The international recognition and acclaim that the Indian classical percussion is enjoying in the contemporary times has a lot to do with the maestro of tabla, Ustad Alla Rakha. While Ravi Shankar took the center stage with his sitar, it was Alla Rakha who sat a little behind him and accompanied him for almost two decades. Together, they took Indian classical music to an international audience and left people across the world spellbound.
A hundred and three years ago, on this day, in a small village near Jammu called Phagwal, was born Allarakha Qureshi, in a family of non musicians. His father was a soldier turned farmer and mother was a homemaker, however, Alla Rakha was always taken by music and wanted to learn it. After facing opposition from his family, he ran away to live with his uncle in Gurdaspur and this is how he embarked on his musical journey to eventually becoming an Ustad.
Alla Rakha’s musical lineage comes from two gharanas. He was reportedly 12 when he formally started training for tabla under Ustad Kader Baksh, the head of the Punjab gharana at the time, and for vocals, he trained under Ashiq Ali Khan from Patiala Gharana.
Throughout his musical career, Alla Rakha tried hands at several things. Initially, in 1936-37, he kick started his musical journey at All India Radio in Lahore as an accompanist but didn’t stay there for long. He was later transferred to Delhi and eventually Bombay within one year. It was there that he met Pandit Ravi Shankar for the first time.
In around 1942, Rakha dropped working with AIR to try his hands at composing music for Hindi films. Under the name AR Qureshi, he composed music for around thirty films including Alam Ara (1956), Bewafa (1952), Khandan (1965) and Maa Baap (1960). Even while working as a composer, he accompanied soloists like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Allauddin Khan, Vilayat Khan, Vasant Rai, Ali Akbar Khan, and ofcourse, Ravi Shankar. After he gave up his career as a composer, he embarked on his journey of concert career alongside Ravi Shankar and enthralled musicians and audience worldwide.
Allah Rakha partnered with Ravi Shankar on sitar and Ali Akbar Khan on sarod for almost thirty decades. During that time, they did several international collaborations. In 1966, Shankar and Rakha collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin on his album called ‘East meets West’. They also collaborated with George Harrison of world renowned band The Beatles on The Concert for Bangladesh, which went on to win a Grammy in 1972. Rakha also collaborated with Buddy Rich, a well known jazz drummer, for the album Rich à la Rakha in 1968. The drummer for American Rock Band, Micky Hart’s admiration for Alla Rakha is a well known fact. For Rakha, Hart says, Ustad Allah Rakha is the Einstein, the Picasso; he is the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet,”
Such series of instances of international collaboration brought a vast western audience for Hindustani Classical music. He left musicians, especially percussionists of that time, across the world in complete awe of his musical brilliance.
While talking about Alla Rakha’s contribution to introducing western audience to Indian Classical music, Debashish Adhikary, a senior tabla player from Delhi, says, “There are six gharanas for tabla- Punjab, Delhi, Ajrara, Benaras, Farukhabad and Lucknow. Alla Rakha took forward the unique style of Punjab Gharana and introduced it to the world. He was a great music composer as well. He traveled very far with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan for almost thirty years and created history in Indian classical music. It is difficult to have a jugalbandi with a sitar because of scaling. But Alla Rakha and Ali Akbar Khan did a marvelous job of tuning with Ravi Shankar. Allah Rakha was just great and there was so much that made him so. His son, Zakir Hussain is also a pioneer in tabla. ”
Today, even after almost 22 years of Alla Rakha leaving us, the admiration for his work and his contribution to fusion music and bringing international acclaim to Indian classical music keeps him alive.
Ranjib Biswa, a tabla player and a professor at faculty of music, Delhi University, while talking about Ustad Allah Rakha, says, “He was a pioneer and one of the best musicians from Punjab Gharana. Out of the six gharanas for Tabla, Punjab gharana has quite a distinctive style of music and Alla Rakha did justice to that and took the lineage forward. Talking about technicalities, Ustad Alla Rakha’s tirkit was said to be so good that people couldn’t hear it anymore than ten minutes. Like everything has a limit, there’s a limit to the amount of good music people could hear. He used to play so fast and still with such clarity that it was too good to be listened to.”
He further says, “One of the best disciples has to be his own son, Zakir Hussain. Apart from that, his other renowned disciples include Anuradha Pal and Pt. Yogesh Samsi among others. The musical brilliance of these people is testament enough to Alla Rakha’s genius. I have grown up listening to him playing tabla and he was one the biggest reasons I fell in love with this instrument.”
Contemporary tabla players credit Alla Rakha with opening a whole new world of playing rare taals in Tabla. They say that it was his contribution in the world of tabla paying that today, there is so much to learn about the instrument.
Durjay Bhaumik, a tabla player from Delhi who got his musical training from Lukhnow and Farrukhabad Gharana says, “The man was an institution in himself. For us, he is still alive in his music. We remember what a legend Alla Rakha was everytime we listen to his music. He reinvented the already unique style of Punjab Gharana. He is a legend because of his playing style. While accompanying Ravi Shankar, he used to play complex taals but made them acceptable for the layman audience also. His playing was so effortless that he’d play the most complex of taals but with ease. I was a student when I used to listen to his music and it felt like what he was playing was easy. However, it was his speciality to present tough and complicated work in an easy and simple way. He also created and produced specialised bols which are still unparalleled.”
He further says, “In those times, teental used to dominate the tabla playing world but Alla Rakha introduced to us playing different taals like Ektaal, Jhaptaal, Rupak. While touring with Ravi Shankar, he used to play complex taals such as sarhe panch (five and a half) and sarhe aadh (eight and a half). It was a brainchild of his wonderful thinking process. His complex but beautiful tihaai, were his another speciality. Playing his several compositions was a part of our learning process. There are no contemporary Tabla players who haven't played his compositions.”