Arguably one of the most talented artistes our country has ever witnessed, Ustad Zakir Hussain left the audience spellbound at the recently held Homage to Abbaji concert. With the much-awaited Remember Shakti slated on February 7, Ustad was in a charming mood and wore a welcoming smile as he told Surekha S about bossing around his younger brothers Taufiq and Fazal, his impressions of Anoushka Shankar and Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, and the joy of being part of the tradition of Indian music

How much have you been influenced by your father Ustad Allarakha?
My father represents a deep culture; a world where music and rhythm is a religion by itself; a place where Ustad Allarakha, a devout Muslim can claim that he is Saraswati's pujari and be that way. It represents a whole different world of unity in disparity and a passion for an art form that in itself is a meditation mode that allows you to talk to divinity. I grew up watching him. If you asked me to describe God, I would have to say he is like my father and has my father's personality. He has shaped the person I am without a hammer and chisel and continues to do so.

Pics/ Pradeep Dhivar

Do you think the meditative quality associated with music has diminished over the years?
On the contrary it has blossomed. Look at how many young musicians you know of today. Rakesh Chuarasia, Rahul Sharma, Niladri Kumar -- all these musicians have come forward to say I am here to represent this. Amaan and Ayaan, Anoushka Shankar... a whole young breed of musicians are doing fusion work but when you call them asking them to perform at a classical concert, they agree and they do a great job.
Has the guru-shishya relationship changed over the years?
These young kids who learn music know how to act and interact with musicians like Ravi Shankar and I. The other day Niladri Kumar, Taufiq and I were at the Mumbai airport, when in walked Amjad Ali Khan Saab. Almost immediately everyone gravitated towards him and bowed to him. There were these young boys in jeans and cowboy boots touching his feet. It was amazing to watch this at 5.30 am at an airport. It amazes me how cultures have meshed together. One day you can be a person performing sitar funk while another day, you will be performing Raag Malkaus. When you see this in India, you take heart.

What kind of a teacher was your father? Was he a strict guru?
He was strict when it came to the basic elements of tabla. He made sure I did my tables and it was important that they were done right. After that he let me find for myself what I was all about.

You started touring and performing at the age of 12. When did you actually start learning the tabla?
I can't remember. But I have heard that even when I was just a newborn, my father would whisper the bol (notations) of tabla in my ears. I don't think there was ever a definite starting point of my training.

Tell us about performing as a youngster.
I was just 10 when I started performing professionally with my father. Then, I was this enthusiastic child. I did not realise the enormity of what I was part of. It dawned upon me much later. When all that information comes to you, you become nonchalant about it. But it grabbed me and pulled me into it. Our first record together was released by HMV when I was 22. Once after a performance, a fan came to my father and said "Your son plays just like you." To that my father replied, "I hope he plays better than and differently from me."

What are your fondest memories of your father?
He was a very loving man. Once we had gone to Indore for a performance and were coming back by train. I was 11 years old then. I was thirsty and asked him for some water. He got off at Ratlam station and went to get water. The train started to move and he started running to catch it, but was careful not to spill any water. He wanted to make sure I got as much of the water as possible. That human element in him was omnipresent. He would cook for his students. They were all like his sons. That's why they all called him Abbaji.

Did you and your brothers Taufiq and Fazal practice together?
I'm about 11 and 12 years older than my brothers. So in that sense I'm almost like an uncle. I got the first 11 years alone with my dad. By the time they began training at about three or four, I was already a busy tabla player in the professional sense. I was travelling for performances. We got some time with our dad together. Half the time when I was at home I was watching over their practice. I was a senior student and needed to boss somebody (laughs).

So, were you strict with them?
No, because I realised early on that I needed to allow them to find their own way. Therefore, to herd them with blinkers on was not right, as long they did their tables (laughs), which they did under dad anyway. So, by the time they got to me, it was more about sharing my experiences with them. Because of the experiences with grand musicians, it installed a different way of looking at rhythm in Taufiq. And he became a great Djembe player. Fazal chose to be closer to the traditional art form and was more focused on tabla. It's great that they took the same information and found different ways of expressing it. That would not have happened if I had put blinkers on them. I'm very proud of these two boys. But, these two are not the only ones who came out of the house of Ustad Allarakha. There are many successful tabla players like Yogesh Samsi, Anuradha Pal and Aditya Kalyanpur who are successful professional musicians. I am happy the information was not restricted to just us three brothers.

Usually in music performances there is a lot of improvisation. How does that work?
Indian music is based on improvisation. You take all the information you have, sift through it and assemble it the way you see it and put it forth as your take. The teacher gives you all the raw elements and you put the dish together. That's why Indian music is fun. I don't have to play exactly what my teacher taught me. He expects me to deviate, rearrange and reorganise the information he has given me. He'll be upset if I don't. I think apart from Jazz there is no other music form in the world that allows you that kind of freedom. That is why it is so exciting to have a jam session, where everyone is allowed to speak their mind. Anyone who knows music has an in-built ability to spontaneously express himself and react and interact to whatever is happening on stage.