madan Mohanji, this house has had so many impromptu concerts and mehfils. I learnt so much by just being around these artistes and imbibing so much from them,” says Hussain.
Music dignitaries from all over the world are coming together for the barsi, Homage to Abbaji, scheduled for February 3.

On barsi and artistes performing
Hussain says that the barsi is a celebration of Abbaji’s music and vision. The concert co-presented by Taj Mahal Tea, Reliance Foundation, Aditya Birla Management Corporation Ltd. and co-sponsored by Kotak Mahindra AMC Ltd., and hospitality sponsored by Orchid Hotel will feature mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer, Palghat Rajamani Iyer and Kamlakar Rao, Fazal Qureshi, banjo genius Bel Fleck, double bass maestro Edgar Meyer and many more.
“I am really excited about this year’s line-up. Bel is considered as of one of the best contrabassists and Edgar is known to be the among the best banjo players in the US,” says Hussain. He adds, “You have to know that we may not know these musicians in India, but these two are the most important musicians in their field. They are just coming to play here without any fanfare. They make the kind of music that may not be mainstream. These are people who don’t play music to become popular or to sell a million records. They care for music, they cherish it, and they not only want to learn, but also want to be able to stand and say that this is what I wanted to do. To have that strength is amazing. But the fact is when you go to a studio, you want the record to sell, you want people to dance to it. People like Edgar and Bella just play.”

On his relationship with Abbaji
The relationship that Hussain shared with his father was of a deep trust and faith. Ustad Allah Rakha knew his son could do no wrong. “I first left for the US and then Abbaji joined me there. Mickey Hart came visiting one day and asked my father if he wanted to do a project with him. Abbaji said he was old for that kind of stuff and instead asked him to take me along. I don’t think my dad knew what he was doing. Now Mickey and his band were known for their amazing technological advancement in music with state-of-the-art monitoring and sound systems. But they were also known for introducing the LSD culture and in the 60s the drug culture was spreading far and wide in the US. I am not sure if my dad knew that he was sending me to an opium den. But, he wasn’t worried since I was so grounded in my studies. As a young kid, he would take me to drinking parties with friends. Bombay was a dry city in the 1960s and my father would have these parties in the little alleys. Madan Mohan saab, so many other popular and talented musicians and my father would drink in those little alleys. The subject would turn to music and a lot of my theoretical studies came from those days. While discussing those compositions I understood so much of music. Of course I would have Coca Cola and fish fry and dad knew that in spite of being in that kind of atmosphere, I wouldn’t drink or smoke. I was more concerned about making music. When I ended up at Mickey’s ranch, I saw Carlos Santana jamming with Joey Garcia, David Crasty playing with Billy Slay, all great musicians coming there and jamming… There would be bowlful of joints. I was just interested in hanging out with them and knowing their music. It was my father who pushed me to into that area, but
only after 14 years of rigourous studies. He had faith in me.

On Ustad Allah Rakha Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar
Hussain believes that Pandit Ravi Shankar changed the face of the Indian music abroad. “Dad and Raviji wanted to expand the horizons of music. If Raviji and my father wouldn’t have gone there, Indians would have been portrayed as savages. They made the Jungle Book or Elephant Boy, very clearly portraying Indians as savages. When Ravi Shankar arrived, he showed that there is a deep-rooted culture, which is more elite than the 200-year-old culture of US. He told them to look at India for inspiration. That is why Bollywood is being recognised as one of the destinations. The US has finally realised the business potential in India. If not for Ravi Shankar, this kind of clarity wouldn’t have emerged. It’s a proud moment when Rahman walks on to the stage to collect an Oscar. I’m glad that recognition has come. It took a while, but I’m glad. Barsi is about bowing to our culture. Today India is asserting its authority in the world of creative arts. That’s going to reflect in the barsi, which is not just a memorial, but is about celebrating his existence.”

On respect for Indian classical music
Hussain doesn’t believe that Indian classical music is getting more recognition in the West than here. Respect to music and culture is on par here and there. He says, “The purists and the fanatics of Indian music believe it should be recognised in the same way as pop music is. For e.g. they believe that Indian classical music concerts should be like a Kailash Kher or Sukhwinder Singh concert, where 5,000 people are jumping and dancing. It destroys the ambience of what Indian music is. Indian music is an intimate transmission. It’s a form where you must sit, connect eye to eye with the musician and experience that personal contact. You can’t get that in a stadium where everyone is dancing. The first row at Shanmukhananda Hall is within a hello distance. You can hear the waah waah. At the Albert Hall, everybody sits in pin drop silence and concentrates. They are very particular about focusing on music. Nobody is walking in and out and coughing. That’s something we haven’t been able to establish in India because time is a stretchable commodity in India. 7 pm is taken as 7.45 pm. Our music calls for spontaneous acknowledgement. Intimacy is important. That’s how it should be.”

On new talent and vision
Hussain believes that young talent needs to be honed. “We are franctically looking for opening batsmen, middle order batsmen. We are still talking about Sachin and Dhoni. It’s all about selling tickets. Whoever you find, if you can’t convey that this person is star, nobody will come. That’s what we are not doing in Indian music. Everyone asks me, who after Ravi Shankar? I tell them that you should be looking out for him instead of asking me now. Nobody talks about them. Niladri (Kumar) could be the next genius. Purbayan (Chatterjee) is also good. They are not giving Niladri the confidence that he should get. We were fortunate to be at a time when we could play with the greats and people saw and recognised us. Why is Rahul (Sharma) being reduced to fusion records? He’s got fabulous talent. He tells me that he doesn’t play Indian classical because people won’t come. He should be recognised as a young master, but he has to make records with a piano player and do corporate gigs. That has to change. That has to be addressed by the press in general. I would really request to find these people,” says Hussain. He says that young talent should find their style and harness that.
“When people told my father that I play like him, he would say ‘I should play better than him. I hope he’s better. What I am is already done. He should not be a carbon copy like me. They will get tired because they won’t see what Zakir is’. That kind of chance needs to be given to young musicians. Our music is an expression of our inner soul. It’s a dangerous thing to bare your soul on stage. Few musicians are able to connect because it is not easy to speak. It’s like being naked in front of the audience. They want me to expand and how I feel about it.”
“Today my brothers Fazal and Taufique are recognised as exponents of Punjab style. Taufique has transcribed the same knowledge onto the djembe. The information is there, but in today’s world, it can be painted on so many different canvases. Ranjit Barot has learnt so much from his mother Sitara Devi. He’s hung out with Vikuji (Vinayakram) and he’s learnt from my father. So there are musicians and there are great masters, they are using different modes of transmission. Things have changed, the future projected is going to be on a much larger scale, on a varied scale. The sitar and sarod are being played on guitar. It is a great time for Indian music. Great things are boiling. In the old day we just had the tabla, sitar and the pakhawaj. It’s not like that anymore,” says Hussain.

On knowledge today and the guru-shishya parampara
“When we were learning as kids, very little knowledge was available. There were very few LPs and cassettes were a luxury. We would have to go to concerts. I sat through every concert then. That was the only way to gain knowledge or to go to music class and to see what’s going on. The best hangout place was AIR. They had in-house staff musicians then, and the great ones that too. These were musicians who were hired by AIR to be able to perform and program the music. We would hang out in the common room and eat biscuits and people would be playing and performing around us. That’s not there anymore. Today, kids can, in a span of five years learn three times more than I did in 12 years. Today they are well versed and technically
proficient in their transmission of music. They’ve got collective information. But they shouldn’t take
it for granted because you have access to technology.

On politics
Hussain believes we should straighten out our politics. “Politicians should figure out that they are here to do work. Then worry about something else and somewhere. They should worry about getting the work done. Politicians are trying to legitimise their existence. I don’t think musicians should be thrown out because somebody else shot somebody, that doesn’t make sense. I understand the need to print upon the minds of people that we need blanket restrictions. We certainly can’t tolerate them beyond a limit. But all said and done, we need to get work done in Delhi.”

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