I have interviewed and written about many artists on this website till date. This is first time when I am writing something about Ustad Zakir Hussain. I have countless memories which resonate with divine music of Ustad Zakir Hussain. Infinite impressions are created both by his music and his being. As I have many times said, an artist is not only his art but a lot more than that. Zakir Bhai, in true sense has a lot of this ‘lot more’.
Zakir Hussain, through his music, has helped me many times and I am very much sure that I am one of the countless persons who are knowingly and unknowingly helped by his music. Through his music, I have learnt many lessons and learned a better way to live my life. One might wonder how listening to a Tabla performance can teach someone so many things. But yes, if the music is hijacked by the god, it can even wake up the dead.
Zakir Hussain and other Tabla players
Though I do not like to compare artists, I always like to discuss what makes the tallest peak ‘the tallest’. Undoubtedly, Ustad Zakir Hussain is the tallest peak in world of Tabla today. I have attended many concerts where Tabla was either a solo instrument or an accompanying instrument. These concerts were given by different Tabla players, Zakir Hussain being one of them. Keeping my eyes open helped me to learn many things about him which in my opinion differentiate him from the others. I will share them one by one.
1. Understanding music of the main performing artist
Ustad Zakir Hussain has tremendous understanding (sometimes even more than the main artist himself!) of the way artist he is going to accompany performs. If you listen carefully, other Tabla players play in same way every time, with every instrument and everty artist. On the other hand, the way Zakir Bhai plays changes with the artist, changes with the instrument. The way he accompanies Santoor is different than the way he accompanies Sitar or flute. In order to attain this level of performance, the accompanying artist has to have a deep understanding of the instrument and also the artist. On this front, he is beyond any parallel in today’s world.
2. Thorough knowledge of sound system and acoustics
As we do, artists also tend to avoid the technical part- acoustics and sound check. My experience tells that Zakir Hussain has in depth knowledge of sound systems, acoustics and other technical things. In all the concerts I attended, Zakir Bhai religiously did the sound check, paying attention to the finest of the details. As a result, each of his concert is supported by highest quality of sound.
3. Humbler than the humblest
I respect Zakir Hussain for his humble nature. His humbleness is not borrowed. It is not for show. He is humble. It is very natural in his being. I have always seen him respecting old and learned people, forgiving organizers for small mistakes. I remember one of my friend telling me his first-hand experience where after a concert, Ustad Zakir Hussain lifted the Chappals (Indian type of footwear) of Pt. Shivkumar Sharma and brought them to him. In fact, his understanding of music of other artists also comes from this humble nature.
Zakir Hussain as an accompanist
I look at Zakir Hussain as best accompanying artist. I also remember the lit up faces of many music lovers when they came to know that the particular artist was being accompanied by Zakir Hussain. As already discussed, he has good understanding of different instruments and artists and he performs accordingly. Is that the only thing which separates him out? No, and the list is very long.
1. Pt. Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain
If someone asks me about which concert would be my highest priority concert, it would be this combination where Pt. Shivkumar Sharma is accompanied by Ustad Zakir Hussain. I remember a concert by these two great artists where Pt Shivkumar Sharma said that accompanists like Zakir Bhai are rarely born. The music of Pt. Shivkumar Sharma is meditative. His strokes and patterns are meditative. If the accompanying artist is not aware of this fact, his strokes tend to disturb this meditative quality of the music. The legacy of Zakir Hussain rests in the fact that his Tabla always adds to the meditative quality of music and it never disturbs it.
Accompanying Pt. Shivkumar Sharma is one of the most difficult task as the artist has to be highly attentive. Many times, a clear stress can be observed on the faces of artists accompanying him when they realize that they have lost it!
I still remember a concert which took place around three years ago, at Ganesh Kala Krida Manch, Pune, where Pt. Shivkumar Sharma was accompanied by Zakir Hussain. The theatre was full, with not a single chair empty. It was the last part- the climax of the concert, very end of fast composition in Raga Puriya Kalyan.
At that point, where both the artists could not afford to stop for even a fraction of second, one stoke of Ustad Zakir Hussain slipped a bit. Hardly anyone of thousands of people noticed it- it was a very subtle issue. The greatness of Zakir Hussain is, he touched his right ear even at that moment.
I appreciate this honesty, of accepting one’s mistake, so small that no one can even notice it. On the other hand, I have seen many famous Tabla players going out of rhythm with a wide smile on their faces- to pretend the crowd that they are playing with rhythm and nothing has gone wrong.
2. Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia and Ustad Zakir Hussain
Once, I had this opportunity to listen to Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia and the accompanying artist was Zakir Hussain. I could not attend the concert as I had to visit another city. But, I have an album, named Posession where Hariji and Zakir Bhai perform together at Osho Ashram (Now Osho International Meditation Resort, Pune). The album has Ragas Hansdhwani, Puriya Kalyan, Kala Ranjani and Pahadi.
This album possession truly shows what Zakir Hussain is. His Tabla talks with the flute. One can feel that both the instruments are having a conversation with each other. Infinite number of times I have listened to all of the recordings but still, they are fresh and they are alive.
3.Ustad Zakir Hussain: The king of Humor
Zakir Bhai is one of the most lively and humorous artists. His humor is pure, fresh and innocent. I have many impressions of his humorous behavior left on my heart. I remember a concert where the anchor was praising him without any limits. Silently, Zakir Bhai left his seat, stood behind the anchor and made him horns with his hands!
In another concert, where Niladri Kumar was frustrated while tuning his instrument (and which was not getting tuned), Zakir Hussain called him and asked him if he needs the hammer to tune it.
Zakir Hussain as a Solo Tabla Player
Playing Solo Tabla demands an altogether different judgment and RIyaz compared to playing Tabla as an accompanying artist. If you have to be best at both, you have to be Zakir Hussain.
Everyone has his own purpose behind watching or listening to any art form. What is my purpose? What am I looking for when I attend a concert? During a concert, if the artist is divine enough, there comes a time where the controls of the performance shift from artist to the divine. This is what I call as ‘hijacked by the divine’. This transition is something for which the artist performs. I can experience this transition in Zakir Bhai’s music. Whenever I go to a concert, I am waiting for this transition- it may happen or it may not. When Zakir Hussain is performing, it always happens!