Making of a maestro

Updated: Mar 13, 2020, 21:45 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

A new picture book brings to life Zakir Hussain's childhood and the cultural diversity he imbibed on his way to becoming a top world musician

Last month, the city saw the India premiere of Ameen, Amen, Shanti, a concerto for four soloists composed by Ustad Zakir Hussain. Addressing the idea in multiple interviews, he spoke about his "normal" upbringing: waking up at 3 am to learn about Indian rhythms and stories of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Saraswati, visiting the madrasa to recite and memorise the Quran Sharif, and then sing hymns at Mahim's St Michael's Church before heading to his classroom. These facts, although now known to the world, are illuminated in the newly released picture book Zakir and His Tabla (Tulika Books) in a different light.

Written by Sandhya Rao and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, this anecdote seems to not only encapsulate his culturally diverse upbringing and its importance in music today but also seems to have foreshadowed his path to worldwide recognition. As Kuriyan says, "You might think of people as talented but it ultimately bottles down to waking up at 3 am. It shows the amount of practice is takes to become perfect." Discipline is a universal language and it's what the first page of the book shows you when Hussain's father Ustad Allarakha Qureshi asks his child, "Do you want to learn to play the tabla?" Faced with an enthusiastic "yes", he wakes him up at 3 am the next day. This eagerness to learn and experiment doesn't die down: the rudiments of percussion make their way to Amma's cheeks, pots and pans, and as a consequence of his antics, dal on his T-shirt.

Priya Kuriyan and Sandhya Rao

The insight offered by the book into Hussain's childhood has a palpable quality; almost as if the maestro himself commissioned it, providing generous inputs along the way. That wasn't the case, though. Rao says he wasn't directly involved in the conceptualisation and research process, which began over a year ago. She does regret not asking him. "The moment the book was commissioned, I simply plunged into the research initially just losing myself in the music. Then, once the story started to take shape in my head, it was only that and nothing else, for nearly a year," Rao says. Having been exposed to Indian classical music at an early age and through her journalistic career, for further research, she read and watched his interviews, accessed the film The Speaking Hand by Sumantra Ghoshal, and read Nasrin Munni Kabir's Zakir Hussain: A Life in Music.



Both Rao and Kuriyan listened to Hussain's work online. A challenge for the illustrator was the paucity of images from his childhood available on the Internet. She watched his performances to capture the physicality of his movements and also partly drew from memory. "I remember seeing Dayanita Singh's book at the NID library a long time ago and thinking about how cool he was. People stereotype classical musicians as being serious," Kuriyan says. That facet of the musician becomes more evident through the last few pages of the picture book which depicts the stage of his life when he's making a mark in Europe and America; The Beatles shirt he's wearing says it all.

Pics Courtesy/Priya Kuriyan

The relevance of a narrative like this, for children, at a time fuelled by insular ideologies cannot be understated. Rao says, "What I hope is that this will inspire young people not only to find out more about Zakir Hussain, but also open their ears and hearts to the magic of music, wherever it is made, by whoever and in whatever way."

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