A wah moment in Zakir Hussain’s travels in taal - Hindustan Times
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A wah moment in Zakir Hussain’s travels in taal

Feb 09, 2024 10:00 PM IST

The music Zakir Hussain makes is a fusion of several traditions, blended by his conviction that music is universal

While presenting Pashto before an Oregon audience a few months ago, Ustad Zakir Hussain said, “This is a song presented as a British military tune in the northwestern frontier province of India by the marching soldiers and Indian musicians together.” Pashto got the Grammy 2024 award for the best global performance. The foundations of Zakir Hussain lie in Indian classical music, but the music he makes is a fusion of several traditions, blended by his conviction that music is universal. What Ravi Shankar did on the sitar, Zakir Hussain is doing on the tabla. The former built a bridge to the West with raag, the latter is doing it with taal. Both are rooted in the Nehruvian cosmopolitan ethos that blended the best of the East and the West. That political world has vanished but its spirit resonates in Zakir Hussain’s music.

Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, V Selvaganesh and Ganesh Rajagopalan of Shakti at the 66th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. (PTI) PREMIUM
Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, V Selvaganesh and Ganesh Rajagopalan of Shakti at the 66th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. (PTI)

Zakir Hussain and flautist Rakesh Chaurasia won two joint awards for Pashto and the album, As We Speak, in which the song features. While Pashto, featuring American musicians Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, won in the best global music performance category, As We Speak won in the best contemporary instrumental album section. Hussain’s supergroup Shakti also won the best global music album for This Moment. Violinist L Shankar, percussionist Vikku Vinayakram and British guitarist John McLaughlin had formed Shakti. It now includes singer Shankar Mahadevan. When American, European and Indian sounds of banjo, tabla, double bass, and wooden flute come together, it is not an Indian moment in music: It’s a rangeela (colourful) mosaic of sounds.

Zakir Hussain’s persona also has this rangeela, almost like the dance of a dervish. It’s an infectious celebration of joy. He also does chilla-nashini, a Sufi spiritual practice of penance and solitude, during which he withdraws from worldly matters. The only time abba (father) and ustad, Alla Rakha Khan, whacked a young Zakir was when he broke his third finger while playing cricket. The father, a legend himself, knew that his son’s fingers were for the tabla. Zakir Hussain was only 14 when he first accompanied Kathak maestro, Birju Maharaj.

Zakir Hussain always acknowledged the contribution of Ravi Shankar for bridging the East and the West in the field of music. He also had a long association with sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, which started when Zakir was seven or eight. He earned his first remuneration — 100 — for accompanying Ali Akbar Khan at the Bombay Press Club. Beginning in 1972, he spent 11 years in the US as his accompanist. This is what Zakir Hussain told his biographer Nasreen Munni Kabir about Ali Akbar Khan: “It was amazing. He and his brother-in-law, Ravi Shankarji, were in America at the height of the popularity of Indian classical music, but Khan sahib did not care to profit from it.

He never attempted to find himself an agent to book concerts and earn thousands of dollars. He liked going to his music school from 5 am to 9 pm four days a week. He would teach there and come home.” However, Zakir Hussain followed the path of his abba Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar, who believed that music has to entertain the masses. And for Zakir Hussain, the tabla has to be seen, not just heard.

If Zakir Hussain had played the mridangam or pakhawaj, would he have had so many fans? Playing the tabla is visually striking. The spectator gets to see both hands dancing on the tabla, unlike in the other two percussion instruments. Zakir Hussain made tabla playing a spectacle.

Therefore, this wow moment in his life is a great moment for all Indian music lovers. Some time ago, he said: “Success is not how many Grammys you win or how many platinum records you have. I am one of those musicians who came at the cusp of a great change in the music world and I was carried on that wave.” That’s a sobering thought.

S Gopalakrishnan is a writer and founder of the podcast, Dilli Dali. The views expressed are personal

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