USTAD ZAKIR HUSSAIN is best known the world over as a tabla virtuoso. But as with any extra-ordinarily 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 the world to much acclaim, fusing two completely different streams of music by making one (light Indian Classical) dominant, as the other (Western Classical) hovered around the periphery.
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, for four soloists, was premiered at NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) in splendid attendance. (The first concerto was commissioned by SOI; the present one has been commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC).
The second concerto is called ‘Ameen, Amen, Shanti’, best explained in the composer’s own programme notes: ‘As a child 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’ so significant 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 with the tabla as soloist, is dominated by discord to suggest different streams of thought trying to assert their supremacy. The second 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, counterpoints 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, 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. In making the impossible possible, Hussain is showing us that in the hands of a master, oneness can be achieved. The only problem is there aren’t too many masters around, not in music, and especially not outside it.
WHEN A TOP violinist performs you will always find a few references to his instrument, almost certainly a valuable Stradivarius. But when Hussain is giving a concert, do we know anything about his tabla at all? Or about who made it?
TM Krishna, the Carnatic vocalist, known as much for his iconoclasm as his music, asked himself those questions, especially as they related to the percussion instrument used most often in the south: the mridangam. His exploration led him to his new book, Sebastian and 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 instrument. Over the years, caste equations have changed only very slowly. As a mridangam maker says in the book, “Those days they kept us away and discriminated; today, they keep us close and discriminate.”