Zakir Hussain with Niladri Kumar: Publicity Photo

The Future of the Guru System:
An Interview with Zakir Hussain

First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2008, Volume 15, #8

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Photos by Susana Millman

Sun August 10, 2008, 11:30 AM CDT


Images and tales of the devotional life in India are so widespread that they have become a kind of clichť. The image of a practitioner ó whether in music or in some other aspect of spiritual life ó has been romanticized to such a degree in the West that it is difficult to get a clear picture of what it must have been like to grow up in such a system. Zakir Hussain is perhaps the greatest living proponent of the Indian tabla drum tradition ó an accolade that is at least partly due to the extensive and unrelenting characteristics of his education.

Yet, the very nature of this type of training may be under threat. Born in 1951, Hussain came into the world during a period of rapid change, and the rigorous structure of his apprenticeship no longer holds the attraction that it once did. The traditional social arrangements and lifestyles that have existed in India for thousands of years have changed more rapidly during the percussionistís lifetime than they have during any other point in history. The guru-student system that nurtured Hussainís unparalleled artistry is undergoing an accelerated metamorphosis.

"The gurus of the future will be called computers," explained Hussain. "The information I see on the internet is astounding. Iím finding out about great masters and seeing tapes and videos on YouTube that I didnít know existed, and these tapes are revealing a lot to me, even at this stage. I donít know where this stuff came from, but there must have been some fan who happened to have an old, 16mm film camera or the film stock and has converted it. Itís nothing I could have imagined. I saw myself from the University of Washington in 1970 on YouTube, and I have no idea of who took that film."

As a man whose feet straddle two different worlds, Hussain is philosophical about the changes that are eroding the ancient and long-standing methods of teaching that have produced so many great musical masters in his country. He acknowledges the effect that extended, regular contact with the West has had on Eastern approaches to learning. "It took 20 years to get enough information to become an apprentice to your teacher in India," said Hussain. "This is because it wasnít a daily teaching."

"The teaching took place when you inspired your teacher to come out of his room and tell you what to do while you were practicing," he explained. "Itís difficult because the way of life is different here in North America. The way to learn an art form in America is to pay and learn. In India, you donít pay a guru with money. You pay him in service, kindness, respect, honor, and love. In return, you will learn from him, and he adopts you like a son. He cares for you, feeds you, and educates you. Heís more than a parent."

"In the future, the guru-student relationship may not be possible," Hussain continued. "Whatís happening is that it used to take 20 years just to become an apprentice. Then, you finally become a performer down the ladder, and you worked your way up. But nowadays, the same knowledge that an apprentice would have achieved in 20 years is available to you at your fingertips."

Zakir Hussain, Ustad Sultan Khan, and Fazal Qureshi: Publicity Photo

When asked how he felt about the influence of technology and Western values on his traditional art form, Hussain answered with a sigh, "Iím all right with that, but once youíve got all of that information, there has to be someone who can help you sift through it and analyze it. It needs to be chiseled and chopped to get to the information thatís valid for you. For that, you need somebody. But, what has happened is now the teacherís work is already half-done because the information is there."

"So, these young punks, when theyíre playing at the age of 18, have twice or thrice as much information in their heads as I did when I was 18," he continued. "There is so much thatís readily available. In the days of my youth, if you found a recording of a great master, it was like discovering the tomb of King Tut! All through the student community, the tape would circulate, and weíd be talking about it like people do on the internet now. But today, everybody has access to this information without having to coax it out of the guru. When I talk to somebody and say ĎDid you hear that 1962 recording of a great master,í they say Ďyeah, I have it. I downloaded it.í Bang. So, yeah, I feel a hundred years from now the information will definitely be there in existence. What my hope, and what I pray, is that there will be someone able to help those people who have that information, and heíd be able to help them sift through it."

Hussain closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. When he began again, he took great care to communicate what his life was like as a young student. "I learned from my father from the age of two, until I was 11," he said. "Every night heíd wake me up at 3:30 in the morning, and the teaching would last until 6:30 in the morning. Then, Iíd go to school. That was the routine. It wasnít drumming. It was only talking about drumming and where it came from. Weíd talk about the importance and sacredness of the knowledge. Then, I put it into practice by playing the tabla once I came home from school."

"I was introduced to a philosophy and a way of life that is not possible to get only from a computer. It energized me, and it made me who I am," Hussain continued. "Such training is rare if not nonexistent now. You see, in the physical sense, this possibility is dying out even in India. But, all of the musicians who are performing with me take it upon themselves to take a few students with them when they travel to do daily learning sessions. When they are at home, they come for lessons every day. They donít live with them like they did before, but they are still allowed to be with them through the day, drink tea with them, eat with them, and talk music with them. So, that process is still there."

Even though many of the performers with whom Hussain interacts didnít receive the same level of training that he did, they do share a deep respect for the approach as well as the traditions. This has allowed for the sophistication of their art form to develop to such a high degree. "The musicians of today continue to feel that this approach is important," said Hussain. "Whatís interesting is that these musicians today still donít take money from the students. The knowledge is available, but you have to inspire the teacher. The teacher is like a river of knowledge. Itís up to the student whether they have a little cup or a big bucket. Itís always been the feeling in India that a guru doesnít teach; the student inspires the lessons. So, if you have that talent as a student and you show that spark, you will get what is necessary for you from your teacher."

"When I teach in California, there are no fees involved," Hussain continued. "They come and they hang out. We do six hours of drumming a day for many days, and then they go home. Itís my obligation and duty. This knowledge that is still vague in their memory, itís up to us to help them understand it."

When asked if he still felt challenged by his art form, Hussain laughed as if an absurd question had just been posed to him. "The challenges are in the way of life because thatís where you understand what the music is about," he replied. "I went to Brazil, and I hung out in the village of Airto Moreira, the shaman. Thatís when it was revealed to me what being a shaman is all about. I learned about the tradition and the repertoire as well as the importance of it and the sacredness of it. So, the challenge is being in that environment, living that life. If you can do that consistently, I think it makes you a person to whom the way to respect what exists in the world is revealed. This is what has worked for me, and it was gratifying to see these players from other traditions who have been through similar rigors and challenges."

As a Westerner who was brought up to equate individual distinctiveness with freedom, it is tempting to wonder whether Hussain felt constricted by the life that was chosen for him. "There never was a question. I never looked in my mirror and said ĎDo you want to do this?í" he explained. "That never happened. Iím still waiting for that, but it was always what I grew up with. When I finally gained the focus of being in control of my memory, when I could go back and remember everything, the first thing I can remember is music. I was already doing it before I was conscious of doing it. Then, I remember the joy of it, the big grin on the face when Iím doing it ó not just when I was doing it, but when I was watching my dad playing. Iíd be sitting and looking at everyone, and I would have this ĎWow, look at whatís happeningí expression on my face. The joy has always been there and that hasnít dimmed. I watched my dad play tabla when he was 75, and here was this old man climbing up on the stage and playing. Suddenly, the years dropped off of him. Suddenly, it was like he was in his favorite playpen with his favorite toy."

"I remember talking to myself and wishing that when I was 50 that I would have the same love and passion for what Iím doing that my dad did then," Hussain continued. "Now that Iím way over 50, I feel I love it just as much. I canít wait to play, and once Iím playing I want to keep on going. Iíve seen tabla players with shaky clawed hands at 80 years of age, and then they get on stage and do an hour of full-power boom. What happens? I have no clue. I hope I get there myself."

Watching Hussain ó who is nearing the age of 60 ó as he drums with the energy of a teenager for almost three hours at the Chan Centre in Vancouver on a Tuesday night in May, it seems as if he already has arrived there. His fingers still fly over his tabla like heís releasing notes and tones trapped inside of its percussive heart, ones that only he knows are there. Hearing the celestial dance his instrument conjures, it is difficult to imagine what will happen when there is no Zakir Hussain to coax such beautiful sounds out of the substratum of the sonic universe. It is not an exaggeration to say that nobody else alive is making music like Hussain. His is truly a healing kind of music that can only be appreciated when it is heard, felt, and experienced in a live setting.

As Hussain remarked before taking the stage in Vancouver, "I feel rejuvenated when I play. I can get on stage very tired and feel the energy level rise. I feel like Iíve been re-energized with dilithium crystals. Itís always ó ĎAh! Give me some more, Scotty!í This is a very positive thing. The vibrations are uplifting, and the energy is nothing but good. Itís coming through you, and thatís the way it is for me. I am just the messenger. Itís pure, healthy energy that takes a long time to leave me. Once Iím home, it takes me more than two hours to calm down and close my eyes. There has to be a really bad movie on TV to put me to sleep."


Of Further Interest...

Diga Rhythm Band - Diga

Looking Backward and Reaching Forward with Zakir Hussain (2008)

Masters of Percussion with Zakir Hussain (2008)

A Fresh Start with Page McConnell (2007)


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