Copyright 2016,

The Rhythms of Zakir Hussain

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

“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.


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.”