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An homage to Abbaji: Zakir Hussain's upcoming concert celebrates the legacy of the legendary Ustad Allarakha

  • Ustad Allarakha (known as Abbaji) had a significant role to play in those heady days when the West discovered Indian classical music.

  • He had a brilliant performing career, and was a serious teacher; many of his disciples are today’s leading lights in the world of tabla artistry.

  • Citi-NCPA mark Abbaji’s 100 birth anniversary with a percussive ensemble led by his son and shishya Zakir Hussain.

If Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan are credited with putting Indian music on the world map, the contribution of Ustad Allarakha, the tabla wizard, was critical. He had a significant role in those heady days when the West discovered and was blown away by a Desh, Bihag or Bageshree, studded with nuggets of rhythmic flurries and storms. Though the melodic and rhythmic sophistication of the music was undoubtedly grasped by musicians in the West, to the lay audience, this was possibly eclipsed by the implicit and explicit associations of the music with spirituality.

Lavezolli, in The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, says that the West’s attraction was founded on “a genuine need in a time of political and social upheaval... What is undeniable is that Indian classical music gave musicians and listeners a glimpse into an ancient tradition that had already embodied for centuries many of the qualities to which Westerners were now aspiring: peacefulness, freedom of expression and a sense of personal connection to the divine”.

This association with spirituality is problematic on two counts: in the legacy it has meant to the West’s perception of Indian music and also in its very meaning — what is spiritual about Indian music? Intense absorption in the music one creates is common across cultures after all, if that is what it means.

When Ustad Allarakha held his two-day-old son for the first time, he whispered tabla bol into the infant’s ear, instead of the religious prayer a father is supposed to whisper into his son’s ear. When chided by his wife, he is reported to have said, ‘This is my prayer’.

 An homage to Abbaji: Zakir Hussains upcoming concert celebrates the legacy of the legendary Ustad Allarakha

Ustad Allarakha. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Listening to Ustad Zakir Hussain talk about his father and guru, one gets an idea of what this spirituality consists in — not so much in seeking a divinity outside music, but within it, within the tradition itself. Hussain speaks of 3 am sessions with his father, when stories of legendary musicians would be recounted, compositions discussed and rendered vocally (padhant), stories of taleem, riyaz, gurus and shishyas fed to him, then a little seven-year-old. The father and guru conveyed their own connection with the tradition before teaching actual playing. Perhaps this is the only way an oral tradition such as our music, gets new life with each generation — with wonder-filled and respectful storytelling. To be aware of and treasure a spiritual connect with all the past masters, seek their guidance in the course of your pursuit of music — this has great value.

Ustad Allarakha (1919-2000) had a brilliant performing career and was a serious teacher; many of his disciples are today’s leading lights in the world of tabla artistry. But the journey was not easy — something that can be said of most musicians of his generation.

Ustad Allarakha, fondly referred to as Abbaji, was not born into a family of hereditary musicians. He was born in a village outside Jammu, to a farmer, and while his interest in music was indulged, a career in it was unthinkable for his father. But that was the only career Abbaji wanted and so he ran away at the age of 12 to Lahore to learn from Ustad Khader Baksh of the Punjab gharana of percussion.  Punjab gharana had its roots in pakhawaj playing. The pakhawaj — with its majestic, ringing, and open sound — is an ancient instrument, used as percussive accompaniment in Dhrupad.

Stories of Abbaji’s riyaz are legendary. Zakir Hussain has described cold, wintry Lahore mornings spent, shirtless, on just one tabla stroke — the Na. Abbaji's finger would bleed, partly because of the stroke continuously played and partly because of the cold, but he would keep playing.

Ustad Zakir Hussain

Ustad Zakir Hussain

In an article for Saptak Archives, Srijan Deshpande says that Abbaji ushered in the peshkar and kayda elaborations that are largely improvisatory when earlier tabla players of the Punjab gharana focused mostly on compositions — beautiful, long winded gats, gat parans, todas and the like. Deshpande says: It was Abbaji who firmly established the “pure tabla” — improvisatory playing cradled within the swing of the khaali-bhari in the Punjab gharana. Khaali-bhari are the two aspects of the soundscape of any taal in Hindustani music, creating its typical cadence.


Citi-NCPA mark Abbaji’s 100 birth anniversary with a percussive ensemble led by the truly remarkable Zakir Hussain. This is part of their annual Aadi Anant festival in which the NCPA, in collaboration with Citi, mounts shows structured around various themes in major cities across India, with a two-pronged thrust.

While tradition that is passed on from generation to generation with an effort to maintain its authenticity is a matter for celebration, we should also celebrate creative minds in each age that push the boundaries to explore newer horizons. Abbaji’s life is a lesson in both these aspects. Abbaji drew from mridangam vidwans of Carnatic music and it seems safe to say that intricate mathematical patterns that are bread and butter for them were brought into tabla playing by Abbaji, causing wonder and awe among listeners. Anantha Krishnan, young mridangam virtuoso, grandson and disciple of the legendary mridangam maestro, Vidwan Palghat Raghu, will also be part of this concert.


In this recital, the repertoire and the idiom of Punjab gharana tabla as envisioned by Abbaji, will be presented on three percussion instruments: tabla, jodi and djembe, by the representatives of two generations. Zakir Hussain — whose brilliance now only evokes silence — of course, represents the first generation. The second generation is represented by Shikhar Naad, Abbaji’s grandson, who carries forward the idea established by his father and Guru, Taufiq Qureshi, of expressing the tabla repertoire on the djembe, a drum of African origin.

The second generation will also be represented by four students of Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music, being trained by Fazal Qureshi, the second son and disciple of the grand master. Besides tabla, the presentation will include jodi, an upright pair of drums also associated with the Punjab region. The event will include recitation of traditional repertoire (padhant), highlighting the significance of the tabla mnemonics (bols) in composing and formation of the sophisticated language of tabla.

Tabla solos are anchored on and presented against the backdrop of a melodic refrain — the lehara. This is a challenging task, even though it is largely repetition of a single melodic line in a refrain. Ustad Sabir Khan, son and disciple of legendary sarangiya Ustad Sultan Khan, will provide the lehara for the concert.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 12:43:49 IST