KABUL: Bombs and rockets may have reduced Afghanistan’s cultural heart to rubble, but it has not completely destroyed a people’s centuries-old love of classical Hindustani music.

Before the factional wars of the 1990s, the Kharabat, one of the oldest parts of Kabul, was synonymous with the country’s great musical traditions. Famed musicians like Ustad Qasimi who was awarded the title ‘father of the nation’ in 1919 for a famous ghazal, lived in the mud-plastered homes of this historic neighbourhood.

Its owners fled the Kharabat when rival mujahiddin started pounding each other with artillery after driving out the Soviet army in 1992. Four years later, with the arrival of the radical Taliban fighters from seminaries, music was banned as un-Islamic. The ban was only lifted when the student militia was ousted by a US-led coalition in October 2001.

Five years later, the Kharabat has not been rebuilt but a handful of young Afghans, despite the lack of resources and at great hardship, are trying to keep the country’s musical traditions alive.

During the 30 years of war, Afghanistan lost most of its great musical masters. Musical instruments were destroyed; musicians were jailed or killed, and many fled into exile.

“Afghan musicians have suffered greatly as a result of conflict, displacement and neglect,” said sitarist Nassir Aziz who grew up in the years of the Taliban.

Today, young Afghan musicians like Aziz and the vocalist, Wali Fateh Ali Khan, have both inherited the knowledge of the great masters and are introducing new forms of expression into age-old traditions.

Until 2002, Aziz lived with his family in a refugee camp in Pakistan, teaching himself the sitar by listening to the recordings of famous musicians from India and Afghanistan like Mirzâ Abdolqâder known as Beidel (1644-1720).

“We love music very much,” he said, speaking for Afghan musicians with disarming candour. “Despite difficult conditions we are trying our best to practise music. We know full well that we have a very long way to go.” Classical Hindustani music as we know it today was adopted in 1863 by Afghan king Amir Sheer Ali Khan to enhance the cultural status of his country. It would have been a consequence of almost a decade of conquests and cultural exchanges between Afghanistan and India.

The common Indo-Afghan experience that led to contemporary North Indian classical musical forms and genres has its roots in the first Muslim conquest of northern India at the end of the 10th century.

Many of the conquerors were from southern Afghanistan, and themselves artists and poets or patrons of the arts and literature. Notable among these was Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi (997-1030). Firdausi Tousi’s (935-1020) masterpiece ‘Shahnama’ was composed at his request, and is considered a classic of Persian literature.

Both literature and artistic life was heavily coloured by the Islamic tradition of Sufism. The Sufi masters, highly spiritual, and deeply attached to personal forms of expression, very often assumed the function of spiritual guides to the monarchs of the time.

Also, they played a major role in the overall development of musical forms and expression by encouraging artistic exchanges with Indian artists and philosophers, in particular with many masters of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Abu Arrayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (923-1048), the well-known Muslim scientist and philosopher, was among the early pioneers who, mainly through the nuanced application of the world-view of Sufism, narrowed the gap between the teachings of Hinduism and Islam.

In the 18th century, a new philosophical and devotional movement was born in India known as Bhakti, a non-dualistic movement of worshiping a formless god that has allowed a further osmosis between Hindu and Muslim artists and mystics.

It is in this unique context of common search for new aesthetic and artistic limits that classical Hindustani music grew.

One of the best known representatives of this osmosis is Amir Khushraw-e-Balkhi (1253-1325), the creator of the tabla and several ragas, as well as qawwali and khayal styles of singing and playing. Also, Mian Tansen in the court of the Mughul Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbár (1542-1605) who pioneered the khayal and dhrupad styles.

Among musicians of Afghan origin who have made substantial contributions to the development of classical Hindustani music is Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash, a forefather of the world famous sarod player Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Bangash had moved from Ghazni to Gwalior in central India. He transformed the Afghan instrument rubab into the sarod, which belongs to the tube zithers of Indian tradition.

Instruments such as the tabla, sarangi, dilruba and sarod are used by musicians in both countries.

Seddique Qiam, an Afghan classical music expert, said: “There is an inseparable link between Indian and Afghan classical musical traditions. So far we are not even able to say with certainty whether what we today refer to as classical Hindustani music belonged to India or Afghanistan.” —Dawn/The IPS News Service

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