Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Zakir Hussain: All the world's his stage

Zakir Hussain talks about blending Indian ragas with Western classical harmonies to create music that is universal

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Sep 24, 2015 06:33:32 AM IST
Updated: Sep 21, 2015 04:44:06 PM IST
Zakir Hussain: All the world's his stage
Image: Vikas Khot
Zakir Hussain’s Peshkar, a five-movement piece commissioned by the Symphony Orchestra of India, will be performed in Mumbai, at the NCPA, before it travels to Switzerland in January

Peshkar is the first work commissioned by the Symphony Orchestra of India. The five-movement piece composed by Zakir Hussain, not just a tabla maestro but a doyen of world music, will be performed in Mumbai on September 25-26, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, before it travels to Switzerland in January. A conversation with the master:

Q. How long did it take you to compose the tabla concerto for the Symphony Orchestra of India?
If I consider the basic melody to be the central pillar of the piece, then that took me about three weeks. And around that pillar you build the rest of the orchestra with all its different elements.

Q. How many instruments do you need to know how to play to be able to compose music for an orchestra that blends Western classical and Indian elements?

When I started as a student of this art form, I learnt only the tabla. And once I had learnt that to a certain degree of comfort, I started to understand and learn other rhythm instruments and how they relate to the tabla, and if there is a possibility of a repertoire of each of these other rhythmic instruments to be integrated with the tabla. That was the next curiosity. And so, I learnt a bunch of that stuff. Then there was the need to learn the melodic elements of the art form, whether it is singing or instruments. And to do that, you would have to have a certain idea of where the notes were on the harmonium or the piano.

So, in that sense, my two initial approaches were the tabla and the brother percussion instruments of the tabla; these are what I am most comfortable with. But in the process of writing and composing music, you play the piano or the guitar, or even a little strumming of the sitar, just to understand how the notes flow. If you bend the strings of the sitar, the Madhyam string, how many notes can you get out of it? Just having that information helps you write the music. For instance, when I am writing for this orchestra, I have to know what the best feature of this orchestra is. Now, we are aware that the string section is really good. So, then I would start to write with that in mind. Writing with that in mind, I will also need to understand that the violin will play this line. But, the range of the viola is different from the violin. And then I must make sure that when I am writing for the viola, writing the counterparts to go with the violin, the range is kept in mind and that together they work well. The same goes for instruments like the bassoon or the oboe: they cannot play the same line; I will have to know their range. That information is important for composing. So, even though I am not playing all those instruments, I have to know.

Q. How do you blend Indian elements into an orchestra that is primarily for Western classical music?

The fortunate thing about Indian music is that it is melodic. It does not rely on harmonies, or counterpoints, or various other elements of Western classical music. But what’s interesting about Western classical music is that although it has harmonies, they still need melody. So all that Indian music must do is come in and be the pillar. And then everything else can work around it.

Now, in terms of the dos and don’ts of Indian music, the purist would want to ensure that when providing melody as the main structure of the orchestral piece, the raga does not lose its purity. But when you start harmonising, and have other instruments playing counter-melodies, you are going to run very quickly into a situation where they’ll be playing notes which were not specified in the raga. So that is going to happen.

As a musician, are you comfortable with that? You can put aside that repertoire requirement and work with the job at hand to come up with a copacetic environment for the orchestra. That’s something I have to come to terms with, as a composer.

So yes, I did come up with melodies, in particular ragas like Bhopali, in certain elements of the orchestra pieces, but I was not afraid to step beyond it harmonically for the orchestra to work. The main melodies are as they are in the raga structure. And the purists will say, ‘oh, he has messed with the raga’.

Q. Do you feel that way?
Well, it depends. If the main melody, and the scale of the melody, is being adhered to by the main melody player, then that is intact. What’s happening around it are the layers that may have other elements. What the purists are hearing is the complete din, and for them that means the raga has been messed with.

Q. But the raga is intact.
The melody is intact. I can make an argument that way. But I can totally understand when a classical maestro, an ustad, a pandit or guru disagrees. When Pandit Ravi Shankarji wrote a sitar concerto, he had the same issues. And he had strictly adhered to the raga he was using as the main melodic structure of the piece. That seriously limited the function of the orchestra and he realised that. So when he wrote it again, he deviated a bit and opened it a bit. What he basically did was choose a raga that allowed you to have more melodic freedom. Like, say, you pick Bhairavi and it can use all twelve notes. So, you will have that melodic freedom.

But I decided not to do that because Bhairavi is something that has been used a lot in various combinations of orchestra. So just doing that again would sound, to the Western ears, like, ‘oh he’s stealing that from a particular thing’. But for me, the melodic structure, which is the core of the piece, is intact and what’s happening around it with the orchestra, hopefully, has the ability to represent Western classical elements of harmony and counterpoints, and at the same time work in sympathy with the melodic structure to produce a very cohesive presentation.

Zakir Hussain: All the world's his stage
Image: Vikas Khot
Zakir Hussain (right) hands over the manuscript of Peshkar to Khushroo Suntook, chairman of NCPA and founder of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). “Zakir is the greatest tabla player around,” says Suntook. “When we travel to other countries, the audience wants to hear something that has an Indian touch,” he adds. And, therefore, explains the SOI’s choice in presenting a performance that has an Indian flavour

Q. How does this work from the point of Western classical side? They have their own scales and rules.
They have their voicings and stuff. And if they say this is an E Major chord, then it is an E Major chord. And they have their 1-4-5-7. But within that, they do not have any issues of layering it with sympathetic chords. So, E Major chord does not mean you play that all the way through. Only one section of the orchestra will be doing it, another section would be playing a B Flat or something. So they already work in that way. They have no issues with counter-melodies appearing regularly.

Q. Are there some ragas that lend themselves more easily to be played with harmonies?
Yes. Music is considered to be a universal element. And there has been a lot of give and take over the past few hundred years in various Western and Eastern countries. So, obviously, some melodic scales have crept into the repertoire which has elements of [music from] other [places]. Like Bhairavi, which has very Arabic or Persian elements. Similarly, Kirwani is a South Indian raga, but it lends itself beautifully to a Western composition. Of course, when you are harmonising it, you are using more notes, but it is very easily shapable.

So there are many ragas that are similar. You can hear a tune from Spain and say, ‘that sounds like the manganiyar song from Rajasthan’. That will happen. So such similarities or mirror images do exist in music. Rhythms are universal: We all have 4-4, 6-8, 7-5-5-4 all over the world, so naturally you will all have fun together.   

Q. How do you think the final product that comes out of the collaboration between Western and Indian classical music has evolved?
From the musician’s point of view, music is music. When you ask someone like, say, John McLaughlin, ‘okay so you are playing with Zakir or you are playing with [violinist] L Shankar, what kind of music are you playing?’ He would just look at that person as if to say, what do you mean? It’s just music.

If I am going to say that I am going to sit and play only a particular kind of music, I am limiting myself as a creative artist. I must have the whole gamut to play with. For what may work at this moment with Zakir, as we progress, it may have to be switched so that we may arrive somewhere, where it is even more interesting. And so it has to change, and I should not limit myself.

Now, there are certain genres of music where they have to do that. Like rappers have to sound a certain way, or the hip-hoppers have to sound a certain way, and pop music requires a certain kind of beat. Those people consciously limit themselves to a particular genre. But when you are from Scotland and you start working in the global scene and play music all over the world, with musicians from all over the world, then you dare not limit yourself to a particular style, because then you will be running against a wall after about the first 15 minutes.

And so most musicians never, in their mind, sit down to compose or think about playing with another musician, and give themselves a particular area to work with and limit themselves to that.

Q. Has the audience grown for world music?
Audiences all over the world, generally, have grown. It’s possibly because the quality of people’s lives has improved. They lead better lives now. The second reason is that they have access to the media, the internet and to all sorts of creative processes, whether it is music or art or even sports.

People are more curious than they were before, and they have the financial ability to make it happen.

So, yes, in that sense the audience has grown quite a bit. And music is, in my opinion, enjoying a world-wide renaissance. I mean, you are talking to me. I am an Indian classical musician and here we are; an Indian classical musician has been asked to write a symphonic piece, and I have won Grammys, and just last week, I won the Downbeat Critic award for the best percussionist of the year. But I am a tabla player from India! Now, I am not considered a tabla player from India; I am considered a musician of the world.

And that’s not just true for me, but for all musicians. It’s becoming a more familiar approach.  

(This story appears in the 02 October, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)