Whoever listens to the maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain play live on the stage feels compelled to say, ‘Wah Ustad’. And that’s exactly what he doesn’t want to be addressed as. “Please don’t call me Ustad, call me Zakir,” he says. The tabla maestro, who performed live in the city on January 9, feels that there are at least 15 tabla players [in India], who are just as good as he is. Excerpts from an interview.
You are one of the most popular faces of Indian classical music. How do you feel about it?
I feel sad. It hurts me, because people aren’t paying attention to others as well. I know there is a saying, “Every dog has its day.” So I’m the dog and I am having my day, so I’ll stand out. I understand that. For me, it’s important to make people understand that there are at least 15 tabla players [in India] who are just as good as I am, and on their days, even better. I think doing endorsements and a few movies have added that extra glamour to my name. People say, ‘Tabla… oh... Zakir Hussain.’ It is not my tabla playing that has done that, it’s something else. We have a great bunch of musicians who are fabulous — discover them, find them, adopt them and support them. If you do that music will flourish. Or else, it’ll die with me.
How seriously does your family take your celebrity status?
There is saying in India, ‘Ghar ki murgi daal barabar’. My mother would always say, ‘Would you guys stop practicing, you are giving me a headache’. So, [we had] no izzat (respect) at home (laughs). It’s like, ‘Alright, can you make the bed or just take the dog for a walk’. And I’m thankful for that. You are given so much adulation and respect that when you come home, you are brought down to the earth and reality sinks in. That’s why I enjoy having a home in California, (USA), because I can go to the grocery store, plant tomatoes and chillies, clean the house, wash the dishes and cook.
It’s hard to believe that you like doing household chores…
Yes, it’s normal. When I come here in India, I’m not allowed to lift a finger. I’m not even allowed in my kitchen. It’s like ‘What do you want.. oh tea? I’ll make it… oh you want this, I’ll get it’. Adulation is surely a humbling experience, but when I come home, I realise that I’m just Zakir. As soon as that happens, I have an identity. When you say Ustad, I feel like I’m some kind of a superficial entity. I am grateful that my family has the comfort to look into my eyes and say come down to earth.
You make your concerts lively by adding many fun elements to it. Are they spontaneous?
I’ve developed a relationship with my instrument. We are friends and one in spirit. So, when you get on to the stage, you are a bunch of friends. I bring my friends — my tabla along, the sitar player brings his, and we are having a great time on stage. So, why can’t you share the same thing with the audience? The audience comes to have a good time. The thing I enjoy the most is to be able to have the audience join me in this great picnic that we are having on stage.
I enjoy having a home in California, (USA), because I can go to the grocery store, plant tomatoes and chillies, clean the house, wash the dishes and cook. Ustad Zakir Hussain
You even call audiences on the stage…
Why not? The audience is part of the whole process of what happens on stage. If they are not there, we don’t mean anything. It’s a fact. The audience takes the time to listen to you, to appreciate you, that’s how the things we do become important.
You are being honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the SF Jazz Center in the US.
Yes, the biggest jazz centre in the world is giving me a lifetime achievement award on January 18. The mayor, the governor of California and senators are going to be there. Other great musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Michael Tilson Thomas, among others, will be there, and they are all going to prepare speeches for me. I feel honoured to receive the award from these great musicians. I’m the first Indian to be given a lifetime achievement award from a jazz institution [San Francisco Jazz Center].