Zakir Hussain: ‘The student must inspire the teacher to teach’

ENDURING BOND: Zakir Hussain says music is something you grow up with, it is not taught   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

In a beige shaded kurta pyjama, Ustad Zakir Hussain prepares himself for the stage. But today, he is not going to play. Instead, he gets ready to talk about anecdotes from his childhood, his legendary father, and the music that has defined his life. Perhaps if Hussain was not the musical genius that he is, he would have been a remarkable storyteller. As questions begin to pour in and he takes over the conversation, one sees at least a hundred micro and macro expressions come and go across his delightful face, one that has represented the tabla for decades, and is so theatrical when he sits with the instrument. He clears his throat and the distant chattering in the hall almost vanishes in haze.

Held at DLF 5, Gurugram, ‘A Musical Conversation with Ustad Zakir Hussain’, moderated by journalist Shoma Chaudhury, was centred on the recently released book, Zakir Hussain: A Life in Music by Nasreen Munni Kabir. Kabir put the book together in a conversational format, penning down her talks with the tabla maestro over a period of two years.

How did the eldest son of Ustad Alla Rakha Qureshi, one of his six children, come to be known as Zakir Hussain and not Zakir Qureshi? Or any Qureshi? “When I was born, my father was taken ill with a heart ailment. So ill that many of his colleagues like Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Ashok Kumar had come to pay their last respects. When I was brought home from the nursing home, I was handed to my father and his job was, according to tradition, to whisper a prayer in my ear. He was not well, he could barely hold me, but he put his lips to my ear and sang tabla rhythms. My mother was a little upset with this and asked him why he was doing that instead of reciting the Quran. And his response was that the rhythms were his prayers, that he is a worshipper of Saraswati, and it was the knowledge he had,” says Hussain.

Nurturing father

Hussain’s name was just baby Qureshi until a saint visited his house. It appears that Hussain’s destiny was foreseen by this man. The saint knew that she had a son and that her husband was very ill. But he also asked her to not shun her son in anyway, but, instead, take care of him and watch him carefully, because he was going nurture her husband back to good health.

“Call him Zakir Hussain, make him the fakir of Hazrat Imam Hussain,” the saint said. “Now, this is interesting, because we are supposedly Sunnis, and Imam Hussain was a Shia. As it turns out, for the next four years, I would be very sick, with fever, or get these unexplained boils, or drink kerosene by accident, just to keep the continuity going,” he laughs, “but funnily, every time I would get sick my father would get better. In that sense, we were connected. My mother made sure that on Muharram, she dressed me up in a green kurta, give me a jhola to go out in the neighbourhood asking for alms, as the fakir of Imam Hussain. Even when I had begun travelling abroad, Amma continued this practise on her own,” reminisces Hussain.

It should hardly surprise one that the name Zakir is derived from the word Zikr, in which the worshipper is absorbed in the rhythmic repetition of the name of god. Often when we hear good music, we tend to call it divine, that it is not possible to play or sing in a certain way without a supreme intervention. Perhaps, it is these divine anecdotes, that often threw reason out of the window, still kept us glued to this musical storyteller. He continues about the wizard that is Ustad Alla Rakha, “We all have a particular kind of DNA. As something that sits in the family, you are expected to take up the profession of your parents or grandparents. But that is not always possible. Like my father belonged to a family of soldiers and farmers. So, in that sense, what he achieved in his lifetime is of real greatness. I, sometimes, feel that the stork that carried my father as a baby probably took a wrong turn! And then said, “oh boy! That was a big mistake, now how do we correct it?”

Dreaming of musicians

Ustad Alla Rakha, as a young child, had dreams wherein he would see faces of musicians. He had no idea how that happened. Says Hussain, “but my analysis is that there were travellers who would play music and he probably heard it somewhere and it remained with him. When he was 11, he was totally flustered. He kept seeing this face and ran away from home. He went to the nearest big city, which was Lahore. There he found his uncle who ran a shop and also discovered a few local musicians, trying to learn from them how to play. The uncle was also a bit of an enthusiast, so he took him to one of those gatherings. My father played well, and the people were impressed. One of them suggested that the boy be taken to a certain teacher so that he could learn more. Behold, the teacher’s face (Miah Kadar Baksh) was the one my father was seeing in his dreams. Perhaps it was a play of the subconscious, we don’t know. Baksh Sahab asked him, “who is your guru?’ And my father said, “you,” to which Baksh Sahib said, “maine toh tumhe nahi dekha,”. So, my father responded, “ji, par maine aapko dekha hai.” The next amusing part is that Alla Rakha’s hand position on the tabla was exactly how Miah Kadar Baksh taught his students.

Many times, Hussain referred to music as a conversation. “If you are born in a family where music lives day and night, it gets inside you. You are hearing it, breathing it, so it is almost like you are learning to speak in a language. You are seeing various shades of grey that is being lightened for you, at the same time allowing you to interpret things the way you want to. My father would wait for me to interpret music. In music, when I say that it is a language, you understand its grammar, its punctuation, etc. You also form words, sentences, paragraphs in this language. This is something that you grow up with, it is not taught,” says Hussain.

As he points out, art itself as the context of life is what is lacking in today’s artistes, perhaps because they try to do too many things together. “These days, a teacher does not have the heart to tell his student if he/she is good or bad,” says Hussain. “I realised that teacher never teaches, instead, a student learns. The student must inspire the teacher to teach. I got the attention from my father only when I twisted what he taught me and played it in a different way. One must learn how to interpret art in his/her own way, and there is no short cut to it. I wish this generation understood it.”

Stirring up nostalgia with intermittent humour was one thing that Hussain did, but, as a veteran whose life is testimony to the hard-work and passion of an entire generation of artistes, Hussain’s stories address a number of dilemmas. But, at the same time, they pose new questions about passion, commitment and questioning itself.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 5:46:56 AM |

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