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Ustad Zakir Hussain
Wah! Ustad


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 the tabla.

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 any artiste...

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 styles.

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 of rupees...

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.

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