Ahmadjan Thirakhwa




♫ Tabla solo in Ektala


About Thirakhwa

Ustad Ahmad Jan “Thirakwa
Susheela Mishra

After the gaiety, crowds and illuminations of the previous two
days, Lucknow was observing Ashra, the mournful 10th day
of Moharram. By 10 a.m. the sad news of the sudden death of
Thirakwa Khan Saheb had spread among the music-lovers of
Lucknow. While the Tazias were being taken for burial by
processions of mourners performing maatam, a stream of
mourners from the music-world went to pay their last respects
to the Ustad who had reigned supreme as “the Tabla-wizard”
of the country for the last 7 or 8 decades. Once a permanent
resident of Lucknow, he had migrated just a few years ago to
Bombay where he was not only the inspiratton behind Nikhil
Ghosh’s School of Music, but was also serving as a Visiting
Professor in the National Centre for Performing Arts. On
January, 8, he had come home to Lucknow to keep a tryst with
destiny and to fulfil his promise: “Mai hamesha hamesha
Lucknow me rahoonga”. On the morning of 13th January 1976 he was
in a rickshaw on his way the Charbagh Railway Station to catch
the Bombay Mail, when he collapsed in the rickshaw and died.
Ustad Thirakwa’s death marks the end of courtly era in music
and in his death we have lost the seniormost and most colourful
personality among the Table maestros of today. Although
he had spent the best years of his life amidst the pomp and
pageantry of splendid royal courts where art and sensitive
appreciation of it are held in the highest esteem, the Ustad with
great dignity stepped out of the leisurely courtly life into the
hectic tempo of the modern machine-age when the era of
darbari music ended. In fact, he was a vital link between two
eras in Indian music.

Born 98 years ago in a family of musicians in Moradabad,
Ahmad Jan started with vocal music lessons right from his
childhood under Ustad Mithoo Khan. His father Hussain Bux
was a well-known Sarangiya from whom Ahmad Jan received
Sarangi lessons for some time, but as the latter himself told me
once:- “In spite of all these factors, I was not really drawn to
the art until I heard Ustad Munir Khan, the great Tabla-Ustad
of Meerut. I suddenly realised that my rooh really lay in the
Tabla. I took early lessons in Tabla from my uncles Sher Khan,
Faiyaz Khan, and Baswa Khan. However, my ideal guru was
Ustad Munir Khan and I really put my heart into my riyaz,
only after I became his pupil at the age of 12. My Ustad was
not only a great Tabaliya but also a generous guru. He used to
make me practise for nearly 16 hours per day, with half-hour
breaks now and then for my meals, etc., and barely 6 hours of
sleep. I had to take regular exercise, and plenty of rich food
essential for such a rigorous routine of riyaz”. Ahmad Jan was
brought up by his brother Miyan Jan Khan who not only gave
him all the facilities to devote himself entirely to the art, but
also provided him with a rich diet of nutritious food and plenty
of milk. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why his stamina
as a performing artiste remained unimpaired till the last year
of his life. Anyway, young Ahmad Jan’s extraordinary talent
and devoted practice pleased Munir Khan so much that the boy
became the guru’s favourite ‘Shagird’ in no time. The Ustad’s
father Kale Khan used to watch the extraordinary progress of
his son’s young pupil, and one day he remarked with admiration:
“The boy’s fingers really dance with the laya (Laya mee thirakte
hain).” This complimentary epithet “Thirakkoo” stuck to his
name, and when Ahmad Jan became famous throughout the
country it was as “Thirakwa”, the tabla-wizard with the
dancing fingers. Besides Thirakwa, the other reputed Tabaliyas
of Munir Khan’s Gharana have been Ustad Amir Hussain (nephew
of Munir Khan), Ghulam Hussian, Shamsuddin, P. Nageshkar,
Sripad Nageshkar, Nikhil Ghosh, Ghulam Rasool and others.

Thirakwa used to recall with a glow of joy his most
successful conference-debut at the age of 16 in Khetbadi, Bombay.
The thunderous ovation that he received from the audience on
that occasion never ceased to echo in his ears. He achieved wide
popularity as a member of Bal Gandharva’s Theatrical
Company. Soon, invitations from music conferences began to
pour in, and Thirakwa became one of the busiest artistes
of the North. In 1936 he was appointed a court-musician of
Rampur, a post which he adorned for the next 30 years during
which he heard and accompanied the greatest musicians of his
time. No wonder, he had an endless stock of stories relating to
the rajas, nawabs and court-musicians which he used to narrate
to us in his own inimitable style. One such story was about
Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan (of Rampur), an accomplished musician
and a great patron of music, whose reverence for his guru
Bahadur Khan, the great Sursingar-expert, caused so much
heartburn among the courtiers and relatives of the Nawab Saheb
that one day he decided to teach them a lesson. He seated his
guru outside the durbar-hall and invited all the courtiers and
princes to attend court at 10 a.m. punctually. But, so entrancing
was Bahadur Khan’s Sursingar-recital that all the invitees to
the court remained as if spellbound, and forgot to attend
the court. Regarding his patron, Nawab Raza Ali Khan of
Rampur, Thirakwa used to say: “I got on very well with my
patron. The Nawab Saheb was always generous to me, and I
served him loyally”. With what consideration and deference,
this great Ustad used to accompany the Nawab Saheb when the
latter used to play on his Castanets or Ghunghroos to entertain
his friends!

When the court-musicians were all disbanded in the new set-
up, Thirakwa migrated to Lucknow where he was appointed
Professor and Head of the Faculty of Tabla in the Bhatkhande
College of Music. Even after he retired, he was closely
associated with this institution as an Emeritus Professor.

During his Rampur years as well as during his college years,
he was a most popular and frequent broadcaster from the Lucknow
Station of AIR. And of course, he was constantly in demand
at Music Conferences, AIR concerts, Sangeet Sammelans, and
mehfils all over the country. His popularity, in fact, never
waned, because he kept up his rigorous riyaz, and his high
standard till the end. His last unforgettable performance
was in the Radio Sangeet Sammelan, 1974, in which he once
again proved that even after he had become a nonegenarian,
his devotion to, and mastery over, the Tabla remained as
unmatched as ever. Although his voice in normal conversation
had tended to become shaky, it was amazing that while reciting
the complicated and jaw-breaking tabla-bols and parans, his
voice seemed to regain its lost steadiness and strength.
Numerous disciples of his scattered all over the north
have achieved renown such as: Lalji Gokhkale (of AIR, Bombay),
Prem Vallabh and Ghulam Ahmad (of AIR, Delhi), Chchote
Gokhale (of AIR, Pune), Nikhil Ghosh (Bombay), Ahmad Ali
and Ram Kumar Sharma (of Lucknow) and so on.

Although Thirakwa was essentially a soloist, there has been
hardly any leading soloist or instrumentalist in the last 5
or 6 decades whom he had not accompanied in the course of his
long and distinguished career spanning many generations.
Among the unforgettable maestros he accompanied on the tabla
were Ustads Allahbande Khan, Rajab Ali Khan, Alladiya
Khan, Wahid Khan, Allauddin Khan. Bhaskarbuwa Bakhle,
Faiyaz Khan, Mushtaq Hussain, Hafiz Ali, Ali Akbar, Bismillah
Khan, Begum Akhtar, R. Daggur and so on. Once I
happened to ask Thirakwa Sahib as to who was the vocalist he
enjoyed accompanying most of all. Without a moment’s
hesitation, he replied: “I found the greatest joy in accompanying
Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Vilayat Hussain, and Abdulla Khan of the
Agra Gharana, because their control over Taal was superb”.
In fact, his admiration for the Aftab-e-Mausiqui was only
equalled by the latter’s for him. There was such perfect mutual
understanding between them that once at a music conference
in which some other Tabaliya was accompanying Ustad Faiyaz
Khan, the latter is said to have blurted out at one place:
“Na huva Thirakwa” (“No one can take Thirakwa’s place”).
Honours like the Padma Bhushan came to him naturally.
Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa had a wealth of reminiscences,
a good sense of humour, and the ability to imitate many
vocalists. Hence he often used to entertain us with many
interesting episodes and anecdotes pertaining to colourful
mehfils of the past. Without his actual demonstration of the
singing and Tabla bols, such narrations lose much of their impact.
However, here is one such story in his words:- “You people perhaps
have never had the good fortune to hear Rajab Ali Khali of Dewas.
He was a wonderful singer, famous for his taiyari (speed). But he
had a sly habit of accelerating the speed of his fast Khayal and
keeping the poor Tabla-accompanist suspended in that awful
tempo for a long time, while he himself would keep on singing
in an easy, even tempo. One day he started this stunt on me.
I thought of an equally cunning trick. Instead of sweating out
the lightning laya, I really started accompanying his taans
mathematically. This way I could go on playing the whole night
without getting tired, but the singer would get tired very soon.
Instead of getting irritated, Rajab Ali Khan appreciated my
ingenuity, and we had a good laugh over it”.

Confident that nothing could reduce his artistic stature,
Thirakwa never minded providing accompaniment to even the
younger artistes of his time. If the organizers hesitated to
schedule the name of this veteran with a young artiste, he would
laugh and ask: “If I do not mind, why should you?” When an
artiste had reached his status why should he mind about such
petty “snobberies” in music.

Thirakwa was proficient in all the styles of Tabla Baaj such
as “Dilli”, “Poorab”,”Farukkabadi. and Ajrada, but “Dilli” and
“Farukkabadi” were his favourites. His recipes for success for
today’s tabla-pupils are “correct and sincere taleem, long and
continuous years of riyaz, regular physical exercises, and lots
of good nourishing food”. He has proved the worth of these
through his own personal example. He remained popular
throughout his career not only because he was an authority on
his subject, but also because of his dignified and accommodating
nature. I had often wondered why this top artiste never
participated in any cultural delegation going abroad, and once
asked him. He laughed at himself and confessed: “I was offered
many chances, but each time I refused because I am plain scared
of flying.”

The older generation of musicians and music-lovers shake
their heads in despair and remark: “Many great Tabaliyas have
come and gone, but there has been only one Thirakwa”!
One will always remember Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa’s
courtly personality – the black “achkan” and cap, the
blackened moustache, the surma-lined eyes, the silver-capped
walking stick, the polite adaab-arz or meherbani apki, his
courteous manners, and his mastery over the Tabla. The Tabla
Baaj has been deprived forever of the dancing fingers of
Thirakwa, the Tabla Wizard.

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