In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Nrityagram Dance Ensemble Brings Magic to Cornell


Nrityagram Dance Ensemble
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
February 4, 2015

Under most circumstances, calling a performance “magical” is like calling a sunset “picture perfect.” It reveals more about the limitations of the admirer than the uniqueness of what is being admired. That said, when Nrityagram presented Songs of Love and Longing to a packed yet intimate crowd at Barnes Hall on Wednesday night, the magic was undeniable.

Over an 85-minute traversal without intermission, the performance spotlighted the bodies, minds and spirits of dancers Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, both of whom are part of an intentional community (Nrityagram means “dance village”) in southwestern India, where they have dedicated their lives to expanding traditional Odissi dance forms through a gestural vocabulary that is very much their own. Along with a dedicated quartet of musicians playing harmonium, mardala (an oblong drum struck at both ends), violin and bamboo flute, they have lived and breathed their art before a variety of audiences around the globe. In this regard, just being in their presence was a wondrous experience, one that surely turned to whips of electricity for anyone fortunate enough to be held in a dancer’s gaze as she painted scenes with every calculated movement.

Interspersed with narration and threaded by singing, the program drew inspiration from the Gita Govinda, a Sanskrit poem written by the 12th-century mystic Jayadeva, and which describes the holy union between Krishna and Radha. Jayadeva defines their relationship not as one of divine lord and mistress, but rather as one of eternal reflection. The dancers’ ability to morph from one role to another (each switched between Krishna and Radha throughout) only served to emphasize their oneness. As Ms. Sen, who narrated verses offstage, said of Radha, “She revels in infinite spaces.” And indeed, one got the sense that Ms. Satpathy’s Radha permeated everything in the room. Whether plucking flowers from their stems or recounting Krishna’s slaying of the horse-demon Keshi, tracing a river’s flow or illustrating her lover’s redemptive touch, she showed exactitude in her comportment. Radha had all of creation in her grasp as fingers curled and splayed in sync with the live accompaniment. And that was when the first blush of magic came about, for as she shot out a hand into the air, a bat seemed to fly from her open palm. (In fact, the bat had been trapped in the hall and was startled by the mardala drum’s riveting entrance.)

As the story of Krishna and Radha ratcheted the tension, so too did the dancers when sharing the stage for the first time. At any given moment, I was aware of their bodily centers, from which extended invisible cords that tied them in moments of unison. These were among the most memorable aspects of the performance and made the playfulness of their courtship all the more thrilling. It also clarified the subtleties required to evoke the yin and yang of their gender play. Together, they were the hub of a divine wheel, each spoke of which told a variation of an interlocking story. This only served to underscore Krishna as a willing and able prisoner of Radha’s consuming love. The effect was such that, even when Krishna left his lover alone in pursuit of another, her power grew that much greater as she gathered resolve from the forest. When Krishna returned to her at last, he was a peacock spreading his tail feathers in a desperate bid for her attention.

Despite the obvious effort gone into its artistry, the sophistication and elasticity with which Nrityagram evoked these images was extraordinarily organic. Whether in its gallery of glances—at one moment burning with desire, the next cold with menace—or the ankle bells that became a part of its constant texture, the dance was a world unto itself, its spell so potent that every break for applause bordered on intrusive. We were no longer winter-weary travelers on Earth but participants in dialogue above it. As one moment became many, and those many more, Nrityagram proved that real magic takes root in the sacredness of human experience.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun.)