Hussain, a Grammy Award-winning tabla virtuoso, comes to the performance fresh from a new award, recently receiving the Downbeat Critic’s Poll Best Percussionist of the Year Award. “It is an immense honor to receive the Downbeat Critic’s Poll best percussion nod. These are connoisseurs who make this selection and therefore the award is of great prestige; it is amazing to be amongst the chosen ones.” Yet after acknowledging the praise, Hussain humbly turns to highlighting his fellow performer.
“Playing with Pt. Birju Maharaj-ji is a performance I always look forward to. He is a great rhythmist and a fabulous storyteller. To lend voice to his movements is a great challenge.” An opportunity to watch Hussain and Maharaj together on stage is a chance to watch the unfolding of a spirited conversation between two discerning masters. “With kathak, tabla becomes the lead instrument filling in with sound what the dancer is projecting through expression and choreography. This allows me to highlight the expressive element of tabla [which I don’t] get a chance to do in detail as accompanist to vocal or instrumental music.”
“Supporting the great maestro is more than playing with another percussionist. It is similar to writing the score for a play or opera instantly on the fly. I make sure that as a tabla player and lead I am painting the exact colors that are needed to fully realize what the maestro is trying to portray.” With Hussain’s on-stage charisma matched with Maharaj-ji’s creativity, this particular show promises to create an unforgettable masterpiece before the audiences’ eyes.
The performance is also a celebration of Maharaj-ji’s 75th birthday.
Revered as the torchbearer for the Lucknow school of kathak dance, Maharaj-ji learned the ancestral roots of kathak from his father and two uncles. Yet over the past 40 years Maharaj-ji has constantly innovated his style of dance. “What you see today is a blend of what he’s learned from his gurus and what he’s changed with an awareness of space, the stage, and body lines,” says Nag. Maharaj-ji is known as an innovator who constantly learns from his surroundings. “He told us once, ‘I learn from you all. I don’t have a teacher anymore, but I learn from what I see and what you all do.’”
“No other teacher has created so many good solo dancers. He has students all over the world,” explains Nag. Maharaj-ji is also recognized for his sensitivity toward his individual students, “He creates movements according to the body structure of students. He will fine tune movements to each student, saying ‘Whoever is talented will shine anyways.’” Beyond teaching, Maharaj-ji is also a noted percussionist, poet, and painter. And his choreography and singing is legendary, featured in numerous movies including Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players.
Nag reflects on the importance of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of her kathak school with the opportunity to showcase two such amazing performers. “I’m very touched. When I came here 20 years ago there were just a handful of kathak teachers in the United States. I love this art form, and I’ve been able to take it to the next level and give back to the community.” It’s clear that the close relationship she shares with her own students directly reflects the close bond she shares with her own teacher.
“When I watch him [Maharaj-ji] perform, I sit and cry. It’s not just about entertaining, it also touches your soul,” says Nag. Nag is thrilled that her students have an opportunity to learn from Maharaj-ji during his visit. And she’s profoundly grateful to Hussain as well. “Zakir-bhai is so wonderful. His schedule is so busy, he could be playing so many other places. Yet he makes sure to make time to be with him.” Nag concludes, “May there be many more.”
Many more birthdays for Maharaj-ji, and many more opportunities to bring the legendary Maharaj-ji and Hussain together for unforgettable performances.n
Saturday, September 29, 7 p.m. Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco. $101(donor), $65, $45, $35. www.cityboxoffice.com. (415) 392-4400.