Read about Ustad Zakir Hussain’s childhood in author Sandhya Rao’s new book for children

Author Sandhya Rao’s new book, ‘Zakir and His Tabla’, traces the life of a young Zakir Hussain and his relationship with his father and mentor, maestro Allarakha Qureshi

March 12, 2020 06:20 pm | Updated March 13, 2020 12:26 pm IST

After Bavi Begum brought her baby boy home from the hospital in 1951, she placed the day-and-a-half-old into his father’s arms. He was to pour blessings into his son’s ears, as is custom. Instead, he recited tabla bols. “These are my prayers,” he said.

Though born to maestro Allarakha Qureshi, the world then did not know this baby would grow up to be a tabla virtuoso: Ustad Zakir Hussain.

In her new book for children, Zakir and His Tabla (Tulika), Chennai-based author Sandhya Rao traces Zakir Hussain’s childhood. As Priya Kurian’s accompanying illustrations go to show, there are two things that have remained constant in Hussain’s life: the tabla, and his messy crown of curls.

Early signs

Sandhya describes how a toddler Zakir would find any surface to beat his fingers upon: Amma’s cheeks, chairs he held on to as he tried to pull himself up, the pots and pans in the kitchen… Sometimes those he upturned would have food in them, and his body would be splattered with dal. Once, he even joined a Pathani procession passing by his house to play the dhol . Hung around his neck, the musical instrument dangled well below his knees!

A master tale Illustrations from Zakir and his Tabla

A master tale Illustrations from Zakir and his Tabla

These are anecdotes Sandhya came upon during her research. “I watched Sumantra Ghosh’s film ( The Speaking Hand: Zakir Hussain and the Art of the Indian Drum ) on him, read Nasrin Munni Kabir’s book ( Zakir Hussain: A Life in Music ), read and watched lots of interviews and of course, listened to lots and lots of Zakir Hussain, both classical and contemporary,” she says.

Her life for the past year-and-a-half that she worked on this book was ‘a delightful journey of music’. She would play his music in the background as she wrote: “Then I would stop writing and only listen!” she exclaims.

The author herself is partial to the sound of percussion. “In the dim distant past when I was younger, I played a little piano and a little veena . But I must admit it was more a case of the spirit being willing but the flesh simply not doing its bit!”

The language of sound

In her book, she has sprinkled tabla bol at different points in the story’s progression: ‘Dha dhin dhin dha’.

“I tried to ensure that they reflect the music of the Punjab gharana, the style of tabla playing that Zakir Hussain inherited from his father, Ustad Allarakha,” she says, adding that the publishers helped her verify this.

One of the book’s main threads is Zakir’s relationship with his father. For many years, the two would wake up at three in the morning, sit in the verandah of their home in Mahim, a Mumbai suburb, and talk about musical traditions until the crack of dawn.

Formative years One of the book’s main threads is Zakir’s relationship with his father, Ustad Allarakha * SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Formative years One of the book’s main threads is Zakir’s relationship with his father, Ustad Allarakha * SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

With a lot of help from Priya’s fine drawings, the book helps children see themselves in a young musician’s shoes: “We must not ever forget all the hard work that goes into becoming a musician (or anything else, for that matter) of such a high calibre,” says Sandhya.

Explaining her choice of subject, she says, “His life, as indeed, the lives of many artistes of his and especially his father’s generation, is a beautiful amalgamation of the many different strands that make us who we are in an all-encompassing way, not in the narrow bigoted way that is being propagated today. The different coloured strands stand out, yet are in harmony with each other.”

And it is this sense of joy that she found reflected in his music as well as interviews, and that she wishes to convey to young readers. “Feel the music. Feel the joy. Feel the love.”

Zakir and his Tabla is available on Tulika’s website.

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