When Ustad Zakir Hussain mesmerised the audience with his brilliant tabla bols

Suanshu Khurana

Ustad Zakir Hussain is a child prodigy and has always been known to be a brilliant artiste, But at 68, he is moving one notch above his existing legendary status.

There are two kinds of Ustad Zakir Hussain concerts. The first is brilliant, mostly ticketed, and comprises all the exactitude and dexterity that comes with his kind of knowledge and panache, and tends to leave you with a heightened sense of being. After all that’s the purpose of music. Then there is the other kind, where the entry is free, the aisles are brimming with rasiks, senior musicians from various fields find themselves on the floor of the stage and in the aisles, masses and musicians sit in close proximity and listen in, and a wah turns into an aah. The second kind extends a little more. Here, the artiste does a bit more than his usual act. It’s an ode to the gurus who have taught him, an obeisance to a higher power, a hazri in the court of music. And this is where hands spin to create rhythms, something so rare, that it’s remembered for times to come. That it was Saraswati puja, added to the effect.

The evening was a tribute to legendary tabla player Ahmad Jaan Thirakwa, organised by his son, tabla player Rashid Mustafa Thirakwa, at Sri Sathya Sai Auditorium, Lodhi Road, New Delhi. It opened with a performance by Ahmad Jaan’s grandson Shariq Mustafa and was followed by a performance by sarod players Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan. While the sound played spoilsport, they tried to leave the moment behind with the pentatonic Raageshri, a late night raga. The performance was hurried and staccato, even becoming incongruous in the middle, and one wished that they had some time to delve into the raga. We’ve seen better from them.

It was Sabir Khan’s brilliant strokes on the sarangi that announced the arrival of Hussain. The lehra (rhythmic metronome or the repetitive accompanying music in which the tabla beats fit themselves) that he played for the next one and a half hour had some master moments. “These artistes don’t get the appreciation they deserve. Lehra raasta dikhata hai. We do all our tricks and manoeuvres only because there is a brilliant lehra,” he said, after Sabir had a magical stroke moment on the sarangi, a flash that so clearly reminded one of his father, sarangi maestro, Ustad Sultan Khan. While his wife Toni, Amaan and Ayaan settled in the front row, dhrupad singer Wasifuddin Dagar waded through the crowds to get to his seat, and dancer Saswati Sen sat on the stage floor.

After the opening tukra followed by a groovy theka, Hussain delved into lightning-speed taans and improvised. His fingers reached dynamic peaks and valleys, moments when the daanya (the left, smaller drum) dominated the baanya with sounds one hasn’t heard in tabla concerts. He was soon seen head banging to teen taal, going from devotional beats to rock-style rhythms in a jiffy. Hussain then played diverse rhythm structures while reciting the tabla bols and playing them alongside. One of them was his father, Ut Allah Rakha’s composition, that rhythmically defined the solar system. “Ye bade logo ki cheezein hain. Hum bas naqal kar rahe hain,” he said. He mouthed the syllables. The transitions were smooth. The auditorium roared in applause. As the performance reached a crescendo, he dazzled, and like a deft sonic architect arrived at the sam every time with a flourish.

Hussain is a child prodigy and has always been known to be a brilliant artiste, But at 68, he is moving one notch above his existing legendary status. He has begun to have crazy amounts of fun on the stage, he sips on a coloured drink in the middle of his session and tells his audience with a laugh, “It’s only water,” he bows to his fellow accompanying artiste half his age — something we don’t see in Indian classical music often, he pays obeisance to Ahmad Jaan and goddess Saraswati in the same breath, laughs with his audience and shares his internal musical monologues the way not many can.

This is a Zakir Hussain who is a little different. His curls may not have a life of their own like they used to back in the day, but his music surely does. It’s becoming more organic. And that it’s making itself reach a concert stage is significant. He is finding a new idiom that exists in a third kind of concert — where the noble world of caution is thrown to the wind and all that remains is a haze — original, thorough and the kind that is remembered for a lifetime.