Among the many requirements considered imperative in the daily practice routine of music students, the exercise of “listening” to music is incredibly significant. The earlier the exercise starts, the better it is, as it informs and influences students at multiple levels. From igniting their curiosity in music of various kinds to encouraging them to develop analytical faculties, the act of listening is integral to music education.
It requires a participatory role from the listener in response to the music, which is quite different from the act of “hearing, which could be described as a mere reflexive reaction to any kind of aural stimuli. Listening is particularly crucial in an essentially oral tradition like in the case of Hindustani music, as in the latter case music instruction is orally transmitted with texts of music notation playing a secondary role as reference material.
I was fortunate to have started listening to music at an early stage. I began by attending concerts or listening to music played on the All India Radio and Doordarshan, but I went on to access music that was available on vinyl discs, cassettes and compact discs. Over the years, digital files on the internet have taken the place of earlier formats, making music distribution more widespread than ever before, and I too have benefitted from this.
But of the many hours of listening that I have been involved in, there are some moments that have remained etched in my mind. One such experience was a concert that I had attended as a child of seven or eight way back in the early 1970s. It is a memory that has remained with me for multiple reasons.
Firstly, it was organised to mark the barsi or death anniversary of tabla maestro Amir Hussain Khan (1897-1969), an esteemed artiste and one of the most significant tabla composers and teachers of the twentieth century. Second, it was held at Mumbai’s Laxmi Baug Hall, a venue that had witnessed several decades of music performance history in the city.
But there was yet another reason, for it to become a memorable experience. It featured the tabla wizard Alla Rakha (29/4/1919-3/2/2000), whose contribution to acquainting audiences across the world to the tabla in the second half of the twentieth century is a well-recorded fact.
I was an uninformed listener at the time, as I had been learning the tabla only for a year or so before that. But as I peered through the railing of the first floor balcony in the hall, I could sense that I was witnessing a magical moment with the maestro playing a duet with his son and iconic tabla player Zakir Hussain.
The link below features the maestro Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain in a tabla duet recorded for Doordarshan. They are accompanied by Iqbal Ahmed on sarangi and Naseer Qadri on harmonium.
Later, as I added years to my study of music and went on to becoming a disciple of the revered tabla maestro Nikhil Ghosh, I had the opportunity of listening to Alla Rakha Khansaheb on several occasions, both in live concerts and on recordings. What appeared extraordinary to me even in my early years of training was the fact that his music was quite distinct from anything that I was exposed to until then. Be it his innate sense of rhythm that allowed him to explore the most intricate of mathematical combinations for tabla repertoire, or the choice of vocabulary for the instrument, or even his quick responses to the musical elaboration from the soloists he was accompanying, they were all features of a style that set itself apart from all other existing styles of tabla playing.
But before I discuss his musical genius, it would perhaps be appropriate to know more about his training and experience as a performer and composer. The information available from various sources has some discrepancies in dates, but I am providing here the basic facts that tally across all of them.
Alla Rakha, also addressed as Alla Rakha Khan, was born at Phagwal village in Jammu, 80 kms from Lahore. The eldest of seven brothers, he did not belong to a family of hereditary musicians, but was inexorably drawn to music. His training in music began at the early age of 11 or 12. He trained in vocal music under Ashiq Ali Khan, a noted vocalist of the Patiala gharana (the musical style practised by a familial lineage of hereditary musicians and their disciples and identified by the name of the town or city from where its founder hailed), and in tabla under Mian Qadir Baksh, who headed the Punjab gharana at the time.
According to The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India, he acted in a theatre company in Pathankot at the age of 15, and thereafter learnt dhrupad from Veerchand, a teacher in his hometown before studying under Ashiq Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana. The same source mentions that he had his initial training in tabla from Jhandu Khan, who was trained by Lal Mohammad, a disciple of the well-known Kader Baksh of the Punjab gharana. Later, he went to Lahore with his uncle and received advanced training from Kader Baksh himself. Meanwhile he continued learning vocal music from Ashiq Ali Khan.
This is a link to a short clip that features Alla Rakha singing at a private gathering.
The maestro started his musical career in 1936-’37 as an accompanist on the All India Radio station in Lahore, but was transferred to Delhi and then to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1938. In 1942-’43, he gave up his employment with the All India Radio and joined the film industry as a music composer. He composed music for over 40 Hindi and Punjabi films. His screen name as composer was AR. Qureshi. Some of the films he composed music for were Maa Baap (1944), Maa Baap Ki Laaj (1946), Bewafa (1952), Laila (1954), Khandan (1955), and Alam Ara (1956).
Here is a track from the film Bewafa. Two melodic compositions for the same lyrics are juxtaposed. The first one is sung by Talat Mahmood and the second by Lata Mangeshkar.
After leaving the film industry in the late 1950s, Alla Rakha embarked on an unstoppable concert career famously partnering with the internationally renowned sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. He had already been accompanying leading vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers, but his concert tours with Ravi Shankar that lasted over three decades, brought him to audiences across the world and also introduced the tabla to many non-Indian musicians and lay listeners.
For instance, in 1966, he provided tabla accompaniment for a recording that was released the following year on an album entitled West Meets East. It featured a musical collaboration between Ravi Shankar with world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He also accompanied both of them in a concert held at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10, 1967. The performance was filmed and broadcast worldwide and Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha became the earliest practitioners of Hindustani music to be seen by a global audience.
Here is a link to an extract from a documentary on Ravi Shankar, in which he and Yehudi Menuhin speak of their musical association. It also contains excerpts from their performance with Alla Rakha.
Ravi Shankar’s collaborations with George Harrison, a member of the universally acclaimed band The Beatles, in The Concert for Bangladesh concert and the album and film with the same name took Hindustani music to an extraordinarily large Western audience. With The Concert for Bangladesh reaching gold record status and receiving the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1972, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Alla Rakha, gained an unprecedented exposure to Western audiences.
Ravi Shankar’s Festival of India concerts and album of 1968 was followed in 1974 by a sequel called Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival of India. This was a collaborative venture with George Harrison. Both concert tours and recordings included topnotch musicians from India, many of who later toured the West extensively and become acclaimed performers there. Needless to say, Alla Rakha played a prominent role in these concerts and recordings too.
During this period, he also accompanied several other artistes including sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. However, it his partnership with Ravi Shankar, that has assumed legendary proportions.
Interestingly, apart from his involvement as tabla player for Hindustani music performances, Alla Rakha also collaborated with well-known jazz drummer Buddy Rich on the album Rich à la Rakha that was published in 1968. This was one of the early instances of an eminent tabla player featured in an intercultural musical dialogue, well before such performances became a feature on the international stage.
Successive generations are fortunate to have access to his audio and video recordings available on various formats. These include his studio and concert recordings with Ravi Shankar, as well as his solo and duet performances with his son Zakir Hussain. Some of his solo albums are The Ultimate in Taal Vidya (Magnasound, 1989), Sangeet Sadhak Allah Rakha (SaReGaMa, 2006), and his duets with his son are entitled Memorable Tabla Duet (Chhanda Dhara, 1991), Together (Magnasound & MRS Filmcraft, 2004), Drums of India – Ecstasy (SaReGaMa, 2006), and Drums of India – Tabla (SaReGaMa, 2007).
His duet with noted pakhawaj exponent Arjun Shejwal is available on an album entitled In Memory of Alla Rakha (Chhanda Dhara, 2004).
Here is a link to a video recording of Alla Rakha in a taal-vadya kutcheri or percussion ensemble with Yella Venkateshwara Rao (mridangam), Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam) and Arjun Shejwal (pakhawaj).
After a richly rewarding concert career, Alla Rakha founded the Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music in 1985 to train young tabla students in the style that he had evolved over decades. His contribution to tabla and to Indian music has been recognised worldwide. The awards conferred upon him include the Padma Shri (1977), the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1982), the Indo-American Achievement Award, the Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, among others.
With this brief biographical sketch of the maestro as a backdrop, I would like to discuss the main stylistic features that he evolved for tabla solo and accompaniment – features that departed from the traditional approach and that have captured the imagination of tabla players over decades.
To begin with, Alla Rakha’s style was quite distinct from that followed by other tabla players. Most tabla players in post-independent India belonged to the Delhi, Ajrada, Lucknow, Farrukhabad and Banaras gharanas. The Punjab gharana was primarily restricted to the region that had now become Pakistan. Understandably, therefore, it must have been an uphill task to establish himself successfully amidst musicians and audiences who were largely unfamiliar with his style.
Broadening the vocabulary
Traditionally, tabla players presented solo performances, using Teentaal, a rhythmic cycle of 16 matras or time-units, as the rhythmic canvas. The length and even structure of Teentaal could have influenced performers to exploit it more than other taals. However, the twentieth century saw several successful attempts at exploring other taals in solo performance. Jhaptaal (10 matras), Ektaal (12 matras), Rupak (seven matras), Ada Choutaal and Dhamar (both 14-matra taals), were some of the other taals that were explored several decades ago.
In fact, more recently, few tabla players have even explored rare taals having odd matras or fractions. Alla Rakha’s contribution to the change of focus from Teentaal to other taals is significant, as he was one of the first few tabla players to have explored this aspect.
Even in the context of solo recitals in Teentaal, tabla players explored taal during solo recitals through two broad compositional structures, the first following a theme and variations pattern (mukh and bal/palta), and the second consisting of short and pithy compositions. The first type included compositions like peshkar, qaida, rela, rav, and ladi, and the second type had compositions like gat, tukda and chakradar.
A large part of the performance usually consisted of pre-conceived compositions, barring the phase involving variations to a theme. Here too, the variations were pre-conceived, though the selection of variations was at times spontaneous. Consequently, great emphasis was laid on interpreting compositions, many of which were handed down through generations. These compositions were created over a period of 250 years or so, and each gharana had its own solo repertoire.
However, tabla players also exhibited an eclectic approach since the early days, with the result that many of them presented compositions that had originally evolved in gharanas other than the one they belong to. (Readers can access articles on the gharanas of tabla featured in this column earlier here.)
Alla Rakha, on the other hand, was also perhaps one of the few tabla players in his generation who concentrated more on layakari or the process of engaging with complex cross-rhythms. While he presented compositions from most of the forms mentioned above, his engagement with mathematically intricate musical phrasing set him apart from others who followed the conventional norm of exploring the mnemonic syllable language of the instrument.
One instance of this is his approach to resolving compositions on the sum/sam or the first and most accentuated matra of the taal. Most tabla compositions resolve with a tihai, a musical device that is structured in a manner that requires the playing of a short or long passage thrice in equidistant parts so that the last syllable of the third round coincides with the first matra of the approaching avartan or cycle. His designs for tihais are mathematically challenging and demand great alertness from the performer and listener.
His musical perspective is amply displayed in his compositions. Some of his compositions use vocabulary that is found in traditional Punjab gharana repertoire, but they demonstrate characteristic twists in syncopation and mathematical distribution of syllables across the matras. Another example of this aspect can be found in his bedam chakradar compositions. A chakradar is a non-extendable pre-conceived form employing bold strokes. The structure involves a short passage followed by a tihai, but the whole unit has to be repeated thrice for it to resolve on the sum/sam of the approaching avartan.
Usually, the three rounds of the chakradar are divided by a short or long pause, but in the case of a bedam chakradar, there is no pause or duration of a breath or dam. As a result, this kind of composition is particularly difficult to negotiate.
His distinct musical style not only registered itself through his compositions, but it also made its presence felt in the very tonal quality that he brought to his performances. There was a crisp and clear tone to his playing and a greater inclination to employing phrases like terekete, dhenegene and dhatitdha.
As has been mentioned earlier, many listeners overseas were introduced to tabla solo recitals through their exposure to Alla Rakha’s performances. This was because Ravi Shankar chose to incorporate short tabla solo sections in his own recitals. On other occasions, he spoke about this aspect and asked Alla Rakha to practically demonstrate it during lecture-demonstrations and workshops. Some of these sessions were recorded for television channels and are now available on the Internet.
Unlike conventional recitals, these solo presentations did not include the nagma or lahera, a single recurring melodic line that was played on the sarangi or harmonium with minimal embellishments in order to maintain the rhythmic canvas of the chosen taal. The nagma was replaced by claps that outlined structure of the taal. But of course, in his regular solo recitals, Alla Rakha continued to use the nagma.
Here is a short tabla solo in Jhaptaal, a cycle of ten matras or sub-units:
Moving on to tabla accompaniment, particularly to instrumental music, this was traditionally responsive to the main melodic elaboration but was not necessarily spontaneous in the choice of vocabulary. The material chosen for responding to the melodic elaboration came primarily from solo repertoire. However, this changed by the 1950s reflecting the transformation that instrumental music went through during this period. In particular, recitals by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan invited greater response from tabla players in terms of spontaneity and this went on to become the pattern for accompaniment in succeeding decades.
Alla Rakha was an important contributor to this change. His accompaniment to Ravi Shankar’s sitar recitals in live concerts and studio recordings reveals this through his short and sprightly rhythmic responses followed by unpredictable tihais. Interestingly, a recent trend that sees rhythmic exploration in accompaniment ending on the matra from which begins the mukhda of the vocal or instrumental composition had seen its earlier avatar in Alla Rakha’s tabla accompaniment.
Today, tihais are also composed or spontaneously arrived at keeping this matra as the focus, unlike the earlier convention of resolving all rhythmic statements on the sam. Notably, this has been a practice in percussion accompaniment to Carnatic music, which in turn could perhaps have influenced the current Hindustani trend. Alternatively, it is possible that this was a practice with pakhawaj accompaniment to the dhrupad-dhamar performances.
It may have died a natural death with the rising popularity of the khayal form, which did not have as sharp a focus on rhythmic interplay between the soloist and accompanist as was the case in the dhrupad-dhamar. However, Alla Rakha was known for his spontaneous responses and he inspired succeeding generations in proceeding along similar lines.
Alla Rakha’s musical legacy is carried forward by a host of disciples. His foremost disciple is his eldest son Zakir Hussain, who has been a pathbreaker in his own right. His presence on the musical firmament has influenced scores of tabla players and percussionists the world over. Apart from him, Alla Rakha’s disciples include his other sons Fazal and Taufiq Qureshi, and other well-known tabla players like Yogesh Samsi, Nishakant Badodekar, Ashok Godbole, Anuradha Pal, Aditya Kalyanpur, Prafulla Athalye, among others.
We conclude with a documentary on Alla Rakha produced by Films Division in 1970.