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Zakir Hussain: Never has a priest or a mullah taught me what they say is the only truth

Music maestro Zakir Hussain was in conversation with director and author Nasreen Munni Kabir and Sanjoy K Roy at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018. The maestro reminisced about his musical journey, his relationship with instruments, his father, and much more.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 26, 2018 16:10 IST
Samreen Tungekar
Samreen Tungekar
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018,JLF 2018
In 2017, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain was awarded the lifetime achievement award at the SF Jazz Gala 2017. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

If the tabla hadn’t become his voice, music maestro Zakir Hussain said he would have been a jazz musician. During a conversation with director and author Nasreen Munni Kabir and Sanjoy K Roy, Zakir ‘bhai’, who is a man of few words, though not of musical notes, reminisced about his musical journey, his relationship with instruments, and with his father, the late Ustaad Allahrakha Qureshi, who, the musician says, sang a rhythm in his ear instead of reciting a prayer when he was born.

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It is important to build a relationship with your instrument, Hussain said during the session. “Become friends with the instrument. Once you establish a relationship with the instrument, it stays with you,” he said. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

In 2017, Zakir was awarded the lifetime achievement award at the SF Jazz Gala 2017. Launching into a discussion on spontaneity being the common factor between jazz and Indian classical music, he reveals that jazz comes naturally to him.

“Jazz and Indian classical both believe in spontaneous creativity. I was the first boy in my neighbourhood that had a boombox. My father used to bring home jazz records that I used to listen to, especially Miles Davis, and that’s how I developed an interest,” he said.

He recounts his first jam session with jazz legend Miles Davis: “I was so occupied with impressing him that I went off on a tangent! As I was playing, he walked up to me and whispered in my ears ‘Too many ****** notes!’ and that’s when I learnt that less is more. It’s the same with Indian classical music -- to say in one word everything your life is all about!”

It is important to build a relationship with your instrument. “Become friends with the instrument. Each instrument has a spirit of its own and half the battle is to get the spirit to accept you. Once you establish a relationship with the instrument, it stays with you,” he said adding that he has much to thank his father for.

Even his relationship with and mastery of the tabla is credited to his father, as Ustaad Allahrakha did not bind him. “If I felt like I want to play cricket, I did that, and then I would practice. My father let me be, he let me practice when I wanted to,” he said.

“If you are mad enough to be in the art world, you have to take a leap of faith and believe the spirit it provides,” the tabla maestro said. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

While emphasising the importance of understanding the spirit of creative freedom and the true nature of music, the conversation touches on issues that have become relevant today. “From 3am to 6am, I practised slokas with my father, and then I went to the madrassa to read the Qu’ran. After that, I crossed the street to St Michael’s Church to listen to hymns and marched to my classes humming. Never has a priest or a mullah ever tried to teach me that what they are saying is the only truth. Those were different times,” he said.

But back to the freedom of creative expression: “If you are mad enough to be in the art world, you have to take a leap of faith and believe the spirit it provides. Fences of art have been further broken down, and it doesn’t matter what the world is doing, unity is the positivity of the art world,” he said.

Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book Zakir Hussain: A Life In Music, has documented the musician’s journey. The book happened over two years and about 20 sessions. “My work has been about cinema and the connect to films has a lot to do with music. To enter the world of music, I wanted to speak to someone like Zakir sahab,” she said.

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First Published: Jan 26, 2018 16:10 IST