Qureshi, Ustad Alla Rakha
Ustad Alla Rakha Qureshi
Drummer Ustad Alla Rakha Qureshi, also known as Ustad Allarakha Khan, popularized the musical genre of solo tabla as a concert form. Beginning in the 1960s, Qureshi and sitar master Pandit Ravi Shankar were recognized for their accomplishments in bringing classical Hindustani music to Western audiences. For approximately 20 years, between the late 1950s and through the 1970s, Qureshi (a Muslim) and Shankar (a Hindu) toured the world, thus popularizing the special music of a socially diverse and politically fragile region of northern India. Often the two played in a musical style, called sawaal-jawaab, or “question and answer.” In sawaal-jawaab the musicians enter into a dialogue, not unlike a Western-style musical “dueling duet.” Qureshi’s esteemed performance venues included the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Woodstock Festival of 1969, and Carnegie Hall, where he frequently performed as a duo with Shankar.
Ustad Alla Rakha Qureshi was born Alia Rakha Qureshi, by most accounts in 1919 in Gurdaspur, Punjab, and was raised in Phagwal, near Jammu. He was the eldest of seven brothers. Qureshi’s father, Hashmali, was a farmer, and his father before him was a soldier. Although their first-born son loved Indian classical music and was drawn to the performing arts, Qureshi’s parents steadfastly opposed his inclination. As a boy he experienced great pleasure in watching the performances of classical Hindu theatre groups. In his early adolescence—as young as 12 years old according to some sources—after teaching himself rudimentary drumming and spending time in study with Lal Mahamed, Qureshi ran away to Lahore to study at the Punjab school of classical music (gharana). There he became a student of Ustad Mian Khadarbaksh Pakhawaji (Mian Quader Bakshi), and with “Bakshi” as a mentor, Qureshi studied voice for ten years under the direction of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan.
It was tabla studies, however, that consumed his interest. The tabla is a double-headed drum of Hindustani tradition. With its dual drumheads, the tabla commands a total range of approximately one octave, combined from the lowest tone of the baiya (larger drum) to the highest tone of the tabla (smaller drum). The musical art form of tabla drumming is steeped in oral tradition, and tabla drummers do not play or learn from written music. Through skill and concentration Qureshi developed the expertise to play nuances and bend the notes with varied pressure from the base of his hand.
Qureshi lived for a time in Pathanko as a member of a theater company, and in 1930 he worked at a radio station in Lahore. Six years later, in 1936, he moved to Delhi to accept a position with All India Radio. In 1940, he worked with Shankar and again on All India Radio.
For The Record…
Born Alla Rakha Qureshi on April 29, 1919 in Ratangarh, India; married Bavi Begum; father of Razia, 1959-2000; Zakir Hussain, born March 9, 1951; Fazal Qureshi, born 1961; Taufiq Qureshi, Kurshid Aulia; died on February 3, 2000 in Bombay, India. Education: Punjab Gharana.
All India Radio, 1936-42, “Rangmahal Studios, 1943; performed as a duo with Ravi Shankar, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s; recorded on Moment Records.
Awards: Chowdaiah Award for distinguished lifetime musicianship, government of Karnataka, 2000.
He went on to Bombay, and during that same decade he learned to play raga. In Bombay in 1943 he worked for the Rangmahal Studios as a musical director, where he contributed to more than two dozen productions based in popular music. He composed music under the name of A. R. Qureshi and made appearances in films, performing both as a vocalist and as an instrumentalist. He worked with accomplished Kathak dancers, including Sitara Devi and Birju Mahara. Devi, who worked extensively with Qureshi during his years in the filmmaking industry, recalled Qureshi’s exceptional talent and ability to play complex rhythms. Devi told Celia W. Dugger of the New York Times, “I used to say, ‘Sahib, please don’t play difficult, or I won’t be able to follow you!”
Upon taking his leave from Rangmahal, Qureshi resumed his art as a classical musician of tabla. In the early 1950s he teamed with Shankar. The two performed as partners in an immensely popular musical duo. By 1958, they made their first appearance in the Western Hemisphere, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Their fame spread across the Atlantic, and they performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The two traveled worldwide, representing their homeland at international music festivals everywhere; in 1969 they performed at the original Woodstock Festival in New York, and in 1971 they appeared at Madison Square Garden at a benefit concert for Bangladesh. Qureshi recorded an album with American jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and, as a result of the tabla player’s extensive experimentation with fusion music, ultimately came to be categorized as a popular musician because of the nature of his early work in films and his lengthy association with popular musicians in the United States and Great Britain.
Regardless, his work was almost exclusively Hindu and classical in bent. He inspired and collaborated with many prominent rock and roll artists of the 1960s and the 1970s, including former Beatle, George Harrison, and Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart. Hart, in Drumming at the Edge of Magic, recounted Qureshi’s adept ability to juxtapose conflicting rhythms using a tabla technique called lamchargat. Lachmar gat was a specialty of Qureshi’s, learned at the Punjab gharana and mastered through years of concentration. Hart acknowledged Qureshi’s influence with unique praise, “Alia Rakha was a rhythm master—my first. He was a Mozart of my instrument.” According to Hart, Qureshi’s complex rhythms mimicked the sounds of multiple simultaneous drummers in a remarkable fashion. Following a private session with Qureshi, Hart explained, “I returned from that hotel room feeling as if I’d been shown the Golden Tablets.” Yet despite his crossover aura as a star of modern media, Qureshi upheld a belief in traditional performance. It was his preference that music might be enjoyed by small, intimate groups of people who bestowed total attention on the music, without distraction. In his role as a teacher, too, he was demanding and required his students to spend lengthy sessions in his tutelage in order to become absorbed with his presence and thus with the art.
Qureshi came to be highly respected by his colleagues and students and earned the respected title of Ustad, an honor denoting an honored teacher or guru. By means of his performances with Shankar, he brought new recognition to the art form of playing tabla, which prior to Qureshi, was relegated to a background instrument rather than a solo concert instrument of itself. With the support of Shankar, the two developed a concert repertoire wherein at times Qureshi’s powerful tabla usurped the spotlight. Qureshi performed his tabla on an unprecedented equal footing with Shankar’s stringed sitar, competing adeptly with the more extensive tonal range of Shankar’s instrument. The solo capabilities of Qureshi’s tabla were further emphasized when the two performed their sawaal-jawaab selections “in dialogue.” In addition to Shankar, Qureshi also performed in concert with Vilayat Khan and Ali Akjar Khan. In 1976, Qureshi received a Grammy Award nomination from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for the best chamber music performance for Improvisations, West Meets East, Album 3, an Angel Records release featuring Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, Jean Pierre Rampel, Martine Gelliot, and Qureshi. He recorded in later years for Moment Records under the direction of the Zakir Hussain Management firm.
Qureshi was the teacher and father of Zakir Hussain, who was widely recognized as the greatest living tabla player of the late 20th and early 21st century. As a young man in the 1930s, Qureshi married Bavi Begum, and the couple had three sons, Zakir Hussain, Fazal Qureshi, and Taufiq Qureshi. Qureshi taught each of his sons to play tabla, but only after each displayed the appropriate seriousness of interest and regard for the instrument. Qureshi fathered two daughters, but taught neither to play tabla because of a strict gender-biased religious precept that precluded him from teaching females.
In 1986, he established the Alla Rakha Institute of Music in Bombay and used the school as a vehicle to impart his musical knowledge to hundreds of students daily. He was at his school in Bombay, India, February 3, 2000 when he was stricken by a heart attack upon hearing the news of the death of his daughter, Razia, who served him as a companion and caretaker during his later years of failing health. She died in an untimely fashion following routine cataract surgery, and the shock of the news caused her father to succumb. He immediately slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. Qureshi’s surviving daughter, Kurshid Aulia, lives in London. Additionally he was survived by nine grandchildren.
Only one week before his death, Qureshi received the Chowdaiah Award for distinguished lifetime musicianship from the government of Karnataka. The award, named after T Chowdaiah, was instituted in 1994; Qureshi was only the fifth recipient of the honor. His colleagues remembered him for his calm and unassuming demeanor, for his devotion to perfection, and for his extreme powers of concentration. Critics concurred that a special joy emanated from Qureshi during his performances; he evoked a revelatory specter as he played and sang. Shankar said of Qureshi, “His specialty was a very loving personality.” The Telegraph called him, “…a musician of formidable energy and invention and … one of the most celebrated figures in Indian classical music.”
Rich a la Rakha (with Buddy Rich), World Pacific.
Improvisations, West Meets East, Album 3 (with Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, Jean Pierre Rampel, Martine Gelliot), Angel, 1976.
Master Drummers (with Zakir Hussain), 1991.
Tabla Duet, Chhanda Dhara, 1994.
Ultimate in Taal-vidya, Magnasound/OMI, 1996.
Magical Moments of Rhythm (with Zakir Hussain), Eternal Music, 1997.
Concert for Bangladesh (George Harrison), 1971.
Rolling Thunder (Mickey Hart), 1972.
At the Monterey International (with Ravi Shankar), 1993.
New York Times, February 6, 2000 (Late Ed.); February 14, 2000 (Late Ed.), p. A4.
Telegraph, February 8, 2000.
Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2000 (Eastern Ed.), p. A24.
“About Ustad Alla Rakha,” http://easternharmony.com/talla.html (May 1, 2000).
“Magical Moments of Rhythm,” Eternal Music - Eternal Music Productions, http://www.eternalmusic.com/albmagic.html (May 1, 2000).
“Following another beat,” Music Magazine, 2000, http://www.themusicmagazine.com/allarakha.html (May 1, 2000). “Ustad Alla Rakha,” All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com (May 1, 2000).
“Ustad Alla Rakha Dies at 81” (including excerpts from Drumming at the Edge of Magic) http://www.mhart.com/pages/Artists/allarakha.HTML (May 1, 2000).
"Qureshi, Ustad Alla Rakha." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/qureshi-ustad-alla-rakha
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