MUSIC: KILLING US SOFTLY

Published November 26, 2017
Ustad Amanat Ali Khan
Ustad Amanat Ali Khan

Following the creation of Pakistan, my family undertook a second migration in 1951 from lush green Chittagong in the former East Pakistan to Karachi. In Bengal, while our ears feasted on the melodies of folk and Tagore geeti, it was here in Karachi that one’s young ears were introduced to the rich and exclusive genre of classical music.

There was a wealth of vocalists and instrumentalists who had migrated from India and settled in Karachi as well as in various cities in Punjab and Sindh. No Jaipur, Gwalior, Dehli, Patiala or Rampur Gharana existed here, and there were no princely states either to pamper the exponents. But there was Radio Pakistan to take the musicians under its wing. The exponents of this subtle art were promptly employed at various radio stations. Though inadequately paid, they received sufficient respect from a large number of music lovers.

I vividly remember the farshi nashist (floor seating) gatherings held in the studios of Radio Pakistan in the ’50s and the early ’60s. It was here that we had the good fortune of listening to eminent maestros: vocalists Ramzan Khan, Nazakat Ali, Salamat Ali, Amanat Ali, Fateh Ali, Manzoor Ali Khan, Umeed Ali Khan, Roshan Ara Begum, sarangi players of the calibre of Bundu Khan, Zahoori Khan, Nathoo Khan, Hamid Husain Khan, beenkar Habib Ali Khan, sitarists Kabir Khan, Imdad Husain and tabla players Allah Ditta, Khurshid Khan, Shahamat Khan, Wajid Khan and others who performed here. One had the good fortune of meeting many of them in the canteen of the broadcasting house on Bunder Road.

With no dearth of talent in Pakistan, the tone-deaf treatment of classical music by the government and corporate sector is unexplicable

Even in the genre of ghazal and light classical music, there was no dearth of accomplished performers such as Mehdi Hasan and Farida Khanum. Other proficient ghazal singers — Iqbal Bano, Ghulam Ali and Hazarvi — came from upcountry to perform in Karachi. In addition, there were Bengali singers from East Pakistan. If at all there were a golden period of music in this country, it was this.

The musical environment changed following the 1965 war with India. Indian classical music became the enemy’s music. Indian films were banned and artists ceased to visit from across the border. During the Ayub era, stiff-necked government officials controlling the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had no ear for music and one could see dark clouds hovering over performing arts.

After General Ayub’s departure came Yahya Khan whose taste in music did not travel beyond Madam Noor Jehan. Next came the so-called socialist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and some advisers — ignorant of the fact that folk music being the mother of all music thrives on its own and does not die — must have advised him that patronage of folk music from the four provinces was the need of the hour. If there were any music that needed patronage it was classical music.

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan & Mehdi Hasan
Ustad Fateh Ali Khan & Mehdi Hasan

The tragedy of 1971 had already cast gloom over the performing art environment in the city. Artists such as Firoza Bulbul, Ghanshyam, Firdausi Begum, Runa Laila, Shahnaz Begum, Dilara Hashim, Laila Arjumand Bano, Debu Bhattachari and many others had left the city for Bangladesh. At the same time, it was heartbreaking to see classical musicians being neglected and treated shabbily by radio officials.

But it was not before 1977, the year when General Ziaul Haq descended on the scene, that the real slide started. What to say of classical music, music as a whole became an unpalatable commodity, not in sync with faith. It might come as a surprise to the reader that majority of our great ustads mentioned above passed away during the 11-year rule of the general. Most of them died hand-to-mouth and unsung. What is more tragic, they had stopped training their off-springs, advising them not to at least make classical music their profession. The great art started to gasp for breath.

But music is like water that even as a trickle, finds its own course. It flows serenely where the terrain is smooth and tranquil but where it passes through rocky and uneven terrain it becomes aggressive and noisy. In such an evolutionary process, priceless traditions and heritage are likely to be the victim.

One was cynical when a few music clubs in posh areas of Karachi came into being. The members of these clubs were affluent citizens who had the money to pay to the musicians. Having witnessed the hardships suffered by the great masters and, now, after observing the patronage accorded to lesser musical talents by well-to-do music lovers, the irony was obvious. We, the connoisseurs of yore, had mostly ‘wah wah’ (applause) to offer to the maestros at private mehfils (musical gatherings), and though it was nice to see the new breed of music-lovers looking after the musicians financially, classical music did not figure anywhere in the scheme of things. In Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, despite the existing stressful and unsafe environment, there was no shortage of rich music lovers who were ready to pay the artists well. These connoisseurs were not choosy either, since they seemed to accept whatever was being offered to them in terms of quality of vocal and instrumental music.

Roshan Ara Begum & Ustad Hamid Hussain Khan
Roshan Ara Begum & Ustad Hamid Hussain Khan

Music clubs catered to the need of lovers of film music and ghazal only. In other words, they only helped in keeping ears tuned to the good old melodies of filmi geets and ghazals. Dr Saira Khan’s club Mauseqaar formed in 2003 with the slogan, “Committed to Music” and Sultan Arshad’s Amateurs’ Melodies, being active for many years, held regular monthly programmes for their members and their guests. There was another one, Saaz-o-Awaaz with the membership comprising the corporate world’s big shots.

Pakistan shares a common culture and art heritage with India. Most of the musical gharanas were founded by Muslim exponents during the 19th and early 20th centuries. One, therefore, fails to comprehend the step-motherly treatment meted out to classical music at official and public-sector levels.

However, in order to promote classical music and to cultivate a refined taste in the young generation, something good happened in the year 2004 when the Karachi Chapter of All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC) was started by Ayela Raza and the first APMC was held in February. General Pervez Musharraf, the then president of Pakistan at the time attended the opening session held at the Governor House and in no time a number of public- and private-sector organisations eagerly came forward to patronise classical music. The conference drew a large crowd of music-lovers and a majority of them were educated young men and women, even teenagers. It seemed as though the young generation was waiting for classical music to touch their hearts. They sat late into the night to listen to vocal and instrumental classical music for three days.

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan
Ustad Salamat Ali Khan

The APMC programmes were held without any financial problems for a few years until the departure of Gen Musharraf, when corporate patronage was promptly withdrawn and the APMC no more remained the same robust institution.

In 2005, the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) was established in Karachi, thanks again to Gen Pervez Musharraf, and one became hopeful that conventional music training would start there, which was certainly the need of the hour, without which classical music could not survive.

In India, hundreds, if not thousands of music schools and colleges spread across the country are providing education and training to millions of students who receive bachelors, masters and even PhD degrees in music. Institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Academy of Kolkata, financed by the Indian Tobacco Company, has trained and produced artists of the calibre of Pandit Ajoy Chakravarty and Ustad Rashid Khan. Talent hunting is also part of their programme.

Pakistan shares a common culture and art heritage with India. Most of the musical gharanas were founded by Muslim exponents during the 19th and early 20th centuries. One, therefore, fails to comprehend the step-motherly treatment meted out to classical music at official and public-sector levels. Leave aside government patronage, whoever stopped the corporate sector? It is ironic that no university, except perhaps the Punjab University and the National College of Arts, Lahore can boast of a music faculty. One is not quite aware if there are other educational institutions in other parts of the country that teach classical music.

As for talent, there is no dearth of it. If you want to know what great wealth we have, buy DVDs of the Manganhar Music Festival contests produced by Dr Fouzia Saeed, the author of Taboo. You will see how many talented 10- and 12-year-old boys and girls she and her team discovered in Tharparkar and other remote areas.

One might say it is high time the private sector study the models in India, repudiate prejudice and support music education and training on the basis of merit under their corporate social responsibility programmes. As for the private clubs, these too, should think seriously about music training for their members and their children by hiring and looking after the few ustads still alive today. It will be only then that classical music in this country will be revived.

The writer is an amateur photographer and singer, trained in classical music by Ustad Wilayat Ali khan

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 26th, 2017

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