By Anjum Altaf
One often gets the sense that classical music is breathing its last in Pakistan, the death throes so painful that one prays against one’s will for its quick demise. The thought of efforts aimed at its revival evoke dread rather than hope. Why not let it rest in peace? After all, the death of classical music in Pakistan will not be the death of classical music. It is alive and well in India and flourishing in the West. Even if it were not, there is now a storehouse of exquisite recordings that are infinitely more pleasurable compared to the indignities music has to endure at live performances in Pakistan.
No doubt this is an extreme reaction colored by distress inflicted at a recent concert billed as a milestone on the road to resurrection. At the very least, it forces one to question one’s own deep desires and wonder if they are based on something more tangible than wishful thinking. And, it draws attention to the question of where the way out, if there is one, might be found.
This particular performance was by an artist with a richly deserved international reputation and one whom I have heard outside Pakistan with great pleasure. No one can take away from such a reputation resting as it does on a lifelong demonstration of mastery over the art. But every individual performance is unique and can range quite conceivably from the sublime to the ridiculous.
This particular performance bordered, for me, on the bizarre. I can’t quite ascertain what propelled it in that direction. A number of possible reasons come to mind. The introductory remarks, by hosts distraught over the fate of classical music and the treatment meted out to its practitioners, could have gone to the artist’s head. The conduct of the proceedings in English to accommodate expatriates, who, to their credit, are doing what they can to preserve the local heritage, could have triggered the explain-as-you-go style of the presentation. The request to educate listeners on the merit of gharanas before the commencement of the performance could have aroused the impulse to turn the performance into a demonstration of parochial superiority. Or, it could just have been the artist’s measure of what was needed to hold the attention of the audience that motivated the incessant commentary and banter during the performance.
The performance-cum-lecture included demonstrations of how not to perform music, illustrations of the flawed techniques of others, flourishes of the technical intricacies mastered by the artist himself, and examples of feats never before performed on an instrument. The accompanying artist was commanded to repeat each of these to drive home the point. By the end, all that remained was proof that a performance of the first order was quite possible while standing on one’s head.
I was not sure if it was music, magic, jugglery, sport, theater, or circus. I was not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry, to wring my hands or my neck or someone else’s neck.
What had gone wrong? What had brought things to such a pass? Given the unquestionable stature of the artist, my best guess, leaving aside the possibility of senility, is it was the artist’s perception of the audience and what it needed to stay engaged. At one of the breaks between items, the artist asked the audience what it wished to hear next. Sure enough, the loudest voice was for a popular song which called forth a diatribe from the artist. And, just as predictably, the following morning’s newspaper reviews all raved about the sublime performance that transported the listeners to another world.
The artist-audience relationship feeds on itself. This kind of performance would be impossible if an artist presumed the majority of the audience to be familiar with the art form. The sense of awareness would keep him from indulging himself. If he did, the audience would politely suffer the performance but the artist would never be invited back to the forum and his reputation would be dented by the reviews of the critics.
So, if it is indeed the absence of a large enough discerning audience that can be entertained by serious music and keep artists honest, what is to be done? The solution is clearly not a supply-side one where the focus is on the better training of musicians. Who would the better artist’s perform for, how would they engage the audience, and how would they establish a reputation? The problem is on the demand side: there has to be an audience that understands and demands quality which would force artists to improve in order to survive in a competitive market. And there is virtually nothing that is being done in Pakistan to address the gap on the demand side.
Given the severe handicaps, very little can be done. With the ostracism of classical music even Lahore, once a leading cultural center of the subcontinent, has seen its extremely knowledgeable audience dwindle into extinction. Since classical music is no longer taught in schools or propagated through radio and television, there is no way to build a large enough audience equipped with the essential knowledge of the art form. Even if these prohibitions were relaxed, unlikely in an increasingly religious society unable to resolve its doubts about the legitimacy of music, there are not enough teachers endowed with modern pedagogical skills to meet the need. Even the ustads, who used to train a limited number of performers by the old-fashioned rote method never worrying about the audience because it was provided by the patronage of the elites, are fading out.
Add to this the fact that there have been precious few innovations in classical music in terms of presentation. The old artists are not telegenic and the format quite out of sync with the visual medium. As a result, there are no role models for the new generation. The absence of young artists and youthful audiences feeds back on itself perpetuating the feeling that the art is destined to die despite the best efforts to save it.
There appears just one way out of this blind alley and that involves opening the musical door, both physical and virtual, between India and Pakistan. There is a high enough likelihood that young, successful, dynamic and innovative artists from India would be able to excite audiences in Pakistan. This, in turn, could lead aspiring artists in Pakistan, challenged to match the best, to enroll in music schools and academies across the border. The euphoria of the renewal of ties could fuel the initial interest on both sides and the power of good classical music could begin to work its magic again in Pakistan.
Classical music cannot be revived in Pakistan in a vacuum. The rot has set in too deep for it to be saved without assistance. Those who value classical music in Pakistan have to think beyond borders and those in India who value finding common grounds have to help push the door open.
For more posts on music, see here.