I have enjoyed Zakir Hussain’s superb tabla playing for a long time. And I actually even saw him live close to a quarter-century ago. That was in 1997, when I got to see him in my town, New York City, at Symphony Space (on Manhattan’s Upper West Side). (He was playing with an international array of percussionists, but I think it was clear that he was the star.) But I had actually heard his work much earlier than that, although I would not know about it until later. In 1973, he played with George Harrison on his album Living in the Material World. I had that album when I was only 11 or 12 years old, but I had no idea – I guess he was not given the same kind of billing in the rock world as Ravi Shankar (although he did accompany Ravi Shankar when they came to the U.S. in 1970 and his father was a famous tabla player who also accompanied Ravi a lot – i.e., Alla Rakha.) In any event, later, in the ’90s, when I got into a lot of rock and electronica that included Indian classical and folk influences (the early days of modern Bhangra and the “Asian Underground”), I started to see his name on special “world music” works put together by the likes of cutting-edge rock producer Bill Laswell. It’s understandable that Zakir Hussain appeared in all these rock-fusion projects because, as he has said, himself (during an interview that I am going to include in this post), he actually had an ambition in his early adulthood to be a “rock and roll star.” But he did have that Indian classical heritage; in fact, he was raised on classical tabla and had been a child prodigy in this area, too. Also, others told him that this was the area where he belonged most. So, he would dip into these rock projects now and then, but he could not escape his destiny to become one of the most famous Indian classical tabla players in the world.
In more recent years, I have had the pleasure of seeing countless performances by Zakir Hussain on YouTube. As an amusing aside, I have to mention that I have been using his tablas, playing through my noise-cancelling headphones, to remedy noise/banging problems being inflicted on me by my neighbors. Nothing blocks out the banging from upstairs like loud and rapid tablas going right into my ears!
I have also been checking out a lot of Zakir Hussain’s tabla performances more recently simply because I have become more addicted to them. But while it is always satisfying to hear Zakir on tablas, it’s even better to see those tablas accompanied by a terrific Kathak dance.
Zakir Hussain actually married a Kathak dancer; her name is Antonia Minnecola. Toni (as everyone calls her) is an Italian-American and she met Zakir in the Bay Area of California in the late ’70s, when she was in an early phase of her dance training. You can see them both talking about that marriage in the following interview, given by the actress Simi Garewal. (The first third or so of the video is an interview with Zakir alone, but Toni enters the picture at 8:04.)
Of course, Antonia Minnecola had a very interesting history as a dancer, too. Beginning in the early-mid ’80s, she trained with Sitara Devi, and (as I’ve already revealed in the title) they continued working together for three decades. Sitara also knew Zakir’s family well, and Toni was one of her favorite students. Toni and Zakir also helped Sitara to go on tours to different countries and, apparently, the Kathak training continued wherever they traveled.
There is a fascinating interview with Antonia Minnecola posted in the March 28, 2019 issue of Scroll.in. The title/headline is misleading, because it reads, ‘May I touch you?’: When kathak legend Sitara Devi met Hollywood royalty Marlene Dietrich. That incident between Sitara Devi and Marlene Dietrich is covered in just one very small paragraph in the article. Maybe the people at Scroll.in thought it would work as good click bait? But the subheading describes the article much more accurately: “Antonia Minnecola remembers her guruji, her loves, hates and fascination with Hollywood.” This is an excellent article for Sitara Devi fans, because it offers so many tidbits about Sitara – especially related to the subjects that the subheading describes. It also features some excellent pics and videos of Sitara, including a clip of one of her dances in the great 1942 movie Roti, posted at Tommydan333!
By the way, a little over seven years ago, I wrote a post about how the dance from Roti shown in this article resembles one by the great Hollywood tap dancer Eleanor Powell from a few years earlier. I even posed the direct question, Did Eleanor Powell’s dance in Honolulu (1939) influence Sitara Devi’s dance in Roti (1942)? Given what this article says about Sitara, her love for Hollywood, and even how she talked about Hollywood tap dancing, it would not be surprising to find out that Sitara, herself, was actually responsible for that influence. Maybe this would be something worth looking into more at another time.
But beyond the information that this article gives about Sitara Devi, it tells almost as much about Antonia Minnecola. While telling us about her fond memories of training with Sitara, Toni also shows the depth of her own lifelong love of Kathak and dance in general.
I looked through YouTube for a while to find some clips of Zakir Hussain accompanying Antonia Minnecola in Kathak dances and, unfortunately, I could not find many. But it’s great to find any watchable video document of the couple working together.
I was delighted to find the following clip of a concert in Berkeley in 1987. It’s a long clip to embed here – clocking in at over 50 minutes – and there are some odd technical issues regarding the camera focus and the colors (or lack thereof). But I found that these problems did not at all get in the way of my enjoying this clip a lot. In the first six and one-half minutes, the attention is given to Zakir Hussain and the sitar player Peter Van Gelder. Zakir does some impressive playing here as always, producing beats that become increasingly rapid to a very flashy point. Then the camera stays focused on Toni. She also becomes increasingly impressive as she keeps up with Zakir’s more rapid beats. She does very nicely at a number of things: the arm movements, footwork, and the vocal recitation (aka padhant) of the rhythm syllables (bols). Another thing that I like a lot here is her story narration. This is one of those Kathak performances I have seen fairly often in which the dancer tells us the story behind each dance segment that she is about to get into and/or tells us what her upcoming dance movements are meant to represent. In general, I sometimes get a little impatient when I see this (usually in YouTube clips), because the explanations can get a bit complicated or hard to follow and I just want the dance to get started. (That’s when I see it done in English; of course, Hindi poses a whole other level of difficulty for me.) On the other hand, while Toni’s descriptions in this video certainly don’t seem to lack any vital details, they are also refreshingly simple and direct.
The next performance is a little more contemporary. There’s no specific indication on YouTube regarding when this performance occurred, but there’s no reason not to assume that it happened at around the time when this was posted, at the end of 2007. There are some unkind comments about Antonia below the video (I’m not sure why), but there are also a whole lot of “likes,” and I certainly enjoyed it. (In this clip, Toni and Zakir are within a few years of the age that I am now, and I find that impressive, too.)
By the way, there is no story being told here; I guess you can say that this is completely abstract, “pure” (technical) Kathak. Toni says a little in this clip, too, but she merely refers to the toras that she is “going to recite.” (For those who don’t know the terminology – a category that included me before I looked it up – a tora is a sequence of bols; i.e., the rhythm syllables.) She also mentions that one of the toras was a favorite of Sitara Devi’s (which is certainly nice to know). Of course, each of those recitals of the tora is followed up by some very nice dancing.
Unfortunately, though I found a few other clips of Zakir and Toni performing together, they were not worth embedding here, because of the low quality of the camera work, angles, etc., and/or the bad technical reproduction in the videos. I had originally thought of putting together a post that would cover other Kathak performers who were accompanied by Zakir Husain (and there are a couple of very good ones out there), and that would have resulted in a few more good clips to post. But I ended up wanting to concentrate more completely on Zakir and his wife Toni, because I was so delighted by the sight of them working together as well as charmed by their stories, including the great side story involving Sitara Devi (who’s been a favorite at this blog for a number of years). If anyone out there finds any genuinely good (other) clips of Antonia Minnecola performing Kathak while being accompanied on tablas by her husband, Zakir Hussain, I would certainly like to see them. But meanwhile, I’m glad that I’ve found the two that I posted above. The longer one, in particular – despite the technical problems – does seem kind of special, especially now that I have learned so much about this exceptional couple and their history together.