"We really don't know what we are going to do," tabla player Zakir Hussain told his audience last night in the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre. "It will happen as it happens."

Then began nearly two nonstop hours of some of the most brilliant and subtle drumming this city has ever heard.

When he performed here with Ravi Shankar in June at the inaugural concert of the Festival of India, Hussain was impressive but not really the center of attraction. Last night he had the spotlight, which he shared with two fellow drummers from southern India: H.P. Ramachar playing kanjira and Vellore T.G. Ramabhadran playing mridangam.

The subject was a seemingly simple eight-beat pulse, which the players handled in turn. It passed back and forth several times in long solos, exploring possibilities of subdivision and elaboration, types of accent and pace, and the enormous range of sounds that can be drawn from apparently simple instruments. At one moment, the sound was like a shower of metallic raindrops; a minute later, it was soft, with a fuzzy edge. Hussain produced a deep, rumbling glissando from the larger of his drums by using his wrist rather than his hand. Ramachar and Ramabhadram drew from wood and hide intonations uncannily like a human voice.

In the hands of such players, even the simplest idea gradually acquires rich complexities and subtle shadings. After more than an hour of discussion -- sometimes quiet, sometimes intense -- the pace began to quicken, the solos grew shorter and the music leaped from one player to another with lightning speed; the variations grew more intense, and the treatment by each of the players began to merge until they were playing in unison for a brilliant finale.

There is probably no great musical system less similar to our own than that of India, which has a spontaneity relating to its transmission through oral tradition rather than printed scores. But this music can communicate to westerners. "Rhythm is universal," Hussain told the audience. "It is a pulse that runs within us and around us." He proved this in his performance.

After the intermission, a completely different kind of music was presented: Hindustani vocal music of the Benares school, sung by India's leading exponent of this form, Gijira Devi. Her voice, compelling in tone and rhythmic vitality, rose gradually out of a background of drone instruments and built slowly to heights of intensity that transcended barriers of language and style.

Hussain will be back at the University of Maryland next Saturday to give a workshop, one of eight that the university is presenting, along with five concerts. These events, organized by the Sangeet Research Academy of Calcutta, will launch a three-month nationwide program -- the most extensive presentation of Indian music in American history.