It was April 29, 1999. The Shanmukhananda auditorium at Sion-King’s Circle was having its first concert in years after a fire had gutted it. The auspicious occasion was the 80th birthday of tabla legend Ustad Allarakha.
The entire Mumbai music fraternity was present. There would be felicitations followed by percussionist Trilok Gurtu’s performance.
When Allarakha was asked to speak, he said, “I only know one language.” And he immediately started reciting tabla bol. Theka, peshkar, kaayda, rela for 15 minutes. Standing ovation, well deserved.
That was the man. And here’s a tribute to him and his family on his 99th birth anniversary. Allarakha headed the first family of Indian percussion. The Punjab gharana of tabla playing. Everybody knows his eldest son Zakir Hussain has been a genius and game changer since the early 1970s, whether as a classical musician or with the Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti.
Allarakha’s other son Fazal Qureshi left an education in law to teach youngsters the art of tabla playing, besides doing incredible concerts himself. Taufiq Qureshi started by learning the tabla but soon went on to the drums. Today he has adapted the African djembe to Punjab gharana technique, and teaches many. His son Shikhar Naad Qureshi is an upcoming star.
The ladies in the family were involved too. Allarakha’s wife Bawi Begum and his daughters Khurshid and Razia were great emotional supports. Zakir’s wife Antonia Minnecola, Fazal’s wife Birwa Qureshi and Taufiq’s wife Geetika Varde.
The family was driven by a beat, a heart beat, rhythm divine. Yes, a part of it would be attributed to the benevolence of the higher power, or to the genes. But there’s a lot more – dedication, focus, intense practice and yes, humility.
Allarakha Qureshi, or Abbaji, believed all efforts would go waste if you weren’t humble and didn’t know how to respect others. Like many other legends of the Islamic faith, he worshipped Saraswati, Lakshmi, Shiva, Rama and Krishna.
There were no borders. The sons followed in his footsteps. After all, music belonged to a common universe.
I don’t remember the first time I met Abbaji, a name I soon respectfully addressed him. I had interacted with all brothers before. But yes, I first interviewed him at his place at Simla House off Nepean Sea Road.
It was a regular flat, nothing lavish. A heap of awards shone in the showcase or above cabinets. He had his favourite table in the verandah. I sat opposite.
The questions began with the routine ones. His basic tabla education, days in Jammu, association with sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, foreign tours, collaboration with jazz drummer Buddy Rich, grooming of sons, different tabla gharanas et al. A kettle of tea was served with cups and a milk pot. He mixed the beverages. His right hand played on the cup, left one on the table, feet tapping in unison. His eyes twinkled like rhythm in expressive motion.
My second interview was at the same spot. Tea again with same hand movements and eye expressions. Suddenly there was commotion. Zakir had arrived unannounced. The whole house was excited but Abbaji didn’t move. In Hindi he told me, “He comes and he goes. Been happening for years.” Of course, Zakir was surprised to see me when he greeted his father. He put in a few good words about me. Abbaji said, “What are you teaching me?”
The sons have taken the legacy forward. That’s a great story but let’s flash back to the morning of February 3, 2000. I got a call at 3 a.m. informing me Ustad Allarakha had passed away of a heart attack after he heard of the demise of his daughter Razia. I called up office to keep space. Didn’t have a mobile phone yet.
Luckily I met a gentleman who gave his phone. I verbally dictated the piece and waited. Slowly others came in. Dawn turned noon.
Zakir had arrived by then. The two janaazas had been prepared and the final journey would take them to Mahim. Pandit Ravi Shankar took the earliest flight from Delhi.
The visitors mourned, many in tears. Zakir was totally composed. “Let’s all remember his achievements and celebrate his life and what all he gave us,” he told people individually.
Even today, Ustad Allarakha’s life is celebrated. His death anniversary has a day-long festival. On his birth anniversary on Sunday, Fazal is doing his annual tribute at St Andrew’s, Bandra. Abbaji’s beats will always ring in our hearts.