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Like most sensible heterosexual females who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a massive crush on the tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain. I met Hussain once. He held my hand, asked me my name and smiled when I told him. I remember how enormous his hands looked, the fingers rounded at the tips. There was nothing delicate about them and it seemed strange that these solid-digited wedges of flesh, muscle, bone and nail could flutter like they did when he played. Anyway, the point is, I met him and, like pretty much any woman above the age of 9 who met Hussain, wanted to elope with him. Perhaps not quite a reaction to warm the cockles of my then-boyfriend’s heart but he should have known it would happen. The boyfriend didn’t last but my crush on Hussain did, which is why I scooted down to south Mumbai last week to watch a documentary on him.

The Speaking Hand – Zakir Hussain and the Art of the Indian Drum” is a film about Hussain made by Sumantra Ghosal. Ghosal is, or was, an ad filmmaker and in the Q & A session that followed, he revealed that he’d met Hussain because Ghosal was the one who made the “Wah Taj!” commercial. Ghosal and Hussain became friends and Ghosal decided to make a film on this musician who wasn’t yet being lauded as a legend because he was just too young to have that tag. The documentary took some 3 years to make. To make sure they got uninterrupted time for the interviews, Hussain didn’t tell anyone he was around and Ghosal booked him into a 5-star hotel in Bombay. Locked up in the room, Hussain sat on the floor with his tabla set in front of him and talked, about growing up in Mahim, the basic differences between the various tabla gharanas, his father, going abroad, rhythm patterns. Interspersed with this conversation are excerpts from concerts and interviews with some of the finest classical musicians of our time, like Ustad Allah Rakha, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Jasraj. Everyone gushed about him. His sister talked about how he joined the drummers during the Urs as a boy and play the dhol expertly. His mother remembered how the entire neighbourhood would shower him with money when he joined the Urs drummers. His father spoke about how even as a boy Hussain could decode the mathematics of the complex rhythm cycles. The artists all spoke about how intuitive Zakir is, how he never misses a nuance, how he’s made the instrument that was an accompaniment into a star. Listening to Hussain play, I think it’s impossible to imagine that the tabla isn’t a lyrical instrument. Fact is, the tabla is usually just about unmelodious beats in the hands of more mortal and less hot musicians. In Hussain’s hands, it can coo like a pigeon, follow the notes of a melody and be filled with all the passion of a animated conversation.

The pleasure of “The Speaking Hand” is in listening to Zakir Hussain speak, because he is so wonderfully spontaneous and articulate, and in hearing his concerts. The documentary doesn’t give you much of an understanding of his life after his early years since Ghosal’s focus was the music but it has some absolutely wonderful snippets from his long performance career. The concerts were particularly poignant for me because I’ve spent time with almost every one of the artists interviewed in the documentary. Some I met briefly, others I’ve spent time with and watched with rapt attention while sitting in the first row (generally reserved for the artists’ retinue). A few I knew well enough to sit in on their riyaaz (which was more like meditation than a practice session), sit next to and pose for family photos. Now I don’t know any of them. They probably wouldn’t acknowledge or perhaps even recognise me if I went backstage (bound to happen if you have a rather cataclysmic break-up with the man who introduced you to these legends) and that’s not the sad part. I listened to Ustad Rais Khan play the sitar and suddenly I was filled with longing for that music. It’s been ages since I went to an Indian classical music concert. I can’t take the disappointment of stepping into the auditorium and hearing inept, listless twanging of strings and straining of throats. The slick young things in shiny outfits that I’ve heard on the few occasions I’ve tried attending a concert annoy the crap out of me. Their music is lifeless and has none of the richness, energy and deftness that you heard in the little concert excerpts that Ghosal fitted into “The Speaking Hand”.

So sitting there in the freezing Godrej Theatre of NCPA, I missed the incredible music that I’d had the chance to be surrounded by more than a decade ago. I remembered how the instruments pulled at notes while being tuned, the richness of the voices as they sank into the stillness of lower octaves, the swiftness with which a melody turned from romance to heartbreak. I remembered listening and falling in love, and thanked whatever gods and goddesses there might be for the fact that I’d listened as closely as I had. Because that music is gone and too few films like “The Speaking Hand” have been made. But getting to watch the documentary was as poignant and beautiful a beginning to this year and decade as I could have hoped for.

Happy new year.

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4 thoughts on “Something Old, Something New

  1. Just a minor, tangential nit to pick: was the documentary targeted at foreign audiences? The name “The art of the Indian Drum” sounds like something one foreigner would say to another foreigner.

    I remember reading a blog comment somewhere about this phenomenon, where Indian authors and journalists writing for Indian audiences nevertheless word their writing as though addressing it to a foreigner who doesn’t know much about India. Incongruent phrases like “the Indian state of Rajasthan” or “Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister” might appear in articles in Indian newspapers. This title sounds a bit like that.

    • AG, Not at all. I suspect the director just needed an English title. The film is very intimate and rests comfortably on the Zakir’s charm and performance, both as a person as well as a musician. I don’t thnk the idea of a foreign audience or local audience was any consideration.

  2. Saw this docu some years ago at the British Council and was rivetted. Loved the whole Siddhi segment and the abandon of the drums that ZH was introduced to at a young age in Mahim. and I remember Sumantra saying during the Q&A that he had hours more footage. My question as was echoed by many in the audience is why is this docu not out there on a TV channel or DVD for many more to see?

    • He said something mysterious like “There are issues”, which explained nothing. But, on the plus side, he did say that he loves screening the film so hopefully it will get more views. Particularly remarkable to me was the fact that it was made ages ago but doesn’t feel dated when you watch it today. That’s quite something.

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