A legend is born

Print edition : February 19, 2000
Alla Rakha Khan, 1919-2000. R. RAMACHANDRAN

ON February 3, one of the greatest percussionists of the country, indeed of the world, the tabla wizard Ustad Alla Rakha Khan passed away leaving behind a legacy of magical sounds of laya on tapes and records and in the memories of unforgettable c oncerts. His nimble-fingered artistry on the twin-drum instrument of North India would remain unmatched. His son Zakir Hussain, a tabla virtuoso in his own right, would, of course, carry on the tradition of the Punjab gharana, which his mentor-fat her represented and raised to great heights.

Alla Rakha brought on to the concert platform the Panjab baaj or style in all its splendour with such skill and virtuosity that it has perhaps overshadowed all other schools of the art, such as Ajrada, Delhi, Purabiya (Lucknow and Benares) and Far rukhabad, notwithstanding such stalwarts as Pandit Kishen Maharaj and Pandit Samta Prasad of the Purabiya baaj school or Ustad Ahmad Jan Tirakhwa of the Delhi baaj who were his contemporaries. If Punjab's greatest contribution to Hindustani music, as the Ustad used to say, was the Panjab baaj of tabla playing, Alla Rakha was solely responsible for making it a distinct concert platform art. For the current crop of tabla artists, the contemporaneous art of Zakir has become the benchma rk for excellence. But it would only be fair to say that the son's skills are as yet a notch below the father's supreme mastery of the craft.

Rhythmic accompaniment to Hindustani classical music has never been the same after Alla Rakha. He elevated the instrument to a high pedestal of artistic expression, a place that the richness of the instrument truly deserved. If today the tabla has acquir ed the stature of a solo instrument alongside the sitar and the sarod on the concert platform, it is largely due to the Ustad. Even when he was a staff artist at the Lahore station of All India Radio (AIR) in the 1930s, his superlative skills earned him radio broadcasts of tabla solo twice a week. Before him, tabla had been relegated to the shadow status of an instrument of accompaniment - merely to provide tekha or mark the beats - to the main vocalist or instrumentalist.

The role of Pandit Ravi Shankar in this emergence of the tabla player as an artist in his own right, the notion of an independent tabla Ustad, cannot be underestimated. His association with the Ustad was particularly instrumental in realising his vision of widening the horizons of Hindustani classical music on the concert platform in which percussion was seen as enriching the music of the lead artist. He gave equal prominence to the tabla on the stage, a practice hitherto confined to Carnatic music wher e the autonomous art of the mridangam was allowed its full play and the mridangam solo or the tani-avartanam was an essential and integral component of concerts.

It was Ravi Shankar's two decades (1965-85) of unbroken and exclusive collaboration with the Ustad that allowed full rein to Alla Rakha's artistry and innovation. Despite his rising fame and status, Ravi Shankar recognised the Ustad's mastery over the in strument and saw this collaboration as a journey together into the unbounded world of music, a journey of musical discovery. He encouraged and goaded the Ustad to let himself into artistic abandon - Ravi Shankar used to put his sitar down and let the tab la a solo run, until then an unheard of practice on stage. Alla Rakha's fingers elevated tabla accompaniment from the subservient to the sublime. An appreciation of the delicate artistry began to grow amongst concert audiences. It may be true that in rec ent times this apparent freedom for individual expression of the tabla artist frequently degenerates into gimmicky sawal-jawab kind of jugalbandi, a far cry from the musical explorations of the Ravi Shankar-Alla Rakha duo. Until the very last, All a Rakha exercised that restraint so necessary to lend respectability to the tabla.

His was a rich and full life. His passion for the tabla was the common thread through the many parts he had in his musical career spanning six decades - as a classical vocalist, an instrumentalist, stage actor, composer of film music, music director and a teacher. Alla Rakha was born in 1919 into an artistic family in Phagwal, a village near Jammu, in which tabla playing had been a passion for generations. His father Hashim Ali was involved in theatre and was a lead player on the stage. Alla Rahka was t he only musically inclined child in a family of seven brothers and two sisters, and wanted to pursue a career in music and especially in playing the percussion instruments. He had a natural flair, particularly for the tabla. He began learning tabla at th e age of six. However, elders in his family who were not pleased with his tendencies did not quite approve of a career as a tabla accompanist. They wanted him to become a vocalist and even arranged for his training in dhrupad singing - the traditi onal and ancient form of Hindustani music before it came under Mughal influence - under Pandit Vir Chand, a local musician and teacher. Only his mother, Alla Rakha has once said, was supportive of his wishes.

Alla Rakha learnt the basics of singing dhrupad and dhamar from Pandit Vir Chand. But, the Ustad once remarked, this was to his great advantage in his later career as a tabla player. Initiation into Hindustani music in the early days was on ly dhrupad and dhamar, to the accompaniment of pakhavaj, a percussion instrument similar to the mridangam whose autonomy is maintained in dhrupad renditions and is a tradition still found in Carnatic music. This method, according to Alla Rakha, serves to lay a firm foundation in sur, laya and taal for anyone who aspires to become a musician, a vocalist or an instrumentalist. But at that time Alla Rakha was only in search of a guru who would teach him the art of tabla p laying. He felt that he was cut out for a career in the art of the tabla.

Alla Rakha Khan.-

He came under the influence of Ustad Lal Mohammed, a disciple of the Great Ustad Mir Kadar Baksh, a renowned exponent of the Punjab gharana of tabla playing. Alla Rakha became his disciple and gave his first solo recital in his home town when he w as barely 12. Those days Ustad Kadar Baksh's name was to be reckoned with in percussion, and fate beckoned Alla Rakha to move from the isolation of his village in search of the master, Kadar Baksh, himself. At the age of 15 he ran away from Phagwal to La hore where his accompaniment at a small concert led him to Kadar Baksh himself.

The incident which took him to Kadar Baksh is interesting and worth recounting. Vocalists of those days used the dhrupad ang a lot in their singing. At a programme which Alla Rakha went to attend, there was no tabla player to accompany a certain v ocalist who speacialised in the dhrupad ang. So Alla Rakha volunteered - "A rash confidence of youth," he has said. The organisers reluctantly agreed and warned him that it was going to be difficult. He played well and executed the different ta als with the deftness of a seasoned player. This impressed everyone and the matter reached Kadar Baksh's ears. Alla Rakha was escorted to Kadar Baksh as "a boy of 15 from an unknown village".

Kadar Baksh asked him whose disciple he was, and Alla Rakha unfazedly told him "yours". Kadar Baksh immediately accepted him as his disciple and it is here that Alla Rakha's grooming as a tabla player began. Alla Rakha learnt from him for six years.

Dhrupad was popular in Punjab and the Panjab baaj is thus oriented towards the pakhavaj's style of percussion. It, therefore, integrates that open style (khuli awaz) of the pakhavaj into tabla playing unlike the other schools. Kadar Baksh himself was the unquestioned master of the pakhavaj and the tabla alike from that region of the country. Kadar Baksh's father Faqir Baksh himself was a renowned pakhavaj player and this integration of the pakhavaj style into tabla playing comes fro m there - it is said that he designed a kind of tabla by simply breaking a pakhavaj into two halves.

The basic bol or the beat syllables of the normal tabla playing, say of the Delhi school, are na-din-din-na. The Purabiya or the Eastern school does incorporate the open style of the pakhavaj to an extent that changes the basic bol t o na-din-na-da. But it uses this only sparingly. It is the Punjab school that integrates it as the basic unit of tabla playing and here the bol is na-din-chi-te. This, people who understand the nuances of the table point out, enables a faster tempo in the rhythmic accompaniment, lending the quality of stupendous speed to tabla playing, a hallmark that has come to be synonymously associated with both Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain.

Mir Kadar Baksh, Alla Rakha has said, taught him to execute the most difficult and intricate taals. He also encouraged him to try his hand at many other instruments. It is this training and nurturing with a wider perspective to percussion that had lent versatility and vitality to Alla Rakha's tabla playing and repertoire in general. It is this perspective that made his experiments in the West along with Ravi Shankar such a success. And this tradition continues with Zakir who takes in various form s of percussion into his style.

After his training under Ustad Kadar Baksh, Alla Rakha got a job as a staff artist at the Lahore station of the AIR in 1936. The Director-General of AIR, Zulfikar Ali Bukhari, happened to hear him in Lahore and called him over to Delhi. He was in Delhi f or two years, and in 1938, on the retirement of percussionist Kamu Rao in Bombay, Alla Rakha was transferred to that city. Apparently, the initial reception he got in Bombay was negative and hostile and he had to prove himself by playing all the composit ions from Pandit Bhatkande's book Marful Nagmat. But, within a span of three months, Alla began to be recognised as a major talent. Alla Rakha believed that his five-year association with AIR helped him widen his perspective.

In 1938, Alla Rakha began to learn vocal music. He became a student of the vocalist Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, son of the pioneer of the Patiala gharana of vocal music Khan Saheb Fateh Ali Khan, to learn khayal and thumri. Ashiq Ali Khan was one of the mentors of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

Following this training, Alla Rakha started giving light music programmes on the radio - singing and composing ghazals. It was the Ustad's desire to do something new that took him to the film world where he took up music direction. He scored music for ov er 30 films under the name of A.R. Qureshi, working with such stalwarts as Naushad Ali and Khemchand Prakash. He was particularly close to Avinash Vyas. In 1958 he decided to quit the industry, unhappy over the way producers treated music directors. His passion continued to be the tabla.

ALLA RAKHA met Ravi Shankar as part of a cultural delegation sent by the government to Japan in 1958. The association that began at their performances during this tour was to last over 25 years. And in the 1960s and the 1970s, this relationship took Alla Rakha to the West, in particular the United States, as Ravi Shankar's regular partner. Under Ravi Shankar's influence, this association helped him market his art in the West. During his frequent visits abroad, Alla Rakha taught several Western disciples , some of whom including Johnny Card, Ed Shansi and Ray Spiegel, he was particularly proud of. Even after quitting the concert platform, Alla Rakha continued to teach tabla to Western students, spending four to five months every year in the U.S. He also used to teach at the music institute of Hashim Chaudhury at San Francisco.

The Ustad also opened a school of Indian classical music in Mumbai. He is said to have been a very serious and demanding teacher and, besides Zakir, other promising students are Yogesh and Anuradha Pal. The latter has begun to make a mark. For the wide p erspective, intense musicality, superlative virtuosity and, above all, the high degree classicism that he brought to the art of the tabla, it is unfortunate that he was decorated by the government only with a Padma Shri in 1977. Perhaps in the bureaucrat ic perspective of the state, Alla Rakha was a mere accompanist. He received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1982.

Creativity for him was "instinctive introspection" and it is this attitude that lent sheer spontaneity to his tabla performances. He lived for tabla and sacrificed everything else to propagate the art in India and abroad. As a person he led a simple life and was a great raconteur. Alla Rakha used to say he led a good life; a fulfilling life. Sadly, that has come to an end. With that, however, a legend is born - the legend of Alla Rakha.

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