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Mumbai Notebook

By Anil Dharker

05th March 2020

Ustad Zakir Hussain is best known the world over as a tabla virtuoso. But as with any extraordinarily gifted artist, he has explored other fields. Years ago, he collaborated with violinist L Shankar, classical guitar maestro John McLaughlin, mridangam player Ramnad Raghavan and legendary ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram to form the fusion group Shakti. Shakti toured all over the world to much acclaim, fusing two completely different streams of music by making one (light Indian Classical) to being the dominant part of the fusion, with Western Classical music hovering around the periphery.

Zakir Hussain is not likely to discard his many hats, but the one he seems to be favouring in recent years is that of composer. A couple of years ago, he wrote his first Tabla Concerto; last month the second, a concerto for 4 soloists, was premiered at NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre with the Symphony Orchestra of India in splendid attendance. (The first concerto was commissioned by SOI, while the present one has been commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington D C).

The second concerto is called Ameen, Amen, Shanti, best explained in the composer’s own programme notes: “As a child,” (Zakir Hussain writes), “I was brought up in what appeared to me to be a ‘normal upbringing’. Around 4 AM, I would sit with my father (the legendary Alla Rakha) and learn about Indian rhythms and their divine sources – Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesha, Lord Krishna, Goddess Saraswati, and more. At 6.30 AM, I would go to the madrasa and learn to recite and memorise the Quran Sharif, and at 8 AM, I would walk across the street to St Michael’s Church (in Mumbai’s Mahim suburb), sing the hymns, and then march to my classroom.”

The fact that this childhood is anything but ‘a normal upbringing’ is what makes Ameen, Amen, Shanti such a significant composition for our times. It is, in spite of the all-encompassing gloom that envelops us, an optimistic work because it speaks of the oneness of human beings in spite of the differences of religion, language and politics. Try saying that aloud anywhere in India today, and you will be greeted with cynical laughter.

The first movement which starts off with the tabla as soloist, is dominated by discord to suggest different streams of thought trying to assert their supremacy. The second movement is a gradual getting together as realisation dawns that everyone is working towards the same ultimate goal. The final movement is a celebration, the mood moving towards joyful ecstasy.

This, of course, is the philosophical underpinning of the concerto; to put it together as an orchestral piece of music is an altogether different matter. Ever since I heard Ravi Shankar perform his first Sitar Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s, I have been convinced that it is impossible to do an orchestral work featuring an Indian soloist and Indian Classical music. An orchestra works around harmonies, counter-points and the like, and a raga will not allow the composer to use four notes in one layer which the orchestra needs. If the composer jettisons the raga, it is no longer a fusion composition.

By a complex process of using the rhythm of his tabla, snatches of Hindustani classical music sung by Shankar Mahadevan and Carnatic music by Hariharan, plus operatic lines sung by the brilliant mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, Zakir Hussain manages to go beyond the orchestra playing a raga (it dangerously skirts around that at one point), to achieve a brilliant orchestration blending tradition and modernity seamlessly together. In making the impossible possible, Zakir Hussain is showing us that in the hands of a master, oneness of humanity can be achieved. The only problem is that there aren’t too many masters around, not in music, and especially outside it.

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When a top violinist performs you will always find a few references to his instrument, almost certainly a valuable Stradivarius. But when Zakir Hussain is giving a concert, do we know anything about his tabla at all? Or about who made it?

T M Krishna, the Carnatic vocalist, known as much for his iconoclasm as his music, asked himself that question, especially as it related to the percussion instrument used most often in the South, the mridangam. His exploration of the subject led him to his new book, Sebastian & Sons.

The title itself holds the key: a mridangam is made of the wood of a jackfruit tree and various animal skins – goat, buffalo and cow. Therein lies the huge contradiction: the skin of a cow is the most important element of a professional mridangam, often played by Brahmins. The maker of the instrument deals with the unsavoury part – the blood and gore of butchery, the skinning of the animal and other details the higher caste player prefers not to think about. It’s the lower castes, Dalits and converted Christians, who make the instruments. Over the years, caste equations may have changed, but they have done so very slowly. As one of the mridangam makers says in the book, “Those days they kept us away and discriminated; today, they keep us close and discriminate.”

There’s oneness in humanity, for sure, but it’s far, far away.