Ustad Zakir Hussain, an Indian Composer

OV Digital Desk

Ustad Zakir Hussain, an Indian tabla virtuoso, composer, music producer, and film actor.

Early Life

Ustad Zakir Hussain was born on 9 March 1951 in Maharashtra, India. He attended St. Michael’s High School in Mahim and then St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. He was a genius. He learned Pakhawaj from his father when he was 3 years old. Zakir’s dad Alla Rakha played tabla in the Punjabi gharana tradition and was awoken at 3 a.m. to teach him vocally by reciting different rhythms until 6 a.m.


Zakir has been accompanied by many of the top names in Hindustani classical music, both vocal and instrumental, since a young age, including Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit VG Jog, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj and many more.

His popularity brought an audience to a Hindustani music concert where they listened not just to the main melody artist but to the supporting tabla player, too. He inspired a whole generation of tabla players who imitated his head gestures and hairstyle as they played.

He collaborated with western musicians because he was popular in the US when he was a kid. Most of his bands were American. His collaboration with the famous band, ‘The Beatles’, deserves special mention. In 1971, he also recorded with a psychedelic band called ‘Shanti’. John McLaughlin and he played in a band called “Shakti” in 1975. The band featured John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, T.H. ‘Vikku’ Vinayakam and R Raghavan. By the late 70s, ‘Shakti’ was disbanded. But the band reformed a few years later with new name ‘Remember Shakti’. In the following years, the band released many albums like ‘Saturday Night in Bombay’ and ‘The Believer’. In addition, the band played at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1987, Zakir released his first solo album, “Making Music,” which was hailed as one of the greatest East-West fusion albums of all time.

Film Career

Zakir Hussain wrote music for many movies like “In Custody”, “The Mystic Masseur”, “Heat and Dust”. He got accolades for his work on the Malayalam film Vanaprastham, which was screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. He has also composed the music for ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Little Buddha’, ‘Saaz’, ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’, and ‘One Dollar Curry’. He has also starred in a bunch of movies, mostly performing music. In the film ‘Heat and Dust’ he played the lead role of Inder Lal. In addition, he was in some fascinating documentaries like ‘The Speaking Hand: Zakir Hussain and the Art of the Indian Drum’ and ‘Zakir and His Friends’. ‘Zakir and His Friends’ was released in 1998, and ‘The Speaking Hand’ was released in 2003.


In shaping the contemporary world music movement, Zakir Hussain is considered one of the most influential figures. Through his numerous collaborations, he often gets credit for bringing the Tabla to the world stage. The tabla was considered a mere percussion instrument before his era, but he showed everyone that it could be used at concerts. He changed the way we viewed concerts with that belief. Many young aspiring percussionists were inspired by his Tabla skills.


He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988, and the Padma Bhushan in 2002, by the Government of India.

He was also awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1990, given by the Sangeet Natak Academy, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama. In 2019, he was honored with the Academy Fellow award, by Sangeet Natak Academy.

In 1999, he was awarded the United States National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award given to traditional artists & musicians.