Musical tribute to Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa

Musical event saw performances including a tabla solo recital by Shariq Mustafa, sarod recital by Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash and a solo by Ustad Zakir Hussain

Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa (1880s-1976) is regarded as the finest soloist and tabla accompanist of his generation - 'The Mount Everest of tabla players'. Though he was born in a family of sarangi players, his instinctive feel for the tabla was evident from a very young age and he started learning from the legendary Ustad Munir Khan. The name 'thirakwa' was given by his grandfather Kale Khan who described his fingers on the tabla as 'thirakte'(shimmering) which led to him being called 'Thirakwa'. He was in the Nawab of Rampur's court for around 25 years, where he acquired, in the words of disciple Pandit Nayan Ghosh an exquisite lifestyle. Prodigiously talented, Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa was also very long lived and had accompanied four generations of musicians. He had no ego, and would unhesitatingly accompany younger musicians and even thumri singers like Rasoolan Bai.

Pandit Nayan Ghosh says "He was very possessive about his art, and never fully taught even his own three sons. Thus surprisingly, despite his stature he had no really outstanding disciples. He looked a very serious man, but once one got to know him, he had a wry sense of music, was very sensitive to 'ishaara', and despite being uneducated, was very intelligent and his understanding was ahead of his time."

He was very laconic, didn't speak much and by and large musicians were in awe of him. Ustad Amir Hussain Khan, his younger Guru bhai said of him, "Allah ne tabla unke liye banaaya, and unhe tabla ke liye". He had unusual hands, with large palms, and thick, sensitive fingers giving his strokes an unparalleled 'wazan'.

Astonishingly, this doyen is on record saying there were only four tabla gharanas (Delhi Ajjrara Lucknow and Farrukhabad) and that the now really prolific Banaras gharana was an offshoot. Also that the Punjab gharana of tabla was a pakhawaj gharana.

He passed away in Lucknow on

January 13, 1976.

In his memory, nephew Ustad Rashid Mustafa held a musical tribute, with a tabla solo recital by his son Shariq Mustafa, sarod recital by Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, ending with a solo by none other than Ustad Zakir Hussain, who apparently had also taken some taalim from Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa.

The evening started with Shariq Mustafa who presented an interesting, well played solo accompanied on the sarangi by Ahsan Ali. The sarod duo Amaan and Ayaan played next, presenting a brief 'haazri' in Raga Rageshwari. Nowadays, disappointingly, despite it being Basant Panchami, and the day traditionally to present a Spring raga like Basant or Bahar, even "gharaanedar" musicians like Bangash brothers, steeped in tradition, ignoring convention. They were accompanied on the tabla by Mithilesh Jha and Fateh Singh Gangwani.

There was a breathless silence as the curtains parted to reveal Ustad Zakir Hussain standing on stage; then a burst of applause and a spontaneous standing ovation. All the aisles were full, as was the stage; people had come at 5 pm for the concerts due to start at 6 pm; the Ustad started his concert after 9 pm making it a really long wait for his eager fans, most of whom were young practitioners rather than the usual Page 3 audience. Generously allowing Sabri Khan on the sarangi an extra long opportunity to play an opening 'aalap', the Ustad got into his act slowly, prefacing the 'peshkars' with several off the beat improvisations. The bulk of his presentation comprised Punjab 'gharana' compositions, including a beautiful composition of his father's which he recited the 'bols' of, and also explained the imagery, in his inimitable way. Abbaji thought of this composition to explain 'brahmaand' – how planets move faster and faster as they come closer to the sun, he said. He also played two compositions of Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa; gracefully saying "ye sab kuch kar gaye hain, hum to sirf haazri de sekte hain." The crisp execution and intricate compositions executed with such perfection was spectacular, as always.

Needing a breather (unbelievably, he is 68 now) and also to present a type of "counterpoint", Zakir twice allowed the amazingly dexterous and melodious Sabir Khan to take centre stage to show his undoubted skill, choosing to merely accompany him, and bringing the listeners to awed applause. Sabir is not just 'tayyar' he is breathtakingly 'sureela', a worthy son of the iconic Ustad Sultan Khan.

As Zakir Hussain has many times publicly stated, 'I don't do anything different on the tabla, there are others equally adept and knowledgeable.' Truly, it's not what he plays, it's how he plays it. His concert was a fitting tribute by the finest tabla player of our times to the finest tabla player of his time, Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa.

(Author of the article writes on music, musicians and matters of music)

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