Zakir Hussain is a man of many words. And a man of many more notes too. Musical notes, that is, brought to life on the tabla. For he has been conversing musically with his audiences all around the globe for decades, along with some of the best musicians in the global entertainment industry. He remains one of the most interesting people I have interviewed to date. For after each meeting, I would find myself going over the words on the return journey home, feeling that he didn’t just talk, but imparted a lot of real-life wisdom too. It was enriching.
I first met him when I was a cub reporter at a daily newspaper a little under a decade ago. His annual tribute to his father, the late Ustad Allarakha is one of the greatest events in the musical calendar in the country, year after year. Each year, he invites some of the musical luminaries from the world over to perform at this event as well. The result for any music lover is a treat for the senses, to say the least.
While having already interviewed a fair number of celebrities by then, I was nonetheless a bit nervous to say the least about how to conduct that first interview. I was not at a press conference but at his home. A few other journalists from print and television channels awaited their turn patiently. A lot of us had heard of his rapier-like wit and he was not known to be patient with journalists who had not done their research. At one of these early interviews, that’s exactly what he told me, a bit early on into the conversation: “You’ve not done your research”, he gently admonished me. A bit taken aback, I regained my composure and prevented myself (and more importantly, the interview), from becoming a fumbling mess. Thankfully, it improved exponentially from there onwards. In the room, was Taufiq Qureshi and the two of them picked up percussion instruments and along with their sentences, began to play off each other. Pretty much like an impromptu jugalbandi. It was magic and a delight for us to bear witness to.
Zakir Hussain always made it a point to speak about the purity of his art, as well as the tremendous influence his father had on him, at these interviews. Once he felt comfortable and assured that the journalist who was interviewing him knew his/her stuff, his answers became far more detailed. Like every musician who instinctively knows when a jam session gets going, he got a buzz out of answering good questions. Every year, while I would have a framework and structure for the interview in mind – the peg being his father’s tribute gig and the essence of the concert musically. But as he told me, it was also “about a celebration of the art that my father represented and he loved and the passion that he had for his culture. So, it’s nice to celebrate that culture and the effect that music had on our lives.” I realized that the best way to go about in an interview with this legend was to treat it as a free-flowing conversation. He has so much to say about so many subjects that it’s just best to let him take off into the stratosphere. Speaking of which, at one of the subsequent interviews, he spoke about his travels to Maui, Hawaii and how seeing the glorious sunsets there was an unforgettable experience for his wife and him. He spoke about the color of the sky at that particular occasion (“Just as the last sliver of the sun is going down, there is a green flash. Nobody knows why. For three days, my wife and I would wait for that sight every sunset in Hawaii.”).
Just like no two performances of his are the same, neither are the interviews he gives. “Whenever I play a solo gig, I draw on memories of great maestros of the past. In my mind, I go, ‘okay, this is from this past maestro, this from that maestro’ and I bring that same piece of music that existed ages ago, into the present moment,” he told me at the conclusion of one of these sessions. He always has something original to say; an interesting anecdote to offer. And the Lord only knows how many those could be! That of course, would be the subject of another story. There is nothing to take for granted though. During one of his more recent annual tribute performances, I arrived at the same place for the interview. It has become almost an annual ritual for me. But I was still surprised when he told me at that time out of recognition, “It’s you again!” His eyes shone with sparkling wit and the interview, I kid you not dear reader, was full of his witticisms, anecdotes, reflections and raconteuring.
But considering the fact that he’s given countless performances and interviews, I would, while he would be talking, wonder whether the person and the persona were two distinct creatures or one and the same. I was quite surprised when he replied that he was the latter. After winding up the chat and the shoot was over at aother interview, I remember what he said – that he draws from the same emotions in real life and on stage. I guess he didn’t see a distinction between how he is on stage and off the same. That’s probably because, as he told me, that music was food for his soul. While it has to be said that there is no definitive age where a writer stops writing, and so too for him, from the look and sound of it, there certainly seems to be almost no limit as to what he can achieve, musically. Play on, maestro!