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Rhythms of the Heart – Alla Rakha

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Rhythms of the Heart – Alla Rakha

It has been 30 years since Ustad Alla Rakha stepped on the stage for a solo tabla performance. Thirty years in which he has not only successfully communicated the fire and ecstasy of his performances to audiences around the world but has also provided a new dimension to the art of playing the tabla.

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles the maestro who turned 70 this year.

Ustad Alla Rakha has shared global eminence with celebrities like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. But his personal contribution, it would seem, has still to receive the recognition it richly deserves.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 31, 1989

Ustad Allah Rakha has shared global eminence with celebrities like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.

Ustad Alla Rakha has shared global eminence with celebrities like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.

He is easily the most celebrated tabla maestro the world knows today. Hailed not only for his performing finesse but also for the incomparable accompaniment he has provided other musicians. Ustad Alla Rakha has been at the centre of the resurgence which has seen increasing innovation and excellence in tabla performances.

The Ustad has had a rich, full life. Man of many parts he has in his career been a classical vocalist, instrumentalist, stage actor, film composer, music director and last but not the least a teacher. And providing a common link through all these roles has been his love for the tabla.

Tabla playing, according to the ustad, has been a family passion for several generations. Strangely enough, he was the only musically inclined child in a family of seven brothers and two sisters, who wanted to pursue a career in music and especially in playing the percussion instruments. “But,” says the ustad, “my elders were not pleased. They did not take kindly to my weakness for the tabla. Evidently they wanted me to be a vocalist and even arranged for my training in dhrupad singing under Pandit Vir Chand, a local teacher.”

Under his tutelage, the boy learnt the basics of singing dhrupad and dhamar. Knowledge of which the ustad is now quick to point out, “was to my advantage, for according to tradition, initiation into Hindustani classical music was always through dhrupad and dhamar, to the accompaniment of the pakhavaj, This method served to lay a firm foundation in sur, laya and taal for anyone who aspired to be a performing musician, as a vocalist or as a instrumentalist. “But at that time all that the young Alla Rakha had wanted was a teacher who would initiate him into the art of playing the tabla. He was, as he puts it, “only cut out for a career in tabla playing”. A career for which his training started when he was six years of age and came under the influence of Ustad Lal Mohammed, a noted disciple of the great Kadar Baksh. “I gave my first solo recital when I was twelve and still under his shagirdi,” reminisces the ustad now.

His real break however came when at age 15 he shifted to Lahore and was accepted by Ustad Kadar Baksh as a student. In those days Ustad Kadar Baksh’s was a name to be reckoned with in the domain of percussion music. He belonged to what is known as the Punjab gharana. Alla Rakha asserts that the tabla is Punjab’s precious bequest to Hindustani music and the gharana stands out among other schools, like those of Ajrada, Delhi and Farrukhabad, because it is oriented to pakhavaj playing, “Khulla baaj” (open style of playing) is its speciality, and Ustad Kadar Baksh was himself an unquestioned master of the pakhavaj and the tabla alike. It was under him that Alla Rakha’s grooming as a tabalchi started.

“The maestro,’’ says Alla Rakha, “taught me how to execute the most difficult and intricate taals. He also encouraged me to try my hands at many other instruments.” Advice which lent versatility to Alla Rakha’s repertoire of knowledge is music.

Completing his studentship under Ustad Kadar Baksh, Alla Rakha sought studentship under Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, now recognised as a pioneer of the Patiala gharana of vocalists. The fact that the late stalwart Bade Ghulam Ali Khan regarded Ashiq Ali Khan as one of his mentor is a tribute to the latter’s eminence. Under Ashiq Ali’s guidance, Alla Rakha assimilated the niceties of khayal and thumri. Then armed with all the knowledge and virtuosity he had collected over the years, he stepped into the commercial world.

Alla Rakha turns nostalgic when recalling his days with the radio organization and the silver screen – his first contacts with the commercial world. He regards his entry into the media world as the turning point in his life.

His association with broadcasting began as a staff artiste at Lahore in 1937. Later, he moved to Delhi and then to Bombay within a year or so. “The radio station in Bombay was then located at Ballard Estate,” he recalls. “I was part of a small team that comprised the music section. In those days there was a rare spirit of bonhomie that pervaded the environment and inspired the team to put in its best. I remember how station directors like Zulfikar Ali Bukhari and other executives and colleagues like D’Amel, Mohammed Tufail and Hamid Hussain spent hours and hours together to put through a worthwhile listening schedule.’’ To date Alla Rakha is grateful that his five-year service with AIR helped him to widen his horizons in his continued effort to reach for excellence in tabla playing.

It was the ustad’s desire to achieve something new that led him to the film world, where he took up music direction. He wrote music for over 30 films produced by companies like Sunrise Pictures and Hind Pictures. “I would first compose tunes on the harmonium and then teach them to the singing actors. Khemchand Prakash and Naushad were among my confreres in the field.” But he also refers to the late Avinash Vyas with feeling, who later rose to fame as a great composer and music director as one of his greatest inspirers.

Interestingly, while working in the film industry, the ustad had the offer of an assignment from Prabhat Films, which was then a leading company. The offer came to him when he was almost on the verge of quitting the film world, in 1958. He politely turned it down even though he realized that Prabhat’s offer was a testimony to the work he had done in various other film companies.

Later the same year, Ustad Alla Rakha was included in the Indian cultural delegation, possibly the first of its kind to be sent abroad by the Government of India. The delegation, which went to Japan, included Ravi Shankar. It was the first time that Alla Rakha met the sitar maestro. The relationship which the two forged performing jugalbandis together on stage is now history.

The comradeship between the two meant regular trips to America. Then came those long sojours in California, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and several other places. He was even offered the facility of a green card. But he did not accept it because, as he says, he wanted to be back home in the last phase of his life. But he is deeply appreciative of the West’s interest in Indian classical music. “Their understanding of percussion music is amazingly sharp. They are able to mark the beat with uncanny precision – even in the case of an intricate taal like Jayataal of 13 beats.” He says. In his frequent sojourns abroad, the ustad has taught several western disciples some of whom like Johney Card, Ed Shansi and Ray Spiegel, he is specially proud of.

Ustad Alla Rakha has shared global eminence with celebrities like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. But his personal contribution, it would seem, has still to receive the recognition it richly deserves. He has earned fulsome recognition abroad as a soloist and accompanist, with a string of convetable awards in San Francisco and California. By contrast, it is only a Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award that cam his way in 1977 and 1982, respectively!

Quite possibly, in the government’s estimation Alla Rakha is a mere accompanist and not a solo virtuoso in his own right, like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar, both of whom have deservedly earned such distinctions as the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. But it only makes one wonder that the accompanist these maestros would give their right hand to finds himself out in the cold where the highest honours are concerned. But it’s not as if the ustad finds himself sidelined. True to type, he feels none the worse for it.


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