Tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain on music in the time of loss and the relationship between art and politics

Just after ace percussionist Ustad Zakir Husseinone of the biggest names in the world of rhythm, raised a storm earlier this week with an intricate rhythm pattern that landed superbly on the sam (the first beat of the time cycle in a rhythm structure) at Delhi’s Siri Fort auditorium, an older man in the audience exclaimed, “Uff ye ladka, kya tabla bajaata hai (How brilliantly does this boy play the tabla)!”

Hussain, 72, accompanied the Delhi-based sarod exponent Ustad Amjad Ali Khan at a concert organized by Mumbai-based organization Pancham Nishad. However, what the overtly enthusiastic gentleman and audience failed to see was that amidst a flurry of virtuoso rhythms and wide smiles, Hussain had been dealing with fear and dread since arriving at his parents’ home on Mumbai’s Nepean Sea Road earlier this month. .

Every year, the visit to India in winter is what Hussain looks forward to very much. Here he can dive deep into its core – Hindustani classical music – and discover “what new things one has collected in the time that has passed”. But this year is filled with a sense of loss and longing for two of his closest collaborators – santoor maestro Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj, who passed away earlier this year.

“These are relationships that have shaped my life, me as one musician, showed me which path to take. Not seeing them doesn’t feel right. It’s almost as hard as me trying to get on stage in India for the first time after my father passed away, because these are mentors that I grew up with. It feels like a big part of me as a listener, as a student, as a caretaker, keeper, and transmitter of music, has been lost, and I don’t know how that will come back. That makes me extremely anxious,” Hussain says in an exclusive conversation with The Indian Express on a phone call a few hours after arriving from San Francisco, California, his home with wife and Kathak dancer Antonia Minnecola.

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The poignant moment when he played Sharma’s hearse in May this year, his grief palpable, was widely discussed on social media as the epitome of the ‘idea of ​​India’. To Hussain, it was not so reductive in nature, but merely a gesture to highlight the deep bond, musical and otherwise, that the two had shared over the years. “I think that people and politicians exist on two different levels… We tend to generalize and thus create the danger of a bigger schism than necessary. Not everyone of any sect is evil. That idea seems to have faded into the background. What we need to do is just be able to hear what the powers that be want to tell us, but judge for ourselves as citizens where we belong and what we need in our lives to make it better. We’ll probably get there one of these days,” he says.

Hussain with sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan during their concert at Siri Fort in New Delhi (Credit: Innee Singh)

As much as you may consider his concerts in India an easy home game, Hussain believes that the past three years, filled with uncertainty, death, loss and loneliness, have left him reeling to catch the pulse of the audience. “I don’t know what they like anymore after listening to so many Zoom concerts and seminars,” says Hussain. He needn’t have worried. Judging by his sold-out tour this time around, Hussain seems to remain peerless in the world of Indian percussionists.

During the Delhi concert, the deft sonic artist captivated the audience without ever dominating the performance, in which Khan was traditionally the main performer. His solo, like today’s Mumbai‘s Thane, organized by A Field Productions, is of a different order. It is an ode to the gurus who taught him, a hazri (presence) in the court of music. “The story of Thane goes back 60 years, when I was a young boy in Class V studying at Mahim’s St Michael’s, I was part of a variety show in a dark little hamlet where Thane once was along with bhangra performers, mimicry artists , movie singers. This is the first time I felt I belonged,” says Hussain, who learned under the demanding tutelage of his father and guru, Ustad Allah Rakha.

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With a rich classical career behind him, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Shakti, one of the top world music bands, which started as a collaboration between Hussain, British musician John McLaughlin, US-based violinist L Shankar and ghatam legend Vikku Vinayakram. . The group merged Indian music with jazz, creating a unique sound. While audiences fell in love, the jazz world was less forthright. Unlike Pandit Ravi Shankar, who had before him pop music’s biggest name, George Harrison, Shakti was an experiment that took time to make its mark. “Outside of the Indian classical music world of mine, Shakti is probably the most beautiful music moment I have ever been involved in. For something to be accepted as a milestone, it must stand the test of time. And Shakti has. It was not a volcanic reaction, but a pebble that fell into the pond and the ripple effect is only now reaching us,” says Hussain. The band will embark on their India tour in 2023.

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