Our hot off the press picture book Zakir and His Tabla - Dha Dhin Na by award-winning author and illustrator, Sandhya Rao and Priya Kuriyan, introduces children to a musical maestro, whose busy fingers and flying curls make him the inimitable Zakir Hussain.
In the first of this two-part series, we spoke to Sandhya Rao, who gives us a closer look into what went on behind the scenes.
did you start conceiving of the thread of the narrative?
To be honest, I don’t remember. All I know is I grew more and more fascinated as I gathered more and more information about his growing years. I don’t think there’s anyone on earth who doesn’t love Zakir Hussain. I’m a big fan, always have been. Of his father, too. I guess there was so much information I just decided to do the simple thing and start at somewhere in the beginning since that’s what we know less about.
First of all, I spent a great deal of time listening to his music. Thanks to the internet and thanks to music connoisseurs and fans, so much is available on YouTube. Old and new concerts. With masters and contemporary musicians. You watch him and you are watching joy as it's unravelling. Then I watched or read interviews, this film made by Sumantra Ghosh is brilliant, as also the book based on Nasreen Munni Kabir’s interviews with Zakir. Plus I read and watched whatever I could lay my hands on. Then, I returned to the feelings I had experienced listening to him with his Shakti group way back when I was young. I kept researching, but didn’t really keep notes. I let the things that left an impression on my mind remain with me, and that’s what guided the approach and tone of the book.You have captured personal moments through conversation. Was it a challenge to put those words in quotes, drawing from ‘information’? How much liberty did you feel you could take in dialogue?
Actually the conversations are based on actual comments made by himself or others and are attributed as such, even though they are not exactly what they said. I imagined how they might have said it, depending upon who was speaking and the age of the speaker. All the people in the book are real. But since I didn’t know them personally, I had to imagine them. Reading, researching, I had formed some impressions of what kind of personalities they might have been. So, even though the various dialogues are not verbatim, they reflect the reality (I hope that comes through) as I understood it.
Firstly, I would like children to feel the joy, because that’s what Zakir Hussain is about, joy. And joy comes from love: love of music, love of family, love of explorations, love of sharing, love of learning, love of people, love of teachers… And that’s the other thing I’d like children to feel when they see this book: Love. It’s so tangible in his personality and in his music. Music in itself transcends all differences and I feel that has been part of Zakir Hussain’s music from the very beginning, because that’s what he inherited from his father, the amazing Allarakha. That’s what he received from Ali Akbar Khan Sahib, and Ravi Shankar Sahib, from his mother, his sisters… even the Pathani band he played with as a child. No, it’s not about showing sameness in differences. It’s about finding joy, finding love, sharing.
I would also like children to see that though Zakir Hussain was a prodigy, a genius, he's had to work very hard indeed to achieve the heights he has. Practice, practice, practice: that is the mantra, the same mantra that applies to everybody. That's what made Ravishankar who he was, Allarakha who he became, Ali Akbar Khan... every single person will endorse the importance of practising regularly and hard. You cannot take talent for granted.
Working on each book can be very different, but can you tell us what was most defining in this experience.
Listening to the music without feeling guilty!!! Reading without feeling guilty! Watching without feeling guilty! Watching some amazing footage, like Alauddin Khan Sahib teasing his wife as he played for her, a young Zakir being appreciated by a smiling Allarakha… So many moving moments. Zakir Hussain himself listening to little boys playing for him, beautifully and seriously. These are such moving moments that you wonder why we cannot all appreciate and enjoy the beautiful experiences we are lucky to have instead of spewing hate upon each other.
How easy or difficult is it writing narrative non-fiction for children in relation to fiction, and what should one keep an eye out for when attempting narrative non-fiction?
It would be presumptuous of me to try and give instructions, so I won’t. But there is one thing about narrative non-fiction and that’s sticking to the truth. Of course, we know that each one’s understanding of truth is different: look what we’re doing with our history textbooks for instance. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the truth that emanates from inside and that has to do with emotions, feelings, relationships, engagements, interactions, apart from events.
Tell us about your writing process.
Most of the time, it’s hard, and hard work. It takes a long time to get to what you think is right and then you read what you’ve written by light of day and you know it’s all rubbish. Being honest is what I strive for and it’s not easy because very often you end up showing off, and when you realise that’s what you’re doing, there’s so much baggage to deal with!
Starting trouble: now, that’s a major roadblock. But like my friend Jinoy says, just put it down, you can always delete it!
It’s hard to take criticism, so I try not to take it personally. I value the opinions of a couple of people, and then take the final call myself. In the end, I am responsible for what I write, right or wrong, good or bad.
Anyone else you would enjoy bringing to life for children? And why?
The world is full of amazing people with amazing stories. Talk to the person sitting next to you on the bus and you will unearth a treasure. That’s what I’ve found. I can’t think of any one person or persons, really. Gandhiji has been the subject of my interest for a long long time and I continue to dig up material concerning him. But, to answer your question, it could be anybody: I read an amazing book on Aurangzeb, for instance, by Audrey Truschke. Equally, I have enjoyed reading Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana because he simply tells the story. So it’s a vast spectrum. The important thing is to understand a person from the inside, not the outside.
Sandhya Rao is an award-winning children’s author, whose rich and unexpected experiences with people, places and ideas led to writing for children. She has written over 25 books for Tulika. They range from picture books, exuberant folktales and playful verse to quietly reflective stories. Among her bestselling titles are Ekki Dokki, Picture Gandhi, My Mother’s Sari (chosen Outstanding International Book by USBBY), and My Friend, the Sea (winner Berliner Kinder and Jugendbuchpreis.)