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Feature

Following another beat

Ustad Alla Rakha's father and grandfather, both soldiers, may have chased enemies, but Alla Rakha pursued nothing but music all his life


(This tribute was written in January, three weeks before Ustad Alla Rakha received the Chowdaiah Award for distinguished lifetime musicianship, and a month before he died -- Ed)

Ustad Alla Rakha: honour from Karnataka

When I met Ustad Alla Rakha for an interview at a Bangalore hotel, he told me he had never had the good fortune of accompanying the great Mysorean violinist T Chowdaiah. That remark returned to me when I read early January that he had been named the fifth recipient of the Chowdaiah Award instituted by the Karnataka government.

Karnataka plans a January-end ceremony in Bangalore to present the award. The tabla maestro will receive a citation, a bronze idol and Rs 1.5 lakh. The award was instituted in 1994, and four musicians, including Ustad Bismilla Khan and Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, have already received it.

Alla Rakha has always loved the South. He has great respect for Chennai audiences and they return the compliment by affectionately calling him vidwan. He vibes brilliantly with audiences in the towns of north Karnataka and Maharashtra. He has performed jugalbandis with mridangam maestros Palghat Mani Iyer and Palghat Raghu. In fact, Mani Iyer taught him many jatis.

The 81-year-old ustad has never sought any honours. His pursuit has only been music, though his father and grandfather were chasing enemies, having been professional soldiers. He realised early enough that his vocation was outside of family tradition and left his hometown Phagwal near Jammu to find his guru. He found his mentor in Lahore, in Ustad Mian Khadarbaksh Pakhawaji of the Punjab gharana.

The pakhawaj is an ancient drum now used mostly in dhrupad music. The Punjab gharana has a glorious tradition dating back to Lala Bhawanidas, Emperor Akbar's court musician. The young Alla Rakha couldn't have chosen better.

In due course, he decided he was best suited to the tabla. He did learn vocal music for 10 years, but the call of percussion was too strong. He frowns on those who serve two masters -- he feels one can never attain perfection in two fields.

Art is a demanding master and so is the Ustad. He insists on a disciplined audience. No talking, sipping tea or knitting sweaters. Yes, the last actually happened once when he was accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar. He spotted some women knitting even as the great musicians were performing for them. He irritatedly stopped playing and the women were shamed into packing their woollies!

Which is why he loves foreign audiences. Their concentration is total and they make a genuine effort to understand the nuances of music, however unfamiliar it may be to them. Why, he even had good fun at Woodstock (the real thing at Max Yasgur's and not the watered down Nineties version) when he was flown to the venue in a helicopter along with Pandit Ravi Shankar. In fact it was Alla Rakha, along with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who took Indian classical music to American audiences.

Alla Rakha retains a childlike delight while talking about his life. Honours and accolades are just by the way. He wears a watch with the American President's seal on it (something far less accomplished people would trade their Padmashris for) but is hardly aware of the name of the man (in this case, good old Bill) who gave it to him.

What matters is, of course, music. Despite alarmist predictions of the end of classical music, Alla Rakha believes otherwise. Tradition will always remain, he asserts. And as for dilution of standards when musicians turn crowd-pleasers, he insists that it is the duty of the musician to satisfy his listeners.

Even so, he concedes that the intimate mehfils of yore have yielded to something less edifying. Today, intimate concerts have given way to shows in huge halls and stadiums. Even the guru-shishya parampara has undergone a sea-change. Today's parents want their children to learn through tapes and CDs. Ideally, the master and disciple should sit face-to-face, with the knowledge passing on from one generation to the other.

He should know, having taught three sons to be fine table players. The most famous, of course, is the eminently telegenic Zakir Hussain. The other two are the equally talented Fazal and Taufiq. What about his daughters? He gently admonished me: "Acche khaandaan ke ladkiyon ko ye sab nahin karvaate."

Ah, tradition.

Sugandhi Ravindranathan





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