Growing up with Abbaji: Taufiq Qureshi on learning from Ustad Allah Rakha

The youngest son of the house, Taufiq Qureshi had music of the Ustads playing in his years since the time he entered his humble home in Dargah Mohalla, behind the Makhdoom Ali Mahimi Shah Baba Dargah, as a 6 day-old. At almost any given point in the day, the sound of the tabla would echo in the corridors and rooms of the home. “Abbaji (Ustad Allah Rakha Khan) would be doing his riyaaz (practice), Zakir Bhai (Ustad Zakir Hussain), who’s 12 year older to me, would be doing his, students would come and learn and play the tabla,” recalls Qureshi.

When Abbaji wasn’t travelling for one his many concerts, his day, says Qureshi, would start at around 9 in the morning with big brass glass of lassi. A paratha or two toasts would follow. Qureshi and his four siblings would be in their classrooms by then. He, however, vividly remembers this routine from the holidays and weekend mornings that he’d spend at home. Riyaaz would begin immediately after, usually in company of a few students. A 4 or 5 year-old Taufiq would just sit around, stare and listen.

Riyaaz would go on till lunch, which wasn’t before 2.30 or 3 pm. “At times, he’d take a break for a cigarette or would go to a café at the street corner to meet a film producer. He used to give music for films at the time, under the name AR Qureshi,” says Qureshi.

Post lunch, he’d relax for a little while and then go to perform at a concert. If there wasn’t one, then more students would trickle in and another round of riyaaz would follow.

The master’s modest house was an open house. Apart from Abbaji, Bavi Begum (his wife), two daughters and three sons, there’d be at least six to seven people in the house at all times – students, guests. Bavi Begum would be found in the kitchen almost through the day, fondly cooking for everyone, and anyone who was in the house during meal times wouldn’t leave without eating. “Bas chal raha tha, log aa rahe the, khana kha rahein the, tabla baj raha tha, riyaaz ho raha tha (Life just went along; people kept coming in, food kept being served, tabla kept being played, riyaaz kept happening,” Qureshi recollects with a smile.

Ustad sahab, the performer

Taufiq Qureshi’s first memory of watching Abbaji perform live dates back to when he was around 5 years-old. “I think he was performing with Pandit Ravi Shankar. I realized this was something special,” he says.

Over the years, Qureshi accompanied his father to several concerts and each time he noticed a peculiar trait; Ustad Allah Rakha would stop talking sometime before he was to go up on stage. If you anyone spoke to him, he wouldn’t reciprocate. He’d always be in his own world, says Qureshi. “He’d be watching a cricket match and his counting would be on, his hands would always be moving; constantly. He was, I think, in a constant state of meditation; all his life,” he reminisces. “That’s why, I think, he had no health issues till he was 75. No blood pressure issues, no heart problems; nothing,” he adds.

Ustad Allah Rakha wouldn’t speak when he was on stage either. “You know, other people speak to the audience, tell them what they’re going to play etc. He wouldn’t. He would just come and start playing. In fact, if he was called somewhere as a chief guest, he would come to the microphone and apologize saying, ‘I’m sorry, I cannot speak; only my hands can. Thank you for calling me.’ And that’s it,” he says.

But, it’s not that Abbaji couldn’t talk, Qureshi clarifies. He spoke a lot at home, to his children and to his students. “He’d tell us what he did in his life, the struggles he faced. He used to talk so much. But, not on stage.”

Abbaji, the father

Since he was a child, Qureshi was attracted to what he calls the “other rhythm”. He loved listening to film songs on the radio. RD Burman’s music attracted him. Often, the calm and meditative sounds of the tabla that typically resonated in the Qureshi household would be disrupted by RD Burman’s cult song Duniya Mein Logon blaring out, at maximum volume, from the radio. A young Taufiq would patiently and keenly enjoy the song and as soon as the track ended, he could be seen running around the house, trying to imitate the breath percussions used in the song. Imagine a little child, going around the house all day, breathing heavily, trying to imitate the legendary music composer RD Burman. “My mother would look at me and get worried. ‘Kya hogaya hai isko, pagal hogaya hai kya? Tabiyat kharab hai? (What has happened to him? Has he lost it? Is he suffering from an illness?’ she’d ask,” recollects Qureshi, who later in life used breath as a form of rhythm and made it a part of his repertoire.

A young and impressionable Qureshi had also taken, rather seriously, to an album that his father recorded with the great drummer Buddy Rich. He, almost each day, would wait with baited breath for his sister to return from college so he could ask her to play the Long Play record for him. “I would listen to it 10 to 15 times a day. My family was tired of that album,” he says laughing.

It wasn’t his father’s tabla that attracted him to the album. He was just curious about the parts that Buddy Rich had played. “I had no idea what it was, what was being played. But, I was attracted to it,” he admits. He would then try to recreate the music using pots, pans, dabbas and broom sticks.

Abbaji never forced Qureshi to pick up the tabla; Qureshi’s mother wasn’t too keen on him becoming a musician. “My father was into music, Zakir bhai was into music. But, in those days, music wasn’t looked upon with a lot of respect. You wouldn’t make money there. So my mother wanted me to do something else,” Qureshi explains.

Abbaji didn’t object.

Over the years, however, Qureshi’s school results weren’t impressive. “When my father saw my mark sheet, he said to my mother, ‘Kya hai yeh (What is this)? I don’t think he’ll be able to do anything else. You better let me start teaching him. At least that skill will help him.’ That’s when my mother gave up and I started to learn from my father,” Qureshi says. He was 12 by the time this happened; fairly late in a family of musicians, where children start to learn by the age of 6. But, he’s glad Abbaji imparted the skill, training and knowledge to him. “I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I mean, sure, I’m qualified; I’ve done my BA. But I had barely managed to scrape through.”

In his 20s, Qureshi had started to perform in concerts with older brother Ustad Zakir Hussain and his father. But, he had also started to give in to his calling for the “other rhythm”, sounds that he got attracted towards as a child. He formed a band called Surya, started performing with small orchestras, took up small recording assignments and even started composing for Gujarati plays. Sometime in 1988, he went up to his father and told him, ‘Abbaji mujhe yeh classical music nai karna hai (Abbaji, I don’t want to pursue a career in classical music). Main recording aur yeh sab karna chahata hoon (I want to take up a career as a composer and do recordings etc.)’

‘Why you want to do this? You’re doing so well (in classical music), you’re progressing,’ Abbaji said to him. To which, Qureshi said, ‘No. I want to try out something else. I don’t want to do this.’

Abbaji didn’t argue or try to convince him otherwise. ‘Accha theek hai, tumhe yehi karna hai toh karo (sure, if this is what you want to do). Music hi kar rahe ho na (As long as it’s music).’

He, however, had one thing to say to him, ‘Whatever you do, make sure your music says that you’re my son. Meri chaap nazar aani chahiye.’

“That’s all he said at the time. But, later, I remember him telling someone, ‘It’s a good pair of hands wasted.’ The fact that Ustad Allah Rakha thought that I have a good pair of hands was a big compliment,” Qureshi says.

Almost a decade later, after attending a concert in which Qureshi was playing the Congas, Ustad Allah Rakha returned home and said, ‘Yeh toh mera hi music baja raha hai; sirf saaz alag hai (He plays my music, only the instrument is different).’ Qureshi’s mother told him this after he returned. “My father would never praise us in front of us. He’d never praise anyone on their faces. His praise would be hidden and to us it would often come via our mother,” Qureshi says. “So, when my mother told me that he’d said what he had, I had a confirmation of being on the right path. He approved of what I was doing,” he adds.

Abbaji, the teacher

As a father, Abbaji was loving and even lenient. He never raised a finger on his children and he almost always got the children what they asked for. “My mother would tell him that he was spoiling us. But, he would say that he’d never say no to his children,” Qureshi says.

As a teacher, however, he was an entirely different person. He was strict. There would be no leniency when it came to riyaaz, there was no exception to his rules and no difference between sons and students. Qureshi vividly remembers practicing for at least six hours a day, five days a week from the age of 12 to the age of 21. If he was travelling, he would get one of his senior students to come home and supervise the riyaaz sessions. “When I’d come home from school, I’d see him (a senior student) waiting for me,” Qureshi, who liked practicing, recalls.

Students and sons alike had to follow his regime – A couple of hours of practice before going to sleep, an hour and a half of riyaaz before going to school and then a couple of hours after coming back.

The rules weren’t just restricted to riyaaz timings. “If he was teaching us bols and we’d try to write it down, he’d take the hammer with which you tune the tabla and throw it right on the hand we would write with. It’d hit right on the nerve.”

‘Pen baaju mein. Tum kya stage pe kitaab leke baithne waala ho (Keep that pen aside. Are you going to sit on the stage with a book)?’ he’d ask, says Qureshi.

All his life, for all his students, Abbaji had one piece of advice: Remain a student all your life. Do not ever consider yourself to be a master. If you’re a student, you’ll always want to learn more. Once you think you’ve mastered everything, it’ll spell the end.

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