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The death of classical music

Updated Jan 17, 2017 02:54am


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USTAD Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana died on Jan 4. Classical music in Pakistan died earlier. Nothing epitomises that more than the headline on a leading news website: ‘Renowned Qawwal Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passes away’. It is just as well one can’t read one’s own obituary — that would have been the unkindest cut of all for the doyen of the khayal tradition of North Indian classical music. Meanwhile, a leading newspaper had referred to Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum a while back. Mercifully the malika-i-mausiqi was no longer alive to realise how quickly she had been forgotten.

These kinds of gross oversights in leading news portals and newspapers are indicative of the fact that many now have no familiarity with the tradition or the achievements of classical music’s leading exponents. One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because the art form is not part of the sensibility of a new generation.

This statement is a factual observation without any moral judgement on individuals who choose or not to familiarise themselves with the art form. North Indian classical music may be dead in Pakistan but it remains very much alive in other parts of the world with many brilliant and exciting young performers carrying it to ever greater heights.

One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because the art form is not part of the sensibility of a new generation.

However, the death of the classical tradition has some implications for music in general which remains alive in Pakistan. The reason is not apparent but should become obvious on reflection. Simply put, the classical tradition is the repository of the rules of grammar applicable to all music and those unfamiliar with them are severely limited in their education and thereby in their exposition.

Ghazal remains an enormously popular genre in Pakistan but has anyone matched, let alone surpassed, the standards set by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum? All these artists were or are classically trained. The same could be said of leading geet singers like Rafi and Noor Jehan and legends of devotional music like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen.

Without knowledge of grammar an artist can become an extraordinarily good mimic, reproducing hits of particular masters, but remain quite limited in the ability to innovate. Only knowledgeable artists like Mehdi Hasan can evolve a new style, moving beyond that of an earlier era characterised in the case of the ghazal by a legend like Begum Akhtar.

This caveat is not limited to singers. The quality of music, embellished by voice, depends almost entirely on the aesthetics of composition. Almost all composers who left a mark on popular music — Naushad, Khurshid Anwar, Feroze Nizami, among others — were deeply conversant with the intricacies of classical music. Only intimate knowledge of the relationship of notes to each other and to particular moods and times can yield memorable music — no accident that film songs that have stood the test of time were composed in particular ragas of classical music.

The relevance of knowing the essentials of a craft goes beyond music. Only a writer deeply familiar with the underlying grammar of a language and its heritage can craft elegant sentences. We do have an innate sense of grammatical structure of the language we speak from an early age but this intuition does not extend to foreign languages.

We can observe this in the average quality of written English in Pakistan — it is rare to see a coherent paragraph leave alone a beautiful one. This is also the reason why the vast majority of students memorise passages they hope to reproduce in examinations as answers to questions posed in English. They simply do not have the linguistic mastery to capture abstract thoughts in writing or to craft original sentences in real time. What they can convey relatively easily in their own language they struggle with in a foreign one.

This loss of originality and creativity and the recourse to memorisation and reproduction in fields quite unrelated to music is a huge price for the neglect of foundational knowledge of which grammar is a major component.

Add to this three other dimensions of classical training. First, the exposure to related art forms. Second, the extended practice under expert tutors that transform formal rules of grammar into integral elements of expression so that they become second nature. Third, the fact that widespread classical training produces not just artists but discriminating audiences that artists have to satisfy. Standards decline rapidly without such audiences which is why a classical education is needed in schools from an early age to sustain an aesthetic sensibility in society.

A digression: music is a language with a minimal alphabet of seven notes and a fairly simple grammar. The children of musicians encounter this language at birth which is why they can learn it even without any formal schooling. Fateh Ali Khan Sahib conveyed this vividly with the story of a lady of the house who, while rolling dough in the kitchen, was able to reprimand a practising youngster that he had fallen short of the nikhad by a shruti.

Needless to say, the lady, though not a performer, was the daughter of an ustad herself. The context was an explanation of why even with such advantages the standards of gharana music were declining over time. No amount of knowledge, he lamented, can make up for the lack of riyaz that is an equally integral part of a classical education. Who is there to step into the shoes of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan or of Roshan Ara Begum?

No real harm was done by referring to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan as a qawwal nor will the earth shatter with the death of classical music in Pakistan. It is the loss of the classical tradition which renders us incoherent that should be the subject of our attention.

The writer’s primer on classical music can be accessed at

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2017


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The writer has served as dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (20) Closed

brr Jan 09, 2017 01:25am

The inability to appreciate the products of one's own culture is a shameful state which eventually leads to a dead or dying culture. Culture without its own music is a wanne be at best.

Krishna Jan 09, 2017 05:34am

Dawn: Thanks for publishing this piece......When people understand that they inherited a great heritage at the time of partition, things would have been smooth.

If our minds are aligned to the Arabic culture, and not the culture which is in our DNA, we will have issues like this one.

Just for your info.: In India, classical music classes for childresn and adults are in full swing in traditional classrooms and on skype.

Tariq Ali-Rio De Janeiro Jan 09, 2017 07:52am

Any classical music, appeals a very small niche of people. Classical music ( East/West) is not for the masses.

Pakistan is no exception. On my last visit to Pakistan, I attended a night with the famous classical singer duo. It is dead for masses because it is/was never meant for them but it is alive and kicking for a very small niche.

Saleem Mir MD, NY Jan 09, 2017 08:03am

In as much as we can bemoan the passing away of legendry artists of Ustad Fateh Ali Kahn sahib's calibre the torch of this tradition can only eclipse for lack of patronage from the masses. Thankfully all living Qawwals, artists of spiritual singing and some if not most song performers are steeped in first learning classical music. The ones who don't learn do not last long on the horizon for long . Unfortunately unlike India there is dearth of appreciation from general masses and state and public organizations to support the tradition. Hopefully connoisseurs of music like the author will continue to keep the importance of classical music in the forefronts for the attention of all those who pride themselves in the diversity and richness of talents from Pakistan.

Jamil Soomro, NEW YORK CITY Jan 09, 2017 08:07am

The Writer forgot to mention two great Ghazal Artists Talat Mehmood and Habib Wali Muhammad.

udacha Jan 09, 2017 09:56am

The classical forms are all attached to some Indian school or thought. There is an Indian basis on all those arts. This is the reason why there is not just a lack of interest but a revulsion from it. If one starts an Arab school of music, just see what kind of popularity it would reach.

M. Emad Jan 09, 2017 12:09pm

The 5-day long annual Bengal Classical Music Festival (Dhaka) is the biggest (Indian) Classical Music Festival in the world. It is the largest gathering of attendees (over 150,000) and legendary classical artists like Girija Devi, Amjad Ali Khan, Birju Maharaj, Dr. Balamurali Krishna, Kishori Amonkar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Ali Ahmed Hussain, Parveen Sultana, Swapan Choudhuri, Radha and Raja Reddy, Shahid Parvez Khan, Ulhas Kashalkar, Rais Khan, Ajoy Chakrabarty, Dr. N Rajam, Rashid Khan, Zakir Hussain, Rajan and Sajan Misra, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Bombay Jayashri, Karaikudi Mani, Shubha Mudgal, Shujaat Khan and top artists from Bangladesh and the West among others. No Pakistani artist performed so far.

hnmirza Jan 09, 2017 12:21pm

Very well written. I agree a 100% with your opinions. There has been a disdain for any classical tradition in Pakistan over the last few decades, including music. Thus the decadence of a society that builds without foundation.

Anjum altaf Jan 09, 2017 01:48pm

@Tariq Ali-Rio De Janeiro

This is a frequently heard opinion. Yes, the classical arts have limited audiences but consider the following. Up until the 1970s, classical music had much larger audiences and much greater exposure on public media compared to the present. The audience is shrinking to the point of disappearing which is the issue raised in the article. You can argue it doesn't matter which would be a different topic for discussion.

The classical arts have a limited audience in the West too but almost everyone can recognise the big names like Beethoven and Mozart. Here is a character speaking about Rabelais in a novel I happen to be reading at this time: "Not that I've read his stuff, but he has a certain reputation, you know, even among those who haven't read him."

That is what one means by a society with an artistic sensibility.

Anjum altaf Jan 09, 2017 01:57pm


There are some points to consider in your comment:

When it comes to claiming credit many are vociferous that all the beauty of North Indian classical music is the contribution of Muslims.

Pop music belongs to an alien tradition. How come it is so popular? How come Bollywood film songs are so popular given that they are associated with India?

If Arab music is likely to be so hugely popular why hasn't a school opened up so far?

vasudevan Jan 09, 2017 03:29pm

Another beautiful tradition has now gone. Cinema music and pop songs (in English or Urdu or Hindi) have brought this. Soon we may lose the grammar of even our rich languages to cellphone English use of Roman script for all languages. What a pity!

Well Meaning Jan 09, 2017 03:33pm

loss of classical music is really sad . what fun is life without music

James grant dUff Jan 09, 2017 04:38pm

....nor will the earth shatter with the death of classical music in Pakistan.... It is amazing that such an idea can exist. The maxim of pearls and swines comes to mind.

Anjum altaf Jan 09, 2017 06:28pm

@Tariq Ali-Rio De Janeiro

From further along in the same novel:

"No member of the Round Table was a trained musician, but all were intelligent listeners - concert-goers and buyers of recordings - and they thought that what they heard was good."

I hope you see what I mean: How can we tell good from bad without intelligent listeners and readers or knowledgeable citizens for that matter?

There must be a lot of good music in Rio including the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira.

Gopi Chari Jan 09, 2017 07:41pm

"nor will the earth shatter with the death of classical music in Pakistan."

Not true, Earth will shatter! North Indian Classical music with various gharanas is the treasure of the land. If Pakistan or Afghanistan looses it, that will be immense tragedy!

May be Governments should get involved in saving this wonderful ingredient of the nations!

Bluecollar Jan 09, 2017 09:38pm

Classical music , a music only the singer understood what he was singing. For an ordinary music lover classical music was just gibberish.

MusicLover Jan 09, 2017 10:14pm

"remains very much alive in other parts of the world with many brilliant and exciting young performers carrying it to ever greater heights."

Would you be so kind to share the aprts of the world where it is alive and some artists that are accomplished in this field. Thank You.

Anjum altaf Jan 10, 2017 10:59am


India is the obvious place. You should visit the website of the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta to see how the tradition is kept alive and track the upcoming performers. To mention just a couple of outstanding vocalists you can listen to Rashid Khan and Kaushiki Chakraborty.

Surprisingly for some, there are excellent academies of Indian classical music outside the subcontinent. The Rotterdam Conservatory is one from where young artists of international standing have graduated - Marianne Svasek (Sarangi and Dhrupad), Stephanie Bosch (Flute), Saskia de Haas (Cello).

The Ali Akbar Khan School of Music in California (with a branch in Switzerland) has also produced very fine performers - Ken Zuckerman on the Sarod, for example.

You can find all these artists on YouTube.

Raja parekh Jan 10, 2017 02:16pm

Nothing is permanent in this world. Survival of fittest. Anything which appeal mass will last more.

MUSICLOVEr Jan 11, 2017 03:54am

@Anjum altaf Thank you very much for your reply and the information you have provided. I will definitely follow the leads you have mentioned and more.