I Am Not The Best Tabla Player In The World: Ustad Zakir Hussain

Ustad Zakir Hussain on how the new-age tabla players have raised the level of artistry and the need to promote Indian classical music.

Published On Dec 23, 2023 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


You don’t get to be in Ustad Zakir Hussain’s proximity to watch him fine-tune his slated performance every day. And definitely not for two straight hours; it’s a remarkably scarce spectacle. The hours spent waiting for his interview suddenly felt inconsequential, replaced by the realisation that this was a moment worth savouring. After the performance, as he entered his green room, weariness was evident in the way he moved, but his will to communicate won. What followed next was a candid conversation stripped of pretence, capturing the nuances and complexities of Indian classical music.


It’s his first time at the Serendipity Arts Festival. “I don't know what took them so long to get me to come here (he laughs). I felt nothing but warmed comradeship, there's this immense amount of respect for the creative process that exists in and around us. To be able to display that, and share that with those of us who are less fortunate and not aware of it is a step in the right direction.” Not to mention, his show 'An Evening of Serendipity with Zakir Hussain and Friends' was an incredibly soul-stirring concert. It had a stellar line-up, featuring Ranjit Barot on drums and Rakesh Chaurasia on flute, along with Zubin Balaporia on keyboards, Sanjay Divecha on guitars, Sheldon D'Silva on bass and Nadia Rebelo on vocals. The Ustad was visibly impressed with the orderly audience, “It was great to see such an audience, they were so respectful and really focused on giving us their full attention. They sat and listened carefully unlike other festival audiences, who jump, shout, hoot, and whatnot! I didn't really expect that coming to an open air festival.”


Even though classical music continues to thrive in various forms globally, it does have its own set of challenges, ignorance of information being a major one. Ask Zakir whether he thinks classical music concerts are getting rarer and he’s quick enough to show his displeasure with the media. He says, “Media is really woven around page three, they like to see what's coming out of Bollywood, who's got abs and who's wearing a beautiful bikini, who's having a great vacation. They really do not see that there's a lot going around with Indian classical music.”

He continues, “Firstly, it's one of the premier forms of music accepted all over the world globally. Secondly, there are more Indian classical music concerts in India and worldwide inclusive than that of any pop, Bollywood or any entertainment concert. I alone have this year played about 92 Indian classical music concerts, not fusion. And not just me, there's Rakesh Chaurasia, Niladri Kumar, Anindo Chatterjee and Kaushiki Chakrabortyi. There are so many incredibly great artists who are loved and revered all over the world. But they are not page-3 material. They don't wear bikinis, they don't have six pack abs, and they don't walk around shirtless. So, we don't get that kind of coverage. I am a pop-up marquee name so people come to see me.” He urges showcasing the ones who are behind him, the young ones who are playing so well, and they have spent such hard years working to get to being good. Now if they don't get that encouragement and confidence that they need, “They will just kind of suffocate and die. And that should not happen.”


Zakir stresses on how our culture in the '70s and ‘80s, when we were not a big economic power, people came to India, loved India and revered India for their art, their culture, their way of life, yoga, meditation, music, that's what they came to study. “That's how India was respected and honoured all over the world and there's no reason for that to be lost,” he adds.

The Ustad is all praise for the new-age tabla players and also intimidated by their creativity, “I get scared listening to these young musicians. Sometimes my jaw drops. When I hear someone like Yashwant Vaishnav, they're doing stuff that I can't even dream of. I look at them. How did he do that? I mean, such strength, speed, focus and clarity. It is just unimaginable. They have raised the level of artistry to the height that I didn't see coming. And it's the same with sitar, sarod, sarangi, vocal dancing and everything.” 

That gets us curious to know if he sees anyone who has the skill to be an Ustad these days? “We have an incredible bench strength of music almost as good as our Indian cricket team. There are incredible tabla players such as Bickram Ghosh, one of our torchbearers getting the flag forward. Add Satyajit Suresh Talwalkar, Ojas Adhiya, and Yogesh Samsi to that. I have to tell you I'm not the best player in the world. No, not by any measure. I'm one of the good ones. They are all just as good as I am, in fact better on their days. Just because Ravi Shankar was the most famous sitar player. It doesn't mean he was the best one. There was Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Rais Khan and Halim Jaffer Khan who were just as great, revered and loved. But because he was the marquee man, he hung out with George Harrison, and so on and so forth.”


Not to mention, Zakir’s impact on the world of music is profound. The man who stands as a luminary in the world of percussion and music at large, does he also get susceptible to burnout? When asked if there has ever been a time he didn't want to play the tabla, he shares, “I sometimes sleep with tabla on my bed. It does happen. Creatively speaking, it's been my companion, my friend, my mate since I was a baby. Since I was three, four years old it has been there. So I never imagined my life to be without it and I will not imagine my life to be without it. It cannot be when I don't have my tabla, I'll just wither away and go away somewhere. Tabla is what makes me tick. I mean, apart from my lovely family, my wife, my kids, my grandchild. All that, yes. They are the same for me as my tabla, neck and neck.”

Photo: Serendipity Arts Festival