Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Traditionally Pakistani music can be classified into the categories of classical music, semi-classical music and folk music. Starting from the advent of classical and folk music we shall tap other genres of music in this discourse. Their relevance to the present-day music scene is also touched upon.

Classical music:

Classical music follows the melodic modes called raags and affiliated rhythmic modes called taals. In its vocal rendering it is customary to start with an alaap without the support of rhythm where the vocalist improvises in exploration of the chosen raag and expresses its particular mood. For the instrumental rendering this alaap is a little longer in duration. Basically it is done to establish the notes of the raag being presented. The performance that progresses with the Bilampat and Durrat portions has to be emphatic in creating the mood it is desired to create. Emphasis is made more on the Waadi sur and a little less on Samvadi sur. A raag, whether of five, six or seven ascending or descending notes, has been designed by its creators fixing these notes in such a way that in layman’s terms, these notes are called Badshah (Waadi note — king) and Wazir (Samvadi note — premier) notes respectively. Emphasis on these notes creates the desired effect that raag has been devised to produce. Talking about khayal form of classical music, the drum (tabla) beat starts with the vocalist or the instrumentalist. Many taals have been suggested for the performer to choose from like Ek taal, Jhumra, Tilwara, Dhamar, Ara Chautala, Hori Dhamar, Sool Fakhta, Ababeel, etc, for the Bilampat portion (a slower projection of the raag). However Ek taal is the most popular one in use. It is then followed by the faster portion, namely Durrat, in beats Teen taal or Ek taal. In the Durrat portion the artist gets the chance of showing his/her command over raag through practised use of Taans, Zamzamas and Meends. If the former is meant to produce the slower projections with pathos, the latter shows the craftsmanship of the performer. In general, the artist gets the chance of allowing his imagination to create such improvisations as his mood and the parameters of the raag being rendered permit. Because of the restrictions imposed by the technicalities of each raag, it may sound different when repeated due to the improvisations made by the same crooner. To top it, each gharana’s (school of thought) approach towards raag rendering is different from the rendering of the other gharanas as the treatment varies coupled with emotional and aesthetic elements present in these renderings.

Tracing the historical and stylistic development of music in the Indo-Pak tradition

Historical perspective:

The classical format of Pakistani music borrows its tradition from a continuation of the Indo-Muslim musical tradition, which evolved as a result of centuries of Hindu-Muslim cultural interaction. In the earlier days, Hindus possessed a rich convention of music, but unfortunately, history is obscure in its detail. However, it is generally said that primeval Indian music began with the religious life of the Aryans, who used to sing verses such as ashlokas and mantras from the Sama Veda, which the Hindus believe to be the source of all music. The singing format is called Dhurpad, the monopoly of high-caste Brahmins, who performed their religious rituals in the temples and refused to allow low-caste Hindus or Muslims to enter the temple and listen to religious music, believing this to be an act of blasphemy. It is generally believed that Hindus learnt the intricacies of classical music from Muslim teachers as they were more interested in writing books and Muslims in practicing it. Among Muslims these traditions trickled from generation to generation by heart.

A radical change in the form of folk music:

Folk music is generally believed to have originated from the soil, masses, fairs and festivals, the legendary love affairs, etc. The reasons for the origin of folk music, therefore, are as age-old as the music that was kept to their hearts by Brahmins. This dispels the age-old debate about whether folk music is older or classical music [...]. Muslims and low-caste Hindus, therefore, came out spending their energies in the form of creating folk music which was different from sanctuary music. This music evolved some extra notes in pure music practices as it felt close to the heart and pleasing to the ears. With the entry of sufi saints, these folk melodies also caught their imagination. They opted to learn local languages, dialects and melodies to communicate their teachings more effectively through folk tunes. Thus, the kafi format of singing originated [...] to convey the love for God with the use of metaphors of folklore. The sufis composed their mystic songs using local tunes and local diction. Some opted for the use of pure raags to render their kafis like Shah Hussain and others. Even in the Sikh religion, the Garanth has many portions suggested by Baba Guru Nanak to use a particular raag for its rendition. Before his demise, veteran music composer Mian Sheheryaar was in the process of composing this kalaam. It is an arduous task. The Muslim sufis were knowledgeable people and used their understanding to propagate Islam. Since these sufis were already schooled in Persian and Arabic music, a new fusion came into being in the form of the qawwaali genre of music.

Emergence of genres of semi-classical music:

Over a period of almost eight centuries, the budding forms were classified on the basis of their qualitative differences in styles and tonality. Different names were given to them that particularised the format of singing. These formats of music, which are in vogue even today, are tarana, khayal, thumri, dadra, qawwali, geet, kafi and ghazal. Some musicologists believe that it was Hazrat Amir Khusro who reclassified the classical based melodies according to the Persian Muqqam system. From my annual visits to Turkey I found out that this system still prevails there. Hazrat Amir Khusro created many raags that are being practised even today. The ustads (teachers) still use the Purbi, Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi asthais and antaras while rendering a raag. I believe that new lyrics can be written for rendering these ages-old but legitimate raags. Hazrat Amir Khusro also invented the classic instruments such as sitar and tabla. Later, this work was continued by Sultan Hussain Sharqi of Jaunpur. The contributions of Muslim sufis and scholars are therefore unimaginable in the domain of music. Today, ghazal rendering in its classic form such as that rendered by Ustad Barkat Ali Khan (khuli ghazal) or modern rendering closer to thumri format (mostly composed) such as that by Mehdi Hassan is still a popular form of music. Ghazals have been rendered successfully in film music also [...] by music composers Khayyam, Roshan and Madan Mohan in Bollywood. Many other examples can also be quoted from Lollywood [such as] by Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, Master Inayat Hussain and Rasheed Attre.

The credit, however, goes to Muslim musicians who have been the torchbearers of high quality creative music and often received generous patronage at the courts of Muslim rulers. During the reign of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq (1325-1351 AD), music was patronised on a magnificent magnitude. The Sultan is said to have kept more than a thousand musicians in his service. Others rulers of the subcontinent who are famous for their patronage of music were Ibrahim Shah Sharqi of Jaunpur (1401-1440 AD) as reiterated above and Sultan Zainul Abedin of Kashmir (1416-1467 AD). The glory of music was, however, at its peak during the Mughal reigns of Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan, and their successors. Tansen, Baz Bahadur, Meera Bai, and many other famous musicians of Akbar’s period made their mark on history.

The unhindered flowering of music in the Muslim subcontinent and the involvement of a large number of Muslims in the evolution of music culminated in the emergence of several gharanas (schools of thought or families of music) which are still in existence. Each family or tradition follows its own style of rendering the raag. The emergence of the gharana system has its roots in the ustad-shagird (teacher-student) relationship which is the hallmark of this musical tradition, shaping the personality and character of future generations of musicians and ensuring continuity of the musical tradition.

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter ‘Roots of Music’.

Excerpted with permission from
Melody Singers — 1
By Dr Amjad Parvez
Publications, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693528947

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 16th, 2016