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Tabla Wizard

To Abba, with love

To mark his 94th birth anniversary on April 29, the music fraternity will pay homage to the tabla wizard, Ustad Alla Rakha, who passed away in 2000. His son Fazal Qureshi remembers the man and the musician


Abbaji was away travelling for concerts nearly eight to nine months a year. Zakirbhai was ten years older than I was and a child prodigy who was up and flying by the time I was born. It was my mother who was always around. Abba would return from his travels with little gifts for the five of us if he went to the West - a big thing in the '60s. I remember a precious pair of roller skates he bought back once.

Because he was rarely home, I was never formally initiated into music. But in 1970, something really amazing happened. A crew from the Films Division was at home to make a film on Abba. But he was away and the crew decided they would shoot Taufiq and me playing the tabla. We had not even touched the tabla till that day so we had no clue what we were supposed to do. A senior student offered to teach us a few pieces quickly. We played without knowing what we were doing. Later, when Abba heard, he seemed impressed with what we managed.

He started taking time out to teach me then. He believed in the guru-shishya parampara so the house was full of students the whole day. There was this 16-year-old American student who used to practise all day. This really shook me - here was someone so young and so far from home and this dedicated to the art my father would teach him. One day after school - I played and managed to play faster than him to his surprise. This probably was when I decided that I would make music my life.

I can't say when Abba's music percolated into my conscience. Was it listening to him since I was five on stage and at home? I remember sitting between him and Ravi Shankarji at Shanmukhananda Hall and listening intently as they played. Raviji, who normally never allowed any photography when he is doing alap, asked that we be photographed - him playing and me listening awestruck. Or was it the endless nights when I would tag along with Zakirbhai from one concert to another around Mumbai, catching some sleep in the back of his car? Those days during the season, Mumbai concerts would go on all night, sometimes right up to 6 am.

I was formally trained by Abba from around the time I was 12. He was a strict guru but an understanding one. Rhythm was a sacred concept for him - even when he was attending a concert, if he heard a beat go wrong, he would spring up and shout out. So there was no question of not being serious around him. He played and I followed. Any practice, any fooling around, I had to do in my own time.

Looking back I realise how liberal he was. He never forced us to learn to play the tabla to continue his musical legacy. In those days, in conservative Muslim musician homes, children had no option but follow their fathers' art - no school, no college. Abba, because he had been exposed to the West, insisted that we have an education. My sisters received a good education but they never learnt music. We lived behind the Mahim dargah in Mumbai, it was a conservative area and tabla was a man's preserve.

But Zakirbhai was on his own trip by then. He was obsessive about his tabla. My mother would drop him to school, St Michael's, and he would then go off to play or practise tabla somewhere. He once went off to Patna for a concert without telling anyone at home.

Abba was not an expressive man. If he watched or heard us play and he smiled - he had that cute smile everyone remarked on - or nodded, we knew he liked our performance. We never got anything more than that. We were lucky because we got to explore out talent with musicians who were his associates and friends - Sitaradeviji and Brij Bhushan Kabra were artistes I often practised with.

I played with my father for the first time in 1986 in London at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. It was an amazing opportunity, like a masterclass on stage. For me, it was like a promotion to another grade. As though he and Zakirbhai said: "Now you are in our league. " Abba allowed me to travel and play with them in the US after that. And I thought - he is happy with me.

Abba was no conservative musician. He played with a jazz musician, Buddy Rich, for a fusion album, way back in '60s. He played with Carnatic drummers like Palghat Raghu. These experiments show that he was keen to get out of the cocoon and explore. The greatest thing about him was that he was a complete musician. He had learnt vocal music from Aashiq Ali Khan of Patiala and when he joined AIR, he worked as a vocalist and tabla player. He told us stories of the musical dangals (matches) of Lahore where musicians pitted their talents against one another and how he would manage to beat even the most complex dhrupad taal matrix with no help.

When he came to Mumbai from Lahore he was treated as an outsider because the Delhi and Ajrada gharana reigned in the city those days. But with sheer hard work, he managed to find a place for himself in the city. He also composed for 25 films as A R Qureshi and was around when Ashaji and Lataji were starting out on their careers.

He was incredibly generous. When Shiv Kumar Sharma first played in Mumbai, in 1959, my father was already a big name but he sat and heard him in the audience. "Maine suna hai Jammu se koi bajane aaya hai toh main aa gaya (I heard someone from Jammu was coming to play so I came along to listen), " he told Shivji who still remembers that incident. Abba himself was originally from Jammu.

For this tribute, 'Celebrating Rhythm', on April 30 at Nehru Centre in Mumbai, we never had to persuade the artistes to come and play. They came readily for Abba, no questions asked. My father enjoyed the goodwill and respect of every artiste in the country


As told to Malini Nair




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