The Rhythms of Zakir Hussain

The tabla maestro has built his own sandcastle with music and beats. And he is happy living there

Published: May 9, 2013
The Rhythms of Zakir Hussain
Image: Dinesh Krishnan
My world is a world of joy...I may be fooling myself, but it is like building sandcastles. I have built one for myself. I live in that castle and it is beautiful

“Hi, I am Zakir.”

If there is one face that became visual shorthand for Indian classical music, it is that of the Ustad. Zakir Hussain is arguably the first accompanying artist who can fill concert halls all on his own. Sure, the boyish face shows a wrinkle or two now, and the famous mop of hair, while still unruly, is thinning a little, not bad for a man who has passed 60, but there’s no mistaking the man, no chance for us fans to miss him even in a crowd.

And here he is introducing himself to us!

In the elitist world of classical music, too much fame can be a burden. Just like the Reserve Bank of India doesn’t print too much money, a good musician has to be just visible enough and no more. He has to be well-known enough to bring in the money and reclusive enough to retain the affection of the cognoscenti.

For the most part, the Ustad has managed to walk the line. Only occasionally has he been accused of being too flashy and too famous.
“I blame you for it,” he says. “I enjoyed a rock star appeal because the media made it so.”

The tabla has been played solo for over 300 years, but the audience was very limited. After 1947, as musicians lost royal patronage and had to fend for themselves, art had to step down from its luxury niche to become a product of mass consumption. “Initially,” says Hussain, “the people who managed to connect with the mass audience were famous singers and instrumentalists, since they played tunes that people could recognise. Then, some people began to notice that the musicians—be he Ravi Shankar or Jasraj—were also interacting with the tabla. That’s how the tabla got the opportunity to break out into a solo mass act.”

But as the tabla was moving to centrestage, its established exponents—Ustad Alla Rakha, Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, Pandit Samta Prasad—were getting on in years. And Zakir Hussain, as he would have you believe, “just happened to be there”.

According to the Ustad, much of the perception of what the audience will like depends on how a concert is sold. “Your mind is conditioned for a Ravi Shankar concert! Now because Ravi Shankar has friends called George Harrison and Zubin Mehta and Yehudi Menuhin, he is the rock star! So it doesn’t matter if there were equally great sitar players in Ustad Vilayat Khan or Ustad Halim Jaffer Khan or Nikhil Banerjee or Ustad Rais Khan. Nobody went looking that far down. Media! They only reported Ravi Shankar. They only interviewed him.”

Even though his words are sharp, they don’t feel that way, delivered as they are, with charm, wit and a smile. There are musicians who look at peace when they play, for instance Pandit Jasraj or Kishori Amonkar. Then there are those who look animated: Cases in point, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi or Ustad Rashid Khan. There are only a tiny minority who look positively joyful when they play. Actually, except for Hussain, no one else even comes to mind for this category.

“My world is a world of joy,” he says. “I may be fooling myself, but it is like building sandcastles. I have built one for myself. I live in that castle and it is very beautiful.”

“What is art? It is mainly positive energy. It is something that is right with the world. Indian art, especially, has the unique ability to be not only right but to be healing as well. Indian art is rejuvenating, it allows you to focus. Most people who visit a disco or a rock concert leave it spent. People come out of Indian concerts rejuvenated.”

Ironically, it was exactly this adrenaline-filled world that the Ustad went seeking 40 years ago, following in the footsteps of Ravi Shankar. Those were confusing days for Hussain, a complete turnaround from the future that seemed to have been decided for him when his father, the legendary Alla Rakha, whispered the percussive patterns in his ear when the boy was just a few days old. Widely regarded as a child prodigy, Hussain held his first concert at the age of seven. By the time he was 19, Ravi Shankar considered him good enough to replace an ailing Alla Rakha for a concert in the US.

It was as if fate had conspired to pass the baton to Hussain. It was Ustad Alla Rakha who, while accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar, had shown the complexity of Indian rhythms to the Western audience, first at Monterey in 1967 and then at Woodstock in 1969. Since Hussain had already started playing concerts by the time he turned 12, there was little surprise when he inherited his father’s mantle. This was good because while Ustad Alla Rakha remained a purist all his life, Hussain, adventurous as always, found a way to sail forth into the ocean that is world music. “When you are in India you think of yourself as the upholder of this 5,000-year-old tradition. In the US, I came across equally old music from the Middle East, Gamelan music, Japanese music: All traditional, all something to learn from,” says Hussain.

The Rhythms of Zakir Hussain
Image: Raghu Rai
Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain with his father Alla Rakha

But Hussain had seen the heady popularity enjoyed by rock and pop bands and wanted a slice of that pie. So he hung out with the likes of George Harrison and the Grateful Dead, hoping to reinvent himself as an ace drummer with the mass following of a Keith Moon or a Ginger Baker. With the Grateful Dead and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, he once played a jam session for four days while tripping on banned substances. He was an Indian classical musician, now within striking distance of making it in the realm of Western music.

But then he had a conversation with one of the greats. He asked Harrison why he didn’t play the sitar on stage; the ex-Beatle had, after all, learnt how to play the instrument from no less a teacher than Ravi Shankar and had incorporated it into his music for the Beatles and afterwards. Harrison said it was because no matter how much he learnt, he would always be a British guitar player. That’s what he was good at. This was the young Hussain’s epiphany. He knew then that he must stay with the tabla, because that was what he was born to do, that was what he was good at. He also swore off all addictions apart from music.

In a way, Hussain was ahead of his times with his ambitions of conquering the West. Ravi Shankar-inspired Indian melodies did have their moment in the sun, especially during the flower power era. The cultural exchange of musical ideas can be traced back to that musical institution called Shakti in 1976, which saw a collaboration between Western jazz, Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions.

“When Shakti began, we were looking to the West for musical inspiration and ideas. We are now at a point where the West is looking to us for ideas as to where the music in their world needs to go. It took the West 15-20 years to figure out and incorporate what we had to offer. Now it is becoming a way of life there.”

It is true that Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, John McLaughlin et al told the West that there was this culture that was older, deeper and more thoughtful than what the West had had for 700 years. But it wasn’t until the 2000s that Indian music hit the mainstream with the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge and later Slumdog Millionaire. The melody didn’t stick, the beat did. The tabla, the sarangi, the Indian flute have a place today in Asian underground music as well as in contemporary ballet. That’s because the beat or the taal crosses cultural boundaries more easily. In the Middle Eastern world, the natural tendency is to groove to a 9-beat rhythm. In the Western world, the natural accent is on the 4-beat, which is also the rock beat. As the Ustad puts it, “In India, we like our music with a longer set of beats. The core is the same though in different parts around the world.”

Having been at the centre of the exchange, and as someone who is still as known for his collaborations with musicians in other traditions and genres—just last month in Mumbai, the Symphony Orchestra of India played triple concerto for banjo, tabla and double bass with Bela Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on double bass and Zakir Hussain on tabla—Hussain knows the importance of being rooted. “The temple has to stand so that one can go, offer one’s prayers and feel blessed,” he says. Fortunately for him, there are enough connoisseurs of both Indian as well as Western classical music who are working hard to protect the core—the traditional—from corruption. “Bless those who fight to preserve the core. For it is because of them that people like me can go out, mingle, return and be purified again.”

But it is because of musicians like Hussain, L Subramaniam, L Shankar, and newer ones like Sivamani, that new sounds, new influences enter the Indian subconscious. The cult of personality woos the audience to the concert hall. When someone hears the sound of the tabla in a rap song, natural curiosity drives a trace of its roots. “Once they are inside the hall, it is totally up to me to convert them into my reality. If I can’t do that
then I don’t deserve to be the representative of this music.”

It is this thinking that got Hussain to do the Taj Tea advertisement many years ago. “I couldn’t showcase any of my musical skills in 30 seconds but yes I could make my hair move! I have a contract with Taj Tea that I can’t cut my hair. I am still their goodwill ambassador. I can’t cut my hair even now even though it is falling off!”

The Ustad smiles. He, Fleck and Meyer have to go practise with the Symphony Orchestra of India for their performance. (The show sold out weeks in advance. Great music? Great musicians? Certainly. But Ustad Zakir Hussain’s star power played no small part.)

Before he leaves, he has one request. We are all ears.

 “Please adopt a young musician. Support him. There is a Subhankar Banerjee, Yogesh Samsi, Faisal Qureshi, Niladri Kumar or Purbayan Chatterjee. Our music will be better for it.”

(This story appears in the 17 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sukanya Shankar

    This beaautiful review of EMWMusic\'s new release, Nine Decades, A Night at St.John the Divine, is very very moving..... Raviji is a very pure soul and will continue to live in all our hearts. When something is real, it will stay forever and falseness will fade away. There was no one like Him, there is no one like Him and there will never be another one like HIM...He did it all and is RAVI or the SUN and will shine forever....... Restless and Real - words and sounds from a shrinking world Reviews by Douglas Heselgrave How could one possibly argue that Ravi Shankar\'s music was the product of the rational mind. For all of the mathematical precision and amazing ability to count on the fly that his music exhibits, Shankar often said that the discipline of his training contributed only one aspect to the sound he created. Ravi Shankar\'s intuition and his ability to drop away from the constraints of time and space were what created the joy and playfulness that millions of people continue to enjoy in his playing. I\'m not suggesting that Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Jah or Allah tapped on his shoulder or whispered divine melodies into Shankar\'s ears as he played the incredible music from dusk to dawn on August 6, 1976 that has been captured on Nine Decades IV \'A Night At St. John The Divine\' but at the very least it features the expression of a man, a spirit, who was tuned in and open to hearing the delicate unfolding of the creative potential held in each moment. He was a musician who could sense tapestries of sound as they hovered, to then catch and stitch them together in a light weave for everyone to hear. I wouldn\'t go as far as to suggest that the music on %u2018A Night At St. John the Divine\' offers sufficient proof of the divinity of the universe, but it\'s impossible not to marvel at the beauty and intricacy of the melodies and wonder how a single human could have the sensitivity to create them. The three ragas Shankar plays represent an absolute high point of human creativity. I am sure I will listen to this recording regularly for the rest of my life.

    on Aug 26, 2014
  • Dominic

    One of the best articles I have read and truly inspiring. Being a musician it motivates me to stick to my instrument and reach the paramount and to be myself. Happy on the inside to play just for one person or to a crowd. As someone said - we perform the the audience of one.

    on May 17, 2013
  • Arindam Bhattacharya

    Wonderful piece and some fine photographs to go with it. But kind of strange to come across a classical musician\'s profile in a magazine like Forbes :-) May be you could write on some others as well.. like Ustad Rashid Khan and Pt. Jasraj. You have mentioned them in the article.

    on May 13, 2013
  • Sharbendu De

    Very interesting article, well written, lucid and offers insight into the life of this maverick maestro. Most of all, thank you for atleast mentioning the young musicians. In the coming issues, I would be interested to read about them. They do need respectful coverage, but then for that you need a vision, an ability to stare into the future and know out of instinct that they have the ability and vehicle to take us to another realm... I hope you do followups.

    on May 10, 2013
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