Why Ustad Zakir Hussain must be put in his rightful place

Shivaji Dasgupta
New Update

Zakir Hussain (File photo)

Kolkata: March 9 is the 71st birthday of the legendary tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain and quite naturally, wishes are pouring in from across the universe. He is undeniably a first-class musician but even more undeniably, a genius brand.


Before I let loose my dilettante thinking, a few basic ground truths. The doyen of the Punjab Gharana, Zakir is a mesmeric performer, blending conceptual acumen with showmanship in unmatched tandem. His quality was unleashed at a fairly young age and over the years, succeeded majestically in building global musical alliances, epitomised wonderfully by the band Shakti which recently toured India. Careers of aspiring instrumentalists can be jet-propelled overnight if he consents to partner them on stage and he has intelligently evolved the grace and innovation of his craft.

But then, it is equally true that his aura emanates from exceptional branding and not necessarily from superlative skills, although this cannot be held against him. Those interested in the Bollywood tales of nepotism must know that their founding father is the revered Guru-Shishya parampara of Indian classical music. When born to or bred by a master of repute, an expressway to privileges open up effortlessly and unless there is a serious deficiency in talent or application, a first-class career is assured.

This is never the case with first-generation talent who do not bear this legacy advantage and have to combat the much-hated ‘Star System’, applicable for premier music conferences and recording contracts. In the pre-independence days, the princely states played the role of objective impresarios and ITC attempted the same through the Sangeet Research Academy. The latter is responsible for a whole host of quality outcomes, the most renowned being Rashid Khan, although blessed with a familial ( adopted) Guru like Nisar Hussain Khan. ITC provided regular performance opportunities for this pool, which also opened the path for appropriate careers.


In tabla, for instance, entire legions of superficial fans may believe that Zakir is the Don Bradman of the piece, with nobody in hearing distance. This is patently not true and can be confirmed by even the moderately-interested listener and I make the deliberate distinction with ‘fan’. Whether for standalone solo gigs or accompaniment to the sitar, sarod or surbahar, the percussion premier league is populated by more than just a few.

Swapan Chowdhury, the preferred partner to Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee, is the smoothest ‘sangaat’ artiste I have heard, blending subtly and never disturbing the flow. Kumar Bose produces a tonal quality from his ‘baya’ which is spookily ethereal and Anindo Chatterjee’s clarity would have inspired Amar Gopal Bose. Sabir Khan of Farukkabad is like a soothing ‘pahalwan’ in his bold expositions as was true, the late Kishan Maharaj who transported the soul of Benaras when he played. Ahmedjan Thirakwa I have only heard on LP records but the hiraeth lingers to this day and you must believe when I say that there are many more from where they came from.

Zakir Hussain is in the same league as most of the above or it can be said that many of the above are in the same league as him. The difference in stature is an unbeatable mix of lineage, talent, application, presentation and intellect which in sum, equals to a five letter brand called ‘brand’. His father Allah Rakha was marketing genius Ravi Shankar’s partner during global explorations and from the earliest age, he received unimaginable opportunities, which he truthfully capitalised on. Over time his ‘legend’ credibility was carefully nurtured - acting in Merchant Ivory movies, collaborating in Hollywood, Shakti and of course, the diligent presence in core classical music conferences. A finely articulate man, he manages to enthral both traditionalists and millennials with disarming authority, charming without exception.


That, however, certainly does not make him a genius-grade musician, no way above the A-Team as we know it and indeed some of the senior aspirants. Especially in the context of Performance Impact, whether live on stage or through captive creative explorations, earlier CD and now Online. Zakir is a consistently world-class act and guarantees a multiplier of ticket value but to those seeking just the product and not the experience, the choices are many. A fine analogy is having biryani from Bukhara ( ITC) versus the classic joints of Hyderabad, Calcutta and Lucknow - I think you know what I am talking about.

What is true for tabla is true for other arenas of this very fertile playing field. Amjad Ali Khan recently launched his grandchildren on the large stage, in tandem with his accomplished sons. Once again, an excellent musician but an even more significant brand, nurtured with much seriousness and foresight. There are still many sarod players in India who can offer a comparable evening of delight but none can match the magnetic charisma of his imagery. His sons have continued the smart strategy of brand-building and doubtlessly the following generation will consider the same - on the foundation of being well-trained and sincere professionals.

There are exceptions to this prevalent pattern, for multiple reasons. Anushka Shankar, in spite of every natural advantage, is insufficient on sheer quality, as per those in the know. Ashish Khan, son of Ali Akbar, is exceptionally skilled and trained but never quite invested in a consistent and differentiated brand experience. Ustad Vilayat Khan’s children and nephews are not necessarily the finest torchbearers of the Imdadkhani Gharana - Shahid Parvez and Buddhaditya Mukherjee shine in this regard. The fabled Maihar clan of Sitar, Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee enjoyed no significant lineage so the mantle fell on the first-generation disciples. In most failures, the basics of the brand building were not adhered to - a non-negotiable base of fine quality amplified vigorously by relentless rigour and thoughtful projection.

Like every concert, this piece too must come to and I must wish Zakir Hussain a lengthy tenure for the sake of civilization. At the same time insisting that those we know as the unconquerable greatest are actually star brands and not necessarily the greatest musicians. There are many capable of platinum outcomes and we owe it to both us and them, to spread listening nets far wider.