Pakistan: Requiem for a tradition

Classical music is languishing in Pakistan

Classical music is standing on its last legs in Pakistan. The sarangi and vichitra veena are dead. There is only one sarod  player in the entire country, Asad Qizilbash. Tari Khan is the only tabla player who can play a complex rhythmic cycle. Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwale is the only sitar player who can rub shoulders with sitar players of international repute.

The saddest aspect is that none of these artistes has a successor and their art will be buried with them. Vocal music is also in shambles. The progeny of Fateh Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan have been a great disappointment to their gharanas. Thus, the gaiki (style) of Patiala and Sham Chaurasi is literally dead. Ghazal and thumri are also on the deathbed, ever since the incapacitation of Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano due to age.

Pakistan inherited classical music, like other assets, at the time of partition but did nothing for its development. It was unable to retain even a genius like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Bureaucratic arrogance forced him to surrender Pakistani nationality and settle in India where he was revered like another Tansen. Ustad Alla Rakha received much the same treatment as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. His greatest contribution to the world of music is his son, Ustad Zakir Hussain, who is regarded as the tabla player of the century. Alla Rakha could never have made this contribution had he lived in Pakistan.

Some 20 years ago, a great Indian sitar player, Rais Khan became a Pakistani national after marrying our Bilquis Khanum. Neither the music institutions nor the artistes in Pakistan bothered to benefit from this opportunity. He was given the same treatment as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and as a result his music never witnessed further progress. Rais Khan, by becoming a Pakistani national, deprived his son Farhan of the vast exposure he could have had in India. His son can never be a good sitar player while he lives in Pakistan.

The mindset of musicians has also caused colossal damage to music in Pakistan. Pakistani musicians deliberately kept their art secret and made no efforts to pass it on to coming generations. A friend, Hassan Azad, a mathematician and a student of sitar, was always curious about the secret behind the systematic expansion of ragas. No Pakistani musician was willing to share this knowledge with him. It took Hassan 45 years to learn the secret after he was able to instantly notate the music composed by stalwarts such as Ustad Fayyaz Ahmed Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Inayat Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Shahid Parvez. (See Hassan’s work at math/hassanaz/essays-music.htm.)

Musicians like Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Roshan Ara Begum never vocalised their bandish (compositions) clearly. All their music was in aakaar (improvisations that involve using vowels alone). Perhaps that is why classical music could never attract a lay audience. Moreover, not a single musician documented the music of his gharana. As a result, their gharana gaiki passed away with their death.

Pakistani musicians have been extremely miserly about teaching music – even to their own sons and daughters – so that no one could overshadow them. A well-known tabla player from Lahore who is given to challenging everyone has recently been challenged by his own son! Music is not impossible to learn but the attitude of musicians has made it so. When one hears from an ustad (teacher or master) that it took him 20 years to perfect the first note, sa, who would want to learn music? And if at all one still persisted, musicians employ other deterrent tactics. They start fleecing you in the name of gunda-bandi and nazar (tutelage and gifts). A friend, Nazir Khan says he spent about one million rupees on a well-known Rawalpindi musician to teach his son tabla and classical vocal music. The musician literally ‘robbed’ Nazir Khan for eight years to teach Khan’s son what he could have learnt from an attai (non-gharana musician) in three months.

Naqi Khan, grandson of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, wanted me to become his gunda-band shagird (committed disciple) before he answered my question pertaining to voice culture. On the other hand, a leading sitar player from India, Ustad Shahid Parvez had no reservations about giving me the right tips on the telephone! He was in fact magnanimous enough to teach me a 13-beat rhythmic cycle that he had himself composed and which had been played by Vijay Ghate in one of his recordings of raga Rageshri.

I asked Tari Khan, who is also a good friend, what the first lesson he had learnt from his guru had been. "I don’t remember," he said, thinking I might benefit from his reply. That is the mindset of Pakistani musicians. The result is that classical music is declining in Pakistan and thriving in India.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Pakistan 2



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