The late legendary Ustad Alla Rakha Khan Qureshi’s favourite time of the day for teaching his eldest son all the nuances of the tabla was late night segueing into early morning. And in one of his moods one night, the ustad had said to the young Zakir Hussain, “Son, don’t try to be an ustad, just try to be a student and you’ll get by just fine.”
As he welcomes us into his room with a firm handshake, Hussain politely corrects me when I address him as ‘Ustad ji’. “The name’s Zakir,” he smiles. And so it goes throughout our conversation, as he steadfastly declines the appellation of ‘ustad’ (maestro).
Hussain’s refusal to let his incredible achievements — and we aren’t just talking his double-Grammy feat — go to his head is probably the reason he can be as enthusiastic about a concert in Guwahati as he is about one at New York’s Carnegie Hall or about the one he’s in Kolkata for, a tribute to Ustad Karamatullah Khan organised by Seagram’s and Sanskriti Sagar.
Eyes twinkling as he speaks, he points out how, every day, there’s “something new to learn, to look at”. And he brings this approach to his “art, to music, to life”. It helps, of course, that he probably plays with more musicians in a year than we will see in an entire lifetime. And sometimes, as he did in Kolkata, he plays solo.
Needless to add, the awards and honours have piled up, all of which he delights in. “Everyone has an ego,” he smiles again, that smile. However, he adds that each award is also a reminder of the expectations we all have of him. “When I was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988, I was accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar on stage at 4 am in St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, when the news came,” he recalls. “Pandit ji himself made the announcement. And then my father, who had been sitting in the front row trying to tell me how to play, while I pretended I couldn’t see him, came up to garland me on stage. That was a really special moment, but back stage, he told me, ‘This is the first step’.”
One senses that that is the driving philosophy in Hussain’s life. It is the sense of balance that has enabled him to become a rock star and Hindustani classical musician in one. And today, as he speaks about how thrilled he is that India’s young musicians – from sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee to U. ‘Mandolin’ Srinivas to Hussain’s younger brother Taufiq Qureshi – are taking the global stage, he will not accept that he was a trendsetter. “I was just in the right places,” he insists, telling a story to illustrate how it could just as easily have been Pandit Shankar Ghosh in his place had the latter not returned to India when he did.
And because the reluctant ustad is known for his sincerity (“I lay myself bare in front of my audience on stage”), you sense that his modesty, at least, is not false.