Great art inspires me: Yousaf Kerai

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The News Tribe (TNT): Tell about your childhood and music training and Gharana too.

Yousaf:  In my childhood, I was always drawn towards artistic pursuits, be it art, theatre, or music. When I was very young, about three or four, I would happily listen to music programs on PTV and would especially listen to Ghazals and Geets. I, of course, did not understand the lyrics at that time but the melodies were what attracted me. In school I was exposed mainly to Western music, but even there I used to like the melodious numbers the most.

Finally, when I was eight years old, my parents decided to start me off with music lessons. However, to honor my grandfather’s love for Eastern Classical Music, they decided to introduce me to a teacher, Master Babu Khan, who would teach me Eastern music rather than Western music (which was more common among my generation).

I could not be more thankful for their decision, as I had started to sing and play the harmonium and was completely immersed in the world of Surs (notes) and taals (rhythmic cycles). I used to get opportunities to perform at shows where amateur singers display their talents in front of an audience. Slowly, with time and understanding, my affinity for rhythm and Tabla grew into an obsession. When I was fifteen years old I had asked my father to let me learn Tabla. It was around that time that I had luckily met my Ustad for Tabla, Ustad Khurshid Hussain, one of the greatest Tabla maestros of Pakistan. With him I have been trained to appreciate the vast repertoire of Tabla, involving learning different styles and techniques that the various Gharanas of Tabla have nurtured.

TNT: Tell about your instrument too.

Yousaf: The Tabla is said to date back to the time of Hazrat Amir Khusrao, yet there is only anecdotal evidence of this. The predecessor to the Tabla was a two-headed single drum, which legend has it was broken into two components to form the Tabla. Previously Tablas were made of a clay body with goat skin stretched on top but over time the left hand drum (Bayan) is made of a copper body and the right hand drum (Dayan) of wood.

Unlike many hand-drums, the Tabla makes use of the fingers and not just the entire palm. Also, the Dayan has to be tuned to a specific musical note (sur) according to the melodic accompaniment. This is why Tabla is often referred to in Urdu as “Ek Sur Ka Baja”.

The main repertoire of Tabla solo playing was first development in Dehli and so the pioneering Gharana of Tabla is the Dehli Gharana. After this many other styles emerged: Farrukhabad Gharana, Ajdada Gharana (which is the blood line of my Ustad), Purab Gharana, Lucknow Ang and Punjab Ang. There are many disputes in the musical discourse of what constitutes a Gharana and what doesn’t. One way to think of it is that a Gharana has a distinct quality (often a particular stroke) with which compositions are created. Other people define it to be regional and that anything coming out of students of that particular household or region is said to belong to that Gharana. Purists would disagree with this and claim that a Gharana is a particular school of thought in music and has to be identified with something new introduced to the discussion, not just another version of what has already been done

TNT: What inspires you the most?

Yousaf: What inspires me is great art; art that provokes thought, pushes boundaries in terms of skill, and that evokes a spiritual sense in people. So this art can be visual, auditory, thought-based (like mathematics, writing or poetry) and much more. I don’t believe in just entertainment for the sake of it. Art must have some thought behind it otherwise it cannot inspire me.

TNT: You would like to perform with whom and why?

Yousaf: The wish list for who I would like to perform with could go on forever. The great masters that inspired me have all gone from this world, except one or two, and one could only hope that an opportunity to perform with them could somehow be arranged. Every Tabla player would like to have a performance with an exceptional Sarangi player and such a man passed away this year; the one and only Ustad Sultan Khan. I had the good fortune of meeting him once in USA.

If I could, I would love to perform with Ustad Rashid Khan, Pt. Ajoy Chakraborthy and his daughter Kaushiki Chakraborthy, Ustad Nishat Khan, Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan (of Pakistan), and the list goes on and on.

Yet I am nowhere near the ability and mastery that it would take to ever be on stage with such people and by the time I am ready, there will probably be newer artists to choose from.

However, I have had the good fortune of performing with masters such as my Ustad, Khurshid Hussain and Sitar maestro Ustad Sajid Hussain. In addition, I have performed with many artists from India and Afghanistan that are settled in the US, namely Soumya Chakravarty (Sarod), Steve Gorn (Bansuri), Alif Laila (Sitar), Samia Mahbub Ahmed (vocals) and Humayun Khan (Vocals).

TNT: What was the most memorable moment of your life?

Yousaf: It’s tough to say what the most memorable moment of my life was and this is because my life has been full of memorable moments Sessions with my Ustad, conversations with my parents, when I got selected for a Math/Science scholarship in college, theatre classes in college, and so many more. I am thankful for all the moments I have had and if I get none again I will still be content with what I have had so far in my life.

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