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Biography: Ahmed Jan Thirakwa

by Mohan Nadkarni

First Published in: The Economic Times, Bombay  on  January 31, 1982

A variety of talas, often of great subtlety and complexity, are employed in the composition of Indian music and dance. These are underlined by the accompanying percussion instruments in their limitless variations. Of these instruments, the tabla undeniably continues to rule supreme.

However, one vital fact that is not fully realized and much less appreciated - is that the tabla as a solo instrument, has a language of its own. This is more so at a time when any rigmarole of speed and rhythm, with all its din and fury, passes for authentic percussion art. Rare also, indeed, have been percussionists capable of this language as eloquently as one would wish. The name of 'Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa easily comes to mind in this context. A leading disciple of the celebrated percussion maestro, Munir Khan, he was regarded as north India's most eminent percussionist. He was unequalled both as a soloist and as an accompanist. The rich eloquence of his solo playing was as moving as his perceptive skill in sangat.

Thirakwa, who was a near centenarian when he passed away on January 13, 1976, hailed from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. To him goes the distinction of being one maestro who had the opportunity to provide accompaniment to four generations of performers from the late 19th century till 70s. The distinguished line-up included celebrities like Imdad Khan, Allah Bande Khan, Rajab Ali Khan, Mushtaq Hussain Khan, Bhaskarbuva Bakhale, Allauddin Khan and Hafiz Ali Khan down to younger artistes like Rais Khan.

The maestro was born at a time when princely patronage still continued to nurse the budding genius to flower into full bloom. And he lived and died amid changing conditions which witnessed a transition to public or, rather, mass patronage. But it was characteristic of the man that he moved with the times even while keeping the traditions alive and without realigning his art to the tastes of his motley audiences. Nor did he consider it below his dignity to accompany even an artiste less than half his age. So sympathetic was his manner of sangat that he helped many a young recitalist gain confidence and sing or play in a true form.

It is this mastery in the art of improvisation in every manner of aesthetic design that brought the Ustad double acclaim as an accompanist and soloist. He had the rare faculty of bringing out the best from the principal performer. Maharashtra has special reasons to remember him because of his historic association with the legendary Bal Gandharva, the greatest actor-singer of the Marathi stage of this century. The Gandharva-Thirakwa partnership, in the heyday of the Marathi theatre, is still remembered by those who were witness to the Ustad's artistry in reproducing intonations as beautifully as Bal Gandharva rendered them in song.

Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa was associated with the Bhatkhande Vidya Peeth, in Lucknow, as a senior guru and in the twilight of his years, he was in charge of the master classes at the NCPA in Bombay. Honours, awards and titles came naturally to him in profusion from the darbars in the earlier times and from the government and cultural bodies in more recent times. He groomed several disciples like Nizamuddin Khan and Lalji Gokhale, who have dominated the concert stage for many years.

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