INTERVIEW: Star tabla player ZAKIR HUSSAIN talks to G.A. RIZVI about
his early training, his celebrity father and the future of classical music in the
age of MTV.
Music has been a way of life in your family
for generations ...
Farming has been our occupation for generations...
It was only my father who deviated into
music. No one in my father's family was interested
in music. I don't know how it came about, but one
thing is for sure--talent in music is God's gift and
my father, I feel, was the chosen one.
How did your association with music begin?
When I was just a day or two old, they brought me
home from the hospital for the first time. My father
took me in his arms and whispered in my ears the
notes of the tabla. Otherwise, it is customary to say
holy words in the ears of a child. Thus, it was decided
that I would take up the tabla. He used to take me in
his lap everyday and recite the beats of the tabla for
an hour or more. This created in me the desire to
master the art of playing the tabla. At the age of two
or three I had already developed a liking for the art.
I used to quietly smuggle out vessels from the kitchen,
place them upside down and imitate my father playing
When did you start formal training?
I used to pick up a lot while my father used to do
his riyaz and at times I too played the tabla. Thus
when at the age of seven I played the tabla confidently
on stage, my father felt I might as well be given formal
training. Secondly, at that age, the hands of a child
are supple and adapt well to the tabla. Plus, the child
can also concentrate more.
So your father helped you a lot ...
Definitely. He is not only my father but also my
guru. He used to come back home from programmes
at two or three in the morning. Yet, he used to wake
me up and sit with me for three hours at a stretch
and train me on the tabla. He also used to take me
along with him to the various music programmes he
attended. He always insisted on regular practice. We
used to keep playing the whole day and mother often
complained about it, but to no avail.
The Allah Rakha--Ravi Shankar duo was very
popular, but you didn't pair up the same way with
Yes, they teamed up for about 26-27 years. And such
popularity has been unheard of in the history of Indian
classical music. They were bound by love and
friendship. They always paired up together, wherever
they went for a concert. Their pair was thus popular
all around the world. Even today they meet with the
same love and fervour. I am still at the learning stage.
The more people I play, the more knowledge I gain. I
have paired up a lot with the santoor maestro Shiv
Kumar Sharma. He is very dear to me and playing
with him inspires a very different feeling in me. Perhaps
it is the same feeling that my father and Ravi
Shankarji shared. In fact, there was a time when
Shivji and I used to pair up so much that people had
come to expect me to be there when Shivji was to
play, and Shivji when I was to play. It was then that
both of us felt that we should also pair up with other
artistes. Now, I pair up with Ali Akbar Khansaab
Ravi Shankarji, my father and many others.
Your father once said that to be good at tabla
concert, you should also be able to sing.
Our Indian classical music always inspires
creativity ... You should know the rag a, the tala, and
what the constraints of the particular raga are. One
should know which master has composed the music
in which particular rag a, otherwise one cannot understand
the intricacies of music or the feelings involved.
Thus it is only by singing that one gets the feel of
the tabla. I have also learnt some aspects of Kathak
dancing, apart from music. There are very few tabla
.players who can accompany a vocal recital, a dance
performance and play solo. There are only eight to
ten tabla player in India who can play all the an gas.
One is my father, the others are Pandit Kishan
Maharaj, Pandit Shamta Prasad and so on. However
among the new generation of tabla players there are
only four or five, including me, who can play all the
The younger generation today is more inclined
towards Western music. How do you see the future
of tabla in the wake of MTV?
I don't feel that just because people listen more to
Western music, it means a dismal future for the tabla.
One should listen to all kinds of music. Even Hindi
film music can be considered Western music. And it
isn't as if classical music is not popular. It is very
popular and not just in India but all over the world
... Classical music is not for the masses. It is not
meant to blare out of stereo phones. It is something
that one listens to in a group ... where hearts meet
and a closeness is created with the music. The same
however, cannot be achieved if it is played in a stadium.
Classical music today is very commercialized.
The total expenditure on a program me, including
the payment made to the artiste, runs into lakhs
And if it is a film personality's program me, then it
costs crores of rupees, and if it is a rock show, it
costs millions of rupees! Artistes do not get an allow
ance from the government and neither is there a committee
that takes care of an artiste when he grows
old. There is no system to ask the ariste to retire at
60 or 65 and to pay him Rs 10,000 every month. I
have seen great artistes die in abject poverty and legends
being reduced to destitution. Earlier they used
to call classical artistes to perform for, say, Rs 1,000
or 1,500. If Asha Bhonsle was called, the amount
would be Rs 25,000. When asked why there was this
discrimination, they used to say that theirs was a
"commercial" programme. If others do not care for
us, we have to take care of ourselves. It is for their
own security that classical music performers today
demand a comparatively higher fee.
Are you planning to give music for films?
I am not much interested in giving music for films.
There is no proper organisation there. Every thing is
done as and when there is time. Deadlines are never
met. Plus, one has to prepare at least five to ten tunes
for one song, of which the director chooses only one.
Also, the songs are not recorded in one sitting. If today
we record two songs, then the next song is recorded
only a month later. I have to travel round the
world for programmes and hence find it tough to give
time to films and their erratic schedules ... However
I have given music for Bernardo Bertolucci's film The
Little Buddha and Ismail Merchant's In Custody. Giving
music for these films was very convenient because
everything was organised beforehand and it
went as per schedule. I would like to give music for
films provided it gives me enough time to pursue my
first love playing the tabla.