I was about 12 when I met Abbaji for the first time at one of his concerts. I’d go to all of them in the city and stand in a corner. One day he called me and said, “Tumko main kaafi dino se dekh raha hoon. Kaun ho tum?” I told him my name. He said, “I’ve heard your name. Come and meet me.” I went and never had to say that I wanted to learn. He just began teaching. That’s how I began learning from Ut Alla Rakha.
The students tend to get intimidated if the guru is too demanding. But it’s necessary. Ut Alla Rakha was an exacting guru, wanted complete surrender from his students and expected nothing but the best. In my case, I came from an academically accomplished family where formal education was significant and could not be compromised. So I used to wake up at 5 am, practice, go to school, return at 3.30 pm, and then head straight to my Ustadji’s house. He used to live at Napean Sea Road then and I was in Juhu, which was about hour and a half away. I’d change buses and trains to get to the rehearsals, which took place from 7 to 10 pm. I’d come back and end my day around midnight. For a young adult, these timings would be gruelling.
Ut Alla Rakha was different from a lot of other musicians. Whenever you saw him, he was busy creating compositions. He was completely immersed in music. For him tabla wasn’t a profession, it was his lifeline. Our class would end around 9 pm, but he’d continue to go on with the lessons. The more I played, the more he felt challenged to compose. Then there was the matter of notations. He didn’t allow you to write anything, you had to remember. If someone attempted, he’d say, “Dimaag kis liye hai? Yaad rakho.” He’d recite the bols and you had to play almost immediately. If you took an extra second, the glare was enough to eat you alive. If you hesitated at the most pivotal time, you were done.
When the classes were held at the Mahatma Gandhi Swimming Pool Complex in Dadar, they would again just continue. He wouldn’t stop until the watchman would come and say that he needed to close. More often than not, he wasn’t satisfied and we all would sit outside in the canteen. He’d order a Limca and pull out a pack of his Dunhill cigarettes. Then the class would continue outside, along the puffs of a cigarette. He would continue to speak the tabla bols and you had to follow up quickly.
Sometimes his wife would come to pick him up and wait on the opposite side of the road. He would be in the middle of a composition. He would continue to furiously count and calculate this composition when we were trying to cross the road in the middle of the crazy Mumbai traffic. He was busy in his own world — it was funny, strange and endearing at the same time.
The first time I played with him, I was 15 and we were in Kolhapur. It was his solo and Ut Sultan Khan was accompanying him on the lehra. Next day I went to the airport and we were offloaded because Sharad Pawar needed to travel with his entourage. He was livid. There were only two flights in a week. So I arranged for a car, a Maruti Omni with no air conditioner. It was a 16-hour journey. Sultan Khan sahab was seated in the front, Abbaji and Ammaji at the back and I sat near Abbaji’s feet. Omni isn’t a very broad car, so I asked Abbaji to let me press his feet, just to pacify him. But he was in a terrible mood. To distract him, I began speaking to him about Ut Ali Akbar Khan’s concert two days ago, where Zakir bhai (Hussain) had played eight and a half beats. I asked him, how do you play it. He was very angry and began by asking, “Kyun seekhna hai? Mushqil hai.” But then he started explaining. For the next 16 hours, when everyone slept, he went on teaching one taal after the other. I’ll never forget this child-like, wonderful human being.
(As told to Suanshu Khurana)