“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” he said to me, “Coming from an educated family and doing the work of a Meeraasi!”
The host got very flustered and wanted to cut him off and take the next call, but I wanted to reply to him.
“Brother,” I said, “I don’t know what your name is, but I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for counting me amongst the Meeraasis! Do you know who the Meeraasis are? They are the ones because of whom there is still some culture left in this country of ours!”
The name Meeraasi comes from the Arabic word Meeraas, which means ‘heritage’. In medieval times, the bards who were the keepers of the histories, stories, genealogies, poetry and music of Northern India were known as Meeraasis. Many of them became students of Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the 12th Century scholar/mystic/poet/musician of the court of Delhi and disciple of Hazrat Nizamudin Awliya of the Sufi Chishtiya order.
As historians of heritage, they were given the honorable title of Nasab Khwan which later just became Khwan Sahab.
In the changing political and social climate of the subcontinent, the Meeraasis tried to preserve their knowledge by organising themselves into a close-knit community. A subsection of the Meeraasis, adopted the name of Rabaabis; they trace their descent from Bhai Mardana – the famous disciple of Hazrat Guru Nanak – who used to play the Rubab for his teacher.
Today in Pakistan the word Meeraasi is often used in a derogatory way to denote someone who is involved in some lowly immoral activities. That the original meaning of the word has shifted by 180 degrees – from when it used to denote a person who was the ‘inheritor’ of culture till today when it is used for someone of ‘inferior’ rank and quality – speaks volumes about the devolution of our own cultural values.
In the face of opposition from an increasingly conservative society, many people of Meeraasi families were forced to give up their heritage and many opted to marry outside of their communities and change their names. But there are still many left who doggedly continue to pursue their true vocation – music and the transference of oral knowledge.
At one time, the Meeraasis were patronised by kings and aristocrats of the courts and by Sheikhs of Sufi Khanqahs. Many received titles by their patrons and founded Gharanas or Households of their individual styles of music such as the Pattiala, Shaam Chauraasi and the Gwaliar Gharana. After partition their livelihood suffered because the state of Pakistan never accepted its responsibility as Patron of the Arts. Initially, they found refuge in the orchestras of the country’s new film industry. But when the government of Ziaul Haq clamped down upon all cultural activity that was perceived as ‘immoral’, the Meeraasis found themselves on the road.
When urban Pop music started to spread in the 80s, all the new Pop stars would use Meeraasi session musicians in their live performances and studio recordings, because their skill was matchless. Even today a lot of session work in music studios throughout Pakistan is done by musicians who come from a Meeraasi background. But because of their lack of modern education, and perceived backwardness, they are often exploited by promoters, producers and other musicians.
Over the years people from the Meeraasi community have formed their own slang and expression, which people from ‘educated’ backgrounds find difficult to relate to. Many Meeraasis of Punjab call themselves Dharhis, which was originally a name for the bards of ancient Punjab who used to recount heroic ballads on the Dhad or Dugdudi instrument. The Dharhis take pride in their knowledge of music, and fondness for food and jokes, often laughing at their own expense.
There is a story of the Dharhi musician who lay down on the railway tracks with a bag full of meat and Karela vegetables. A passerby asked him what he was doing and he answered:
“I’m committing suicide because there is no appreciation left for music!”
“What is the use of the meat and Karela then?”
“Well, perhaps the train could be late!”
There’s another story of how a Meeraasi was asked why he wasn’t fasting during Ramazan. He answered: “Because life is a journey; and it is not mandatory to fast during a journey!"
The Meeraasis are single handedly responsible for preserving the great music and poetry of this land composed in the last thousand years. They are also amongst the best musicians on the planet and start teaching their children music before they’ve learnt how to speak. The rigorous music training they make their children go through is unparalleled in any music school of the world. A Meeraasi friend and colleague once told me:
Do you know why we are such accomplished musicians? It’s because we have been vulcanised in an atmosphere of critisism!
In spite of a dearth of music venues and commercial cultural activity in the country, today there is an increasing number of young musicians from Meeraasi backgrounds who have received a sound education and are becoming savvy in the ways of the world. Through their association with other musicians they are being exposed to other music from around the world. Some have chosen to go commercial, while others are trying to preserve their classical heritage. The main thing is that they should be given the opportunity in their own country to do the music which they enjoy doing the most.