What does the Grammy mean to you?
(Taking a deep breath) It’s recognition for sure but I’d be equally honoured, maybe more, to bag a Padma Bhushan or a Padma Shri.
In India, we tend to give more importance to wins abroad — a Grammy or an Oscar — and that’s sad. I feel any award, whether a Padma, a Grammy, or an Oscar, is just a token of appreciation. But to say, “Wow, I’ve won a Grammy!” and make it seem like you’ve scaled a Himalayan peak doesn’t make sense to me.
It’s not an incentive then?
Oh, it definitely is. It’s such a joy to see the Indian flag fluttering in the bastion of the western music world. Three Indian musicians (AR Rahman, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Zakir Hussain) are in contention for a Grammy this year and that’s something that’s never happened before.
Musicians from well-known gharanas go out there and shine. What about those who don’t come from a certain school of music?
Well, even they train under some teacher, so by default they too are a part of a particular gharana. Take the case of Hariharan who’s studying with Ghulam Mustafa Khan saab, who is a doyenne of Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. I’ve studied under the Punjab gharana tradition, following in the footsteps of my father (Ustad Alla Rakha). But I’ve expanded my thinking on tabla and my style today is a concoction of many different gharanas.
Given that your father was a great percussionist, was tabla a natural choice for you?
It was. Sometimes I think, “If I weren’t playing the tabla, what would I do?” Since I was a child, this is the instrument that I knew would be my mode of communication with my teacher, guru and my father. (Smiles) I still love it and vice versa.
What’s your take on Bollywood music?
It’s great; it’s what India is all about and not about us trying to copy hip-hop, rap, house music or whatever. If anything, we are enhancing these genres and that’s one of the reasons why Hollywood has taken notice of Bollywood. They are now looking to India to show them what else can be done.
So, is fusion the only way to package classical music now and endear it to the masses?
No, all I’m saying is that we should be able to make use of whatever means we have at our disposal to make our traditional art forms visible. When Pandit Ravi Shankar composed for the Symphony Orchestra or worked with jazz artistes, he was showcasing classical music. Many great composers in Bollywood made classical compositions immortal by having them sung by Mohd Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. There used to be a show on Vividh Bharati on which they’d choose ragas sung by classical artistes and play the Bollywood tunes that were based on them.
Who’s the next big percussionist?
There are at least 15 percussionists who play as well as me, if not better. At one time, there were five or six incredible sitar players but people only talked about Ravi Shankar because that’s who the media saw. Similarly, there are many fine tabla players but the media needs to discover them. Swapan Chowdhury, my brother Fazal Qureshi, Anuradha Pal, Yogesh Samshi, Satyajit Talwalkar, Rashid Mustafa, Shubhankar Banerjee... just Google ‘tabla’ and you will find them all.
You’ve been having a concert on your father’s
barsifor 10 years now. What’s the highlight this time?
I showcase something that I’ve been doing throughout the year, on every
. In the middle of last year, we lost one of the greatest instrumentalists of the world— Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. So, I wanted to pay a tribute to him as well. I have asked his younger son Alam Khan to perform. He’d probably be one of the torchbearers of the new kind of Indian music.
‘He gave up Bollywood to concentrate on classical tabla’
On his abba, Ustad Alla Rakha: The guru is a package in the Indian scheme of things. He teaches you the art, helps you with your education, in fact, your whole way of life. Having said that, I have to add that he is governed by his own set of discipline. In my case, anything my father did was an extension of his life as a musician. That’s the way it is today with a younger disciple and me.
One of the things that people don’t know much about my father is that he was an A-class singer on All India Radio. He also acted in some movie, whose name I can’t recall, as the second lead. He did playback for Prithviraj Kapoor and was a Bollywood composer for some 30 odd films. No other Indian classical musician can boast of this kind of a portfolio.
He was also the first Indian percussionist to interact with international performers. When people say I’m one of the forefront guys, I remind them that my abba started it all. He gave up the glittering world of Bollywood to concentrate on classical tabla. That was a big sacrifice but he followed his heart. That’s something I’ve learned from him.
‘We just crowd the studio with everything’
On composing for Hollywood and Bollywood: Composing for Hollywood is a little more difficult because not all of these movies have songs, and songs are easier to do. In Bollywood, music is overpowering; in Hollywood, it is understated.
I was called in to be the ‘music authenticator’ for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. The intention was not only to recreate the music of the time, but also bring in the instruments of the era. And to give the director what he wants with the little that is available to you, is really difficult. You are not only composing but researching the music as well.
In Bollywood, we just crowd the studio with everything that we have and make strong, maybe beautiful music that we don’t really need. An orchestra of 40-50 musicians in Bollywood would be pared down to five to six musicians at the most, in the West. And rather than spending a month on the background score, I’d be working no more than five days.
Another important difference is that in Bollywood, the music director sometimes doesn’t do the background score. He merely composes the songs and is not involved in what actually is the most important music in the film.
‘You have to be recognised in your country first’
On his now frequent trips to India: People often ask me, “Why do you stay away from India so much?” It’s a ‘once a thief, always a thief’ kind of situation. But I’m just one of the many Indian musicians who spend many months abroad, I’m not the only one! The music season here is from the end of October to early March. Once the heat sets in, there’s very little to do here. So we go abroad.
But to be recognised anywhere else in the world, you have to be a name in your own country first. Today with Google around, you can’t go around saying, “I’m one of the great masters of Indian music” even if it’s not true. That’s one reason why all Indian musicians are spending more time in India now. They are paying their dues, getting rejuvenated, interacting with fellow musicians and finding new elements. It’s something that every aspiring artiste needs to do. And to be accepted here, you have to be known to not just the connoisseurs, but the masses too.
‘It’s not an experiment in a lab’
On ‘fusion’ music: It’s hard to discuss an experimental form of music since we’re still finding new elements and adding them to the potpourri. To call it ‘fusion’ is actually an insult, since it makes it sound like a recent experiment in a lab.
The experimenting actually began a thousand years ago. The north Indian Khayal is a fusion, so are Thumri, Dadra and Chaiti. Any kind of art form needs to reinvent to grow. There are no dos and don’ts…no rules.
About 150 years ago, a classical musician from Rampur went to Benaras, heard a boatman singing a beautiful tune on the Ganga, found similar elements in a raga and adapted it. Today, we go to London, walk by the Thames, hear an Irish musician playing a folk tune on the hammered dulcimer, and recognise it as raga Bhupali. That’s what Rahman did—used Irish flutes in his compositions.
The world is getting smaller and therefore your reach is getting longer. Most musicians pick up elements, I’m no exception. I would not advise you to ape verbatim, like a xerox copy, but fuse the elements to create something new.