Sound treasures

Published June 2, 2023
Zubeida Mustafa
Zubeida Mustafa

MAN is by nature a collector. What he collects and how he manages his collection depends on his personal commitment and style of working as well as the resources available to him. If well planned and made accessible, collections can become a valuable source of knowledge for mankind.

After all, what are museums and libraries but institutionally managed collections which tell the story of civilisations and cultures or just a branch of knowledge. What is important is that the collections’ permanence, continuity, security and accessibility are ensured.

All this cannot be done single-handedly, and governments and public institutions have to be involved in this mammoth process. Unfortunately, such commitment has been missing from the agenda of successive Pakistani governments. However, Lutfullah Khan (1916-2012) made the impossible possible when he recorded, relying on his own efforts, the voices and works of persons of great eminence in literature, music and other fields, and preserved them for posterity.

In fact, to make his collection accessible, he devised his own cataloguing system that he kept revising from time to time. The collection comprises tapes, CDs and digitised recordings that are unparalleled in magnitude and versatility.

Lutfullah Khan recorded the voices of persons of great eminence.

A musician, and in his early years a radio presenter, Lutfullah collected whatever he could lay his hands on. He developed an interest in archiving human voices and musical sounds when he acquired a tape recorder for which he paid Rs1,148 in July 1951. Fascinated, he recorded his mother’s voice, saying a time would come when she would be no more. It is such a thought that drives a collector’s passion. But it also makes him possessive.

In that respect, Lutfullah Sahib was lucky. Five years after his death, a chance meeting between Mrs Zahida Lutfullah and Dr Khursheed Abdullah (an adviser at Aga Khan University), who had never met the man whose lifetime’s labour he is now trying to preserve, led to the present arrangement. The credit for retrieving this treasure from the brink of oblivion goes to Dr Abdullah. With a similar passion, but also a full-time job, he has managed to digitise in six years nearly 25 to 30 per cent of the collection. But nothing has been added since Lutfullah Sahib recorded the last word.

When I asked Dr Khursheed Abdullah to give me an idea of the size of the collection in terms of the duration of the recording, he simply gave me some statistics. The presence of poets in the recording is enormous: there are nearly 800 of them. There are 7,261 poems with a duration of 278 hours, 39 minutes and nine seconds. In other words, you will have to listen round the clock for 11 days to go through the poetry section. Faiz and Akhtarul Iman top the list with their entire work recorded in their own voice.

The cataloguing leaves you marvelling. The catalogue for the music section, the largest, consists of 42 volumes with 200 pages each. The entries are classified as ‘artistes’, ‘classical’, ‘semi-classical’, ‘instrumental’, ‘vocal’, melody-wise, etc. Similarly, there are catalogues for poetry, prose, talks, radio dramas and so on.

What is the significance of this collection? It is oral literature/history in a pure form. A poet who recites his own poetry — stressing a syllable at the right place to convey the meaning and nuances of the words as only the creator of these can do, communicates more effectively with his audience.

The Lutfullah collection contains a number of interviews, readings and conversations by eminent authors that are exclusive and give an insight into society and history. They are all there: be it Qur­ratulain Hyder talking about her father, or Hajra Masroor in conversation with Ismat Chughtai. Pir Hisamuddin Rashdi figures in there with many others. Dr Khu­rsheed Abdullah has wisely had transcri­bed in books exclusive talks and interviews.

Exploring at random, I found so many pearls of wisdom from these greatest of the greats. In the present distressing times, Faiz reassures us “Lambi hai gham ki shaam magar shaam hee to hai” (The night of sorrow is long, but it is only a night). Or when he promises us a better future reciting “Hum deykhein gai…” (we shall see).

Then there are Noon Meem Raashid warning us against Nimrood’s sham philosophy in the land of his divinity and Habib Jalib defiantly proclaiming “Mein naheen manta” (I don’t accept).

History is the best teacher and this collection is full of history. The voices in the recordings can be the mentors students need and which Dr Khurshid Abdullah believes are missing today. According to him, people look for ‘sanads’ (degree) or ‘tarbiat’ (training) but what is really needed to make a youth accomplished is ‘suhbat’ (mentorship). Lutfullah has provided them in plenty.

www.zubeida-mustafa.com

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2023

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