There is a wisdom of the head and a wisdom of the heart, said Charles Dickens. A Zakir Hussain concert, more often than not, is where the two merge. On Friday evening, at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium, where the hall was choc-a-block with those who had managed to procure the seats, and the pavement outside the main gate with those who couldn’t, Hussain told us, with that first dha on the dayaan (left drum of the tabla), that he remains the foremost figure in the world of rhythm.
At 68, there’s a filigree of lines on Hussain’s face, the curly locks don’t bounce and bob like they used to and the shoulders have stooped a little low, but the impish smile, the panache, the wonder and the magic of his tabla playing remain the same. Cultural impresario Shobha Deepak Singh of the Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK), who had put the concert together and positioned one from her marquee on sale for one of those rare times, mentioned that it took Hussain eight years to come back to Kamani. His first solo concert at the Shankarlal Festival was 53 years ago, when he opened his father Ut Allah Rakha and Pt Ravi Shankar’s concert. He was about 16 then, and played while the guests arrived and settled.
On Friday, Hussain’s performance marked the birth centenary of SBKK founder member Lala Charat Ram, also Singh’s father. “We’ve shared an intimate relationship with him for years. But he doesn’t even take my calls now,” said Singh, mentioning Hussain’s inaccessibility for concerts and conversations. Hussain chuckled, while adjusting his tablas – one dayaan and two bayaans as Kathak master Pt Birju Maharaj looked on from the front row.
So with three pieces of drums in front of him, Hussain began after the upcoming sarangi player Sabir Khan, Ut Sultan Khan’s son, opened a rich and intricate lehra on the bowed instrument. Khan began, slowly but vigorously and kept lifting the tempo. One saw the attractive thekas of Keherva, the beauty of the common Teentaal, the complexity of the Rupak taal, among many others, as Hussain built a dramatic web of rhythm around us.
Hussain’s live concerts never have a set trajectory and that is exactly why they are sublime experiences. Soon enough, he was joined in by dholak player Navin Sharma and later by the legendary Palghat Raghu’s grandson, mridangam player Anantha R Krishnan, who replicated tabla beats on their instruments. While mridangam wasn’t a surprise, the dholak — a folk instrument hardly ever seen on the snooty and elitist classical stages — was; and a pleasant one at that. It sounded different, as the natural baaj of the dholak is — more apt for a folk performance, but Sharma adapted well and gave us a fine specimen of a classical dholak jugalbandi.
But it was towards the home stretch that Hussain told us why he is still the master of percussion. Sabir began singing Ghoomar — the traditional Rajasthani folk song, and Hussain, Krishnan and Sharma created dazzling crescendos with their respective instruments. A little over an hour long, the concert ended sooner than one would have wanted, leaving us asking for more.