For Fazal Qureshi, teaching students to play the tabla at the Allarakha Institute of Music is about passing on a legacy. After his father Ustad Allarakha passed away in the year 2000, it was Qureshi who took over as the head teacher at the institute. And about 10 years down the line, Qureshi and his brother Ustad Zakir Hussain decided that the institute needed a revamp.
For two years, classes were shifted to a classroom in Los Angeles School, Matunga, but by July 6, the tabla students will be back at their original haunt in a building at the Shivaji Park pool in Dadar. Qureshi’s interior designer wife has been working on a new look for the one-room school (complete with a stage, a collage backdrop and so on), but luckily, the gorgeous view of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link remains the same.
The institute is getting its makeover, and so will some of the classroom policies. In the meantime, the tabalchi is busy designing some new courses. “I want to introduce some short-term intensive courses especially for those interested in brushing up on their tabla skills,” says Qureshi. He plans to offer lessons in other instruments such as the sitar, sarod and santoor, too. “We could have vocals in the morning and instruments in the evening,” he says.
“I also want to set a syllabus for our courses, something my father never did,” Qureshi reveals. The training was generic earlier, but this time, the 51 year-old wants to include the many aspects to playing the tabla — how to play to accompany (a vocalist or another instrument), to play solo, the peshkar, qayda and so on. But before he finalises anything, he is waiting to discuss things with his brother.
The students will continue to learn the classical technique of the Punjab Gharana. But they will also receive tutorship from musicians across the world. “Zakir bhai will be a guest professor too,” Qureshi explains, “He will drop in and give special lectures.” He adds, “The syllabus has to be personalised, depending on each student. The guru-shishya parampara, and the one-to-one teaching style will continue,” asserts Qureshi, “I don’t take on more than 10 students at a time, which allows me to give personal attention.”
The maestro seldom turns a student away. Enthusiasm is the only criterion. “We once had a Japanese student, who was missing his left hand. That didn’t hold him back from learning the tabla. I had to come up with a completely new way to teach him. And he managed!” Perhaps that’s why the Institute continues to offer classes to people from the underprivileged sections of society too. If the student is talented, it does everything to encourage him, often waiving the fees. “It began when the BMC workers at the pool started bringing in their children,” says Qureshi. They couldn’t afford to pay tuition, but Qureshi decided to teach them anyway.
Age is no bar either. “Music has no age,” he says, “But I find that nine year-olds have the perfect size of hands for the tabla. Any younger and it is slightly difficult.” One of the oldest students they have at the moment is a 60 year-old. “At that age, it becomes more about learning to appreciate the music than being a performer,” he says.
“I’m completely impartial towards my students. That’s one thing I’ve learnt from my father,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “He was very dedicated. No matter where he had been, as soon as he got back, he’d rush to his students. He was very involved.” It is obvious that filling in his father’s shoes is no easy task.
When Ustad Allahrakha started the institute in 1985, it was a pioneering effort. Today, with so many other tabla teachers it still has an upper hand. “Students get to learn from world-famous tabla players,” says Qureshi.