In conversation Ustad Zakir Hussain tells Chitra Swaminathan about the joys of being a world music citizen

At a time when classical music is being tweaked and teamed with diverse genres for a wider appeal, here’s a Hindustani percussion virtuoso who began his experiments with a mind-boggling array of musical forms four decades ago. A musician whose appeal cuts across ages, he seldom gets to leave a concert hall without being mobbed. The scene backstage has been the same over the years — surrounded by autograph hunters, young learners impatient to be photographed with him and serious listeners keen to compliment him. Ustad Zakir Hussain remains a rockstar at 62. He has endeared himself to people around the world with his rapidfire rolls on the tabla, candour and wit.

Winner of two Grammy awards, this whimsical inventor has come up with novel ways of integrating musical styles being as much a part of sangeet mehfils as leading jazz ensembles and prestigious symphony orchestras. In the process, he has raised the bar for rhythm literacy.

The Ustad stylishly tossing his curly mop talks about the thin line dividing genres and his traditional moorings.

Does your huge fan following spur you on in your musical quest?

I don’t know if you want to believe me but this love is for music. I never put myself before it. Today I am here. Tomorrow someone else would be. The stage is permanent not the persona. Creativity is about connect with life, people and Nature. Yes, they do push me to explore.

You enjoyed a celebrity status early on in your career here. Then why did you move to the U.S.?

I was in my twenties when I joined the Bay Area Music School as a teacher. But I never cut myself off from India. The days were divided almost equally among concerts in India, collaborative projects in the West and teaching at universities abroad. And whenever I am here, I have no re-adjustment issues nor do I experience culture shock. My mind and music belong to the place they travel to.

Do you feel it opened up the horizons for you as an artiste and showcased to the world the remarkable potential of Indian music?

I didn’t do much except take the pioneering work of Pandit Ravi Shankar and other legends such as my father Ustad Allah Rakha forward. They had already paved the way and made ragas part of Western consciousness.

Do you think traditional training is the best way to discover the potential of sound?

Is there a way out? If you want to stay ahead of the pack, you should have something refreshing to offer. It’s not about who’s the best, it’s about how much you give yourself to it. First do it to your satisfaction then to please the world. My father’s first words to me after my birth were the tabla bols. I would go to sleep with the tabla by my side and wake up to its sound. By seven I started playing in concerts. I remember playing a gat endlessly with my father watching. There was no fixed practice time. Rhythm was ingrained in my DNA. I remember my father would return from his foreign travels with several records. He introduced me to Duke Ellington, The Doors and Rolling Stones.

You are hailed as the ambassador of Indian music in the West.

Universality of music is an ancient truth. We are only exploring new ways of expressing it. The 12 notes are the same. Why do you think a Bulgarian symphony sounds like raga Charukesi? My collaborations with many great masters such as Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Mickey Hart, Giovanni Hidalgo, Bela Fleck and Steve Smith helped me discover the immense potential of the tabla as a percussive and melodic instrument capable of tonal and textural variations. And also that my destiny lay in my hands.