Ahead of the world premiere of Zakir Hussain’s triple concerto for tabla, sitar and bansuri with the Symphony Orchestra of India, Suddhaseel Sen explores what emerges from the dialogue between two musical languages.

It is always a pleasure to find a symphony orchestra departing from tried-and-tested canonical repertoire and, instead, giving a premiere of a newly composed work. That pleasure—added to expectation—increases when India’s only professional symphony orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of India, commissions one of the iconic figures of Indian classical music, Zakir Hussain, to compose a triple concerto for tabla, sitar, bansuri and orchestra. Having composed a concerto for tabla and orchestra, titled Peshkar, for the SOI in 2015, and two concertos prior to Peshkar, Hussain is no stranger to such crossover projects. That fact should not let us forget the challenges involved in writing such pieces, and it would be instructive for students of both Indian and Western music to hear how Hussain creatively addresses them.

For instance, at a creative level, Hindustani music is largely based on improvisations around certain fundamental rules, while Western music, especially those for large forces, depends on the concept of the realisation of a musical “work,” with improvisation playing a relatively smaller role. Furthermore, Indian musicians hold on to a particular note as their tonic or “sa,” and musical training on an instrument as well as exposition within a given raga is based on a fixed tonic. Western musicians, in contrast, are trained to play scales based on a movable “sa”. As a result, Western composers are able to make extensive use of modulation—the change of “sa” within a movement— coupled with shifts of mode (i.e., changes from major to minor and vice-versa). Performers trained in Western music routinely deal with modulation and shifts of mode, since composers have used these devices (among others) for centuries in shaping the forms of individual movements in various genres, including concertos.

The timbre of an instrument also plays an important role in Western music: the orchestra for a concerto for a relatively soft-toned instrument like the flute is likely to be of smaller dimensions than that for a concerto for piano or violin. What kind of orchestration suits what is, by Western conventions, the rare combination of tabla, sitar and bansuri? And does the use of harmony run the risk of deflecting attention from the exquisite play of melody (ragas) and rhythmic cycles (talas) that has been the forte of Indian classical music?

There is some give-and-take in any crossover project. Musicians from one tradition must find some common ground in order to reach out to the other. If that requires the imposition of constraints of some kind or the other, the reward is that of the opportunity to enter unfamiliar territory—to learn and to teach at the same time. What crossover works like concertos for Indian instruments do is to give musicians the opportunity to address some of the challenges mentioned earlier and, ideally, to take steps in making the musical traditions and practices of the “other” that of the “self”.

At a press conference on the SOI Autumn 2023 Season where the triple concerto will have its premiere, Hussain spoke of being witness to this give-and-take:
When Ravi Shankarji wrote his first sitar concerto, I was there when he was writing it down. I was keeping the theka, at his place on Highland Boulevard in Los Angeles. The orchestrator who was sitting with him would suggest, “Okay, Ravi, what if I added a C minor chord here, and then E sus over there” and Ravi Shankarji would go “no, no, no.”

“Why, Ravi?” Because, he said, “it’s not in the raga.” He was so worried about stepping out of that Lakshmanrekha of the raga… he wanted to make sure that the integrity of the raga is maintained… [By the] second concerto, he loosened up a little bit. And allowed a little bit of harmonic elements to come into play

Arguably the first step in such crossover dialogue— in the context of the genre of the Indian-instrument concerto—was taken by the American composer Alan Hovhaness, whose double concerto for violin, sitar and orchestra, Shambala (1969), was meant for Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar, but which was not performed till its recent premiere recording. Instead, Shankar himself went on to compose three concertos for sitar alone, while Amjad Ali Khan composed one, titled Samaagam, for sarod. Concerted works have also been composed for Carnatic violin (L. Subramaniam), Hindustani violin (Kala Ramnath), Veena (Jayanthi Kumaresh) and many others—indeed, such crossover projects are perhaps now more popular than ever before. Among such works, Hovhaness’s Shambala and Param Vir’s Raga Fields are perhaps the only concertante works for any Indian instrument written by a composer trained primarily in Western music.

There is, in fact, considerable diversity to this repertoire of crossover music, to which Hussain’s triple concerto brings some unique features. As with only two other concertante works that this writer knows— Carl Maria von Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote for cello, viola and orchestra—Hussain’s triple concerto tells a story. This is the story that Hussain related in the press conference:
The idea is that there are two spirits or two beings or two people, kids, [who] grew up together in the village. And they become deep friends, and they’re very happy with each other. They do things together, move around together, they’ve always studied together… But then they get to a certain age, and then the village people step in. And they say, now, you can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t go there. You can’t see him. Why?

Well, because they don’t belong to our way of life. And suddenly all that creeps in. So, the two principal characters are in shock and they don’t understand why suddenly their friendship is now not supposed to be a friendship. That is then, followed through in their mind, that confusion and then the pushback against the elders, and then finally the confrontation where they stand up for themselves. There is a village elder played by the tabla who intervenes and tries to make things right, and then eventually it all comes to fruition in a more equitable and happy way. So that is, in a nutshell, a story that the music tells.

This is a timely story for our increasingly fractious world. And since music is better able to chart emotional progress than representing something specific or concrete, the concerto’s programme promises to be helpful in guiding audiences through what is likely to be a formally unusual piece of music.

In the same press conference, Hussain drew attention to the work of Vanraj Bhatia, who explored the possibility of composing Indian music for orchestra, and how, in turn, the experience of Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri) and Niladri Kumar (sitar)—who, Hussain pointed out “are at their pinnacle when it comes to being improvisers, spontaneous and creative”—in working with Bollywood composers came in handy with respect to the use of harmony and counterpoint. As a result, the triple concerto promises to provide a sensitive and thoughtful combination of Indian and Western elements. But how can audiences receive or interpret the dual inputs of Indian and Western music? As Hussain puts it:

The Indian audiences are very different. And they’re different because they’re very diverse. The same people who will go to a disco or a nightclub will go to a theatre, or they will go to a ghazal concert … And, or that they will come to an Indian classical music concert or go for a Bharatanatyam recital. You’ll see the same young people going to all these different things. And that is great… In America, the rock and roll audiences are rock and roll audiences. The country music audience is just that. You don’t see them mixing and matching. But here, that happens. And that is good.

The distinguished soloists and the SOI will premiere Hussain’s triple concerto in Mumbai, conducted by the rising British conductor of Indian origin Alpesh Chauhan. They will then take the piece on tour to the U.K. One eagerly looks forward to hearing the new offering by these luminaries of Indian music and hopes that the piece wins new audiences for both Indian and Western music.


Zakir Hussain’s triple concerto for tabla, sitar and bansuri will be premiered by the SOI on 23rd and 24th September at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Suddhaseel Sen is a literary scholar, musicologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. 



This article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of the On Stage.