God, Music and Food for Thought

By Anjum Altaf

In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest.

The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents.

That would be sufficient; but simple answers rarely do justice to the fascinating complexities of reality. Many conjectures beg to be addressed and many tales clamor to be told.

Ustad Jhandey Khan was the guru of Begum Akhtar and the mentor of Naushad. His story, found in a fading magazine from the 1960s, was the centerpiece of a lament about the conflicted state of music in Pakistan. Ustad Jhandey Khan loved his music and would weep all night after practicing certain ragas. Then something would happen; he would unstring his instruments and pronounce that henceforth there would be no more profanity in his house. Life would lose all meaning; after a while he would quietly go back to the music. The point of the article was that music would never flourish in Pakistan till this conflict between the yearning of the soul and the voices in the head was resolved.

There are stories within this story. Naushad’s father offered him a choice between music and home; Naushad ran away to Bombay. Begum Akhtar’s father, a lawyer, lost his heart to a singing girl; then threw her out with her two daughters.

In sharp contrast to these dilemmas, Hindu deities smiled on music. But they did not smile equally on all performers of music. This is an interesting argument proposed in a book well-worth reading, Baatein Kuchh Sureelii Sii, by the leading musicologist Daud Rahbar. Many of the great vocalists were pandits but the players of instruments, especially those made with leather or using gut, were at the bottom of the caste ladder if not outside it altogether. These were the ones who began converting to Islam when the Mughals arrived and welcomed music and musicians into their courts. It is no surprise that the founding of most of today’s well-known gharanas of North Indian classical music is attributed to these converted instrumentalists.

There are two stories within this story. First, there was no middle class in music; its doyens were either the pandits at the top of the caste hierarchy or the instrumentalists at the bottom. It was the latter who converted to Islam and became entertainers to the aristocracy. No surprise then, if one buys into this story, that the leading singing girls of the period were mostly Muslims from these families of converts.

Given the conflict over the legitimacy of music in Islam, this explains one puzzle – the dominance of Muslim singing girls. But what of the Mughals themselves, what kinds of Muslims were they, not only reveling in music but learning and practicing it themselves? Like the fits of Ustad Jhandey Khan, the Mughals suffered one under Aurangzeb but then went right back to the renaissance of Mohammad Shah Rangeela down to Bahadur Shah Zafar in Delhi and Wajid Ali Shah in Lucknow. On this evidence alone one can argue that the Mughals were more Indian than Muslim, and the ones who brought music from the sacral to the secular transferring it ultimately to the middle classes.

How poignant is the irony then when the Mughals are lauded as the great Muslim kings of India in the same breath that music is condemned as un-Islamic in Pakistan? And when Amir Khusrau is referred to as Hazrat Amir Khusrau and credited for the invention of the sitar and the khayal form of music neither of which are deemed to have a place in Islam?

This brings us to the modern era. With caste taboos fading in urban India, classical music is no longer the domain of pandits or of lower caste professional musicians alone. It is firmly entrenched as a middle class activity that confers a cachet on those who practice it; an increasing number of first rate performers without professional musical lineage now populate the classical music spectrum.

In contrast, classical music has been virtually lost to the middle class in Pakistan. A fascinating sociological insight into this is provided by the StarPlus 2010 Chhote Ustaad contest which paired very young performers from India and Pakistan. The first two episodes introduced the participants with brief video sketches of their lives. The contrast between the Indians and Pakistanis could not have been any starker. The former were all solidly middle-class with hobbies like painting, sports and travelling. The latter, barring perhaps two at most, were from the fringes of society, residing in hovels and barely eking out a living. The episodes are worth watching again just for this window into the sociology of classical music in the two countries.

But once again, there is a twist to the story. While the children of the Indian middle class had an unhindered entry into classical music if they wanted it, those belonging to the Pakistani middle class had to rebel as teenagers to pursue music much the way Naushad had to run away from home. This time, with Bombay out of bounds, they descended into their basements and discotheques (the first was appropriately named Hideout) to strum their guitars and beat their drums. Thus, bands emerged in Pakistan much earlier than in India; but without training in classical music most Pakistani vocalists lacked a good sense of pitch.

Classical music suffered a lingering death in Pakistan. Roshan Ara Begum came from Bombay and went to look after buffaloes in Lalamusa; Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saw the writing early and made the decision to return; most of the pre-Partition greats faded away, their performances deteriorating with the need to entertain musically illiterate audiences; most did not pass on their heritage to the next generation with any conviction; the few that learnt migrated to the bands for survival. The DNA of classical music in Pakistan remains buried in the genre of ghazal singing that classically trained performers like Mehdi Hasan, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano invented to survive; in the Sufi kaafiis of Abida Parween; in the qawaalii’s of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; and, of course, in the folk genres from where it emerged in the first place. (Ask most young Pakistanis about classical music today and they would associate it with Mehdi Hasan.) It is from these embryos that classical music would be revived, if it ever is, in Pakistan.

One last digression takes me outside the subcontinent. Whenever I go to China I ask those I can what God means to them; they look at me in puzzlement. There are many temples in China; the middle class shows them to their children as heritage; prays at them for the spirits of their ancestors; or visits them for good luck before going gambling or sitting for an exam. But they don’t worry about what God wants them to do or whether what they are doing would meet with God’s approval. I always wonder how much it adds to their productivity not having this intermediary layer to negotiate or worry about.

At the same time, Chinese classical music has nowhere the same recognition outside China as Indian classical music. There is a great tradition of Chinese cuisine but most Chinese musicians gain their fame becoming good at Western classical music. And this makes me wonder if the absence of a deity to be requited with the appropriate offerings has something to do with the fact that Chinese classical music cannot match the recognition of either Indian classical music or even of Chinese cuisine.

Of course, all these are just speculations; they could well be the outcomes of religious, cultural and national prejudices. I would love to find out.

Thanks to Aakar Patel for initiating this exploration.


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55 Responses to “God, Music and Food for Thought”

  1. mazhur Says:

    Music in Islam is haram or not is yet a controversial issue. (read Ghulam Jeelani Burq’s book on this topic).
    Personally I do not think it haraam if it doesn’t interfere or collide with anybody\s religion or belief. The Hindus believe in many many deities ( animisticism?) and approve of music to please them (and the aristocracy and the Pundits etc) who govern their socio-religious live. A mention of music to please the ‘sensuous needs of their lords’ the ‘apsara’s’ were engaged..Due to this many took over to music not only as a matter of economic requirement but also to seek access to the ‘aristocracy’ and ‘higher-ups” for a ‘social uplift’, although it is not ascertainable how many of them achieved their goals! At the same time this trend was not only restricted to the neo-converts from Hinduism (ie Muslims) who wanted to get up the ‘socio-societal ladder’ to improve their economic condition. No doubt music is an art—wherein one needs skill and natural aptitude. The neo-converts from Hinduism adopted this as an easy course to fit in the cultural norms of India of those days!

    As for the Chinese ignorance of God, no one ought to be surprised because the Chinese are fundamentally a ‘superstitious’ people (no offense meant) . they still believe in Chinese Astrology and pave their lives, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, according to the Almanac even though it is said Mao had banned it alongwith the use of Opium. What would you call a people who are superstitious about future happenings in their lives and who live in fear of the Unknown?? Certainly, in a way the Chinese do believe in Stars or whatever they may like to call God as!!

  2. Kabir Says:

    You are definitely right that religion is the main reason why Hindustani music is not flourishing among the Pakistani middle class as it is among the Indian middle class. The schizophrenic attitude of the ustaads themselves is also interesting. When even the ustads are torn between their love of their art and their belief in religious dictates then what can we expect from the average person? I think another issue is not only the uncertainty about whether music is permissible in Islam or not but also the strong association of classical music with Hinduism. Perhaps many middle-class Pakistanis think of it as an “Indian thing” and not as part of their own society.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kabir: At this point there are more thoughts/questions than answers:

      1. Can one think of any other faith where a question of this order (Is music permissible?) has remained open for 1500 years? In all other cases I know, either the question never arose or, if it did, it was resolved early on.
      2. How can a society work if questions of this order are to be decided on an individual basis (some do not think it is permissible, others do)? What it implies is that either majority opinion would become the order of the day or a passionate minority would want to impose it on others by coercion. Thus, two Islamic countries can have different attitudes to music depending on which way the majority leans. The implication is that religion really has nothing to do with the issue; the underlying social attitudes prevail and use religion to support diametrically opposite points of views which then feeds back on social attitudes. Does that make sense?
      3. Re Pakistan: Why the schizophrenia and chauvinism? If music is un-Islamic and classical music is Hindu, why then also the need to assert the great contribution of Muslims to North Indian classical music? Why Hazrat Amir Khusrau? Why not just move on to Java which presumably is permissible in Islam?
      4. On Religion: What is special about religion? In order to attain their potential people swap their nationalities, even aspects of their culture (e.g., wearing shorts to play tennis). So why can’t religion be swapped if it is a barrier to the realization of talent? And how can Pakistanis quarrel with that given the majority of them are descended from people who swapped their religions in the hope of realizing their human potentials?
      5. On Music: Naats, nohaas and the azaan are permissible in Islam. Why not move on to ensure that their recitations are accorded the dignity they deserve by being rendered in a pleasing manner? But how can that be possible without training in voice culture? And how can there be training in voice culture without a discussion of pitch and the seven swaras? And what is that but the foundation of classical music?
      6. On the Individual: Excellence and pleasure in anything calls for passionate commitment. How can there be passionate commitment if one doesn’t like what one is doing or considers it a sin or holds it in low esteem?

  3. Arun Pillai Says:

    There is a nice anecdote about Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who some feel was among the greatest Indian musicians of the second half of the twentieth century: before starting to play, he would say his performance was for God; if the audience wanted to listen they could.

    Although I am not religious, I think religiously inspired music – and, occasionally, other forms of art – think of Gaudi’s architecture or Bergman’s films – in whatever tradition often far outshines secular music and art. The only thing more powerful is perhaps art inspired by a felt absence of God – like songs about absences generally. Nietzsche was among those who felt this most acutely and went mad in the process.

  4. Naresh - Cool Says:

    The Issue , central to the debate , should not be God . But the twilight that sets in , when one feels Religious . By taking a hardline position with respect to all matters related to God and religion , There is little room for twilight . And hence for music. This is true of right wing Hindu Fascists too, who are have a similar relationship with their music . Their position on Gods are fairly well enunciated and they are willing to give up lives too , for that faith . But it is the absence of that necessary bit of self doubt that creates a barrier form them . If a new Hindu state had been carved out – just for arguments sake – and was populated only with people who believed in the original text of the Bhagavad Githa , The situation would be no different .

    Having said this much , the problems you state are a compelling evidence of the fact that nations are built in a bottoms – up approach .
    Every single case where it has been Top-to Down Approach From Garibaldi to Hitler to….Chances are they will end up in failed states .

    At the end of the day , it is the common man on the street who sings his way to hearts content . As long as he is allowed to do that freely , Music will survive .Throw in that dash of twilight , if you want to reverse things. That is what helps germinate the Middle Class – The only class trained to come to a conclusion . Through the constant use of discrimination.

  5. Haider Ali Says:

    Bottom line: Moseeqi rooh ki giza hai

  6. Aakar Patel Says:

    After many years of playing, I gave up tabla in 1999 on the advice of my last teacher, Gajendra, in Hyderabad. He said I wouldn’t ever be a particularly good player. He consoled me by saying: “Saraswati devi hamari hai par vardan Mussalmanon ko ziada deti hai” (Saraswati’s our goddess but her boons are for the Muslims).

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: Any god/goddess/governor who cared more for his or her own than for the marginalized and the minorities wouldn’t be worth much in my book. But more seriously, if you took a cross-section of Muslims like yourself you would find that Saraswati is quite even-handed in spreading her favors. It is just that historically, for reasons elaborated in the post, Muslims have been over-represented in the professional caste of musicians. An illiterate child in an Italian family learns to speak Italian much better compared to a middle-class Indian who learns it as a second language. A child in a family of musicians picks up music the same way. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (Patiala gharana) once gave me an interesting insight into this. He said that a child at riyaaz in such a family can quite expect a shout from his mother, cooking chapatis in the kitchen, that he had missed the pancham by a shruti. In all likelihood, the mothers themselves are daughters of musicians and while not performers themselves are quite fluent in the language.

  7. Aakar Patel Says:

    I think Gajendra also meant it as a joke. He was an interesting young man, teaching music to the sajjada nashin of Hyderabad’s Dargah Yusufain (himself also an interesting young man). Splendid story of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.

    I was taken aback by the line that Mehdi Hasan and the others invented the singing of the ghazal. I didn’t know it was that recent. I assumed it had been around forever. Now that I consider it, I cannot think of a ghazal singer of fame before Hasan.
    Quite astonishing to think that Partition produced this great genre.

    I have always wondered how Muslims could comfortably sing such things as Dhrupad and, more commonly, Thumri.
    Hindi refers to Khayal as “Shastriya sangeet” or the music from the texts, but clearly, as you say, it has come from the Delhi Sultanate/Mughal period. Without the Dagars, we’d probably have lost the only Shastriya sangeet we have in the north: Dhrupad.

    The reverence towards the music as being divine is a very powerful part of the Hindu view of Hindustani. And, this is being a very good thing, this divine knowledge is accepted even when it is in present in Muslims.
    Musicians like Ghulam Ali will always have the younger generation and the students touch their feet at the first opportunity.
    However, I wonder if there is also a secular aspect to this in making it high culture. Another example of this is Ahmedabad’s gatherings, where Gujaratis often begin a talk with an Urdu couplet. Production of an appropriate one readily is seen as a sign of great sophistication.
    In Gujarat, the speaker of Urdu, particularly he who can produce a qaaf and an ain, is seen as urbane. I think a similar and perhaps greater air is bestowed on the middle class person who sings Khayal.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: I didn’t mean to imply that Mehdi Hasan invented ghazal singing. Begum Akhtar was the ghazal singer par excellence of an earlier generation. Mehdi Hasan innovated the style of ghazal singing that is radically different and now associated with his name – a much slower pace, a classical ang, melodic variations on words, etc. This has now virtually displaced the Bgum Akhtar style of singing. Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano added to the development of the genre. My own take on the evolution is that these classically trained artists who would otherwise have sung khayal, thumri, dadra, kajri, etc., found the market had disappeared in Pakistan while the ghazal still remained popular. So, they adapted their singing to the ghazal and thus a new form was born. There is a Ghalib couplet that can explain this phenomenon

      sabze ko jab kahiN jagah naa milii
      ban gaya ruu-e aab par kaa’ii

      I feel more and more that the Hindu Muslim distinction in India is often worse than misleading. The Dagars were Pandey Brahmins before one of them converted. They kept singing Dhrupad just the way they had always done so. The conversion had no bearing on their being able to carry on a family tradition. One of the Dagars down the line later converted back – nothing changed in his singing either.

      I would guess any artistic accomplishment counts as a sophistication when that art is valued. The problem arises when an art form itself is devalued, the way music and dance of a particular kind are in Pakistan. Knowledge of poetry still commands respect although it is increasingly considered marginal to real life.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: I would like to pick up on the story about the technical knowledge of women in the households of musicians.

      Kabir sent a link about bandishes and how jealously they used to be guarded by gharanas:


      This reminded me of the following information in Daud Rahbar’s book (my translation):

      “In families of professional Muslim musicians when the daughter of a major Ustaad is married to a promising young man, the dowry also includes the jewels of raagdaarii. It is agreed, for example, that the father-in-law would teach the son-in-law a hundred sitar gats or a hundred and fifty khayal and thumri bandishes.”

  8. Arun Pillai Says:


    Why is dhrupad shastriya sangeet? On what shastras is it based?

    On the larger question of God and music, my speculative guess is that while dhrupad is regarded as religious in its content and khayal is regarded as worldly and secular, I don’t think any of the musicians are overtly religious in any way. Even if they are, that does not interfere with their music. God enters in a kind of secular way, by providing a way for the musician (and the listener) to get outside himself/herself. It is a well known fact in psychology that when people get outside of themselves (are able to for a while go beyond their egos), they are able to go to greater heights. This stepping outside of the self can occur in many ways but the most common way for people in traditional situations is via God. The great khayal vocalist Kishori Amonkar sings to Allah and Krishna equally easily but it is not the overtly religious content of either God that matters – it is the quality of transcendence that devotion offers. That is why people of any or no faith can find music of some other faith quite moving – because it offers transcendence.

    In other words, one should distinguish between two ways of referring to God – via religion per se and via a kind of secular aid to stepping outside oneself. The latter is available even to atheists.

  9. Aakar Patel Says:

    Shastriya based only on Dhrupad’s phrasing of Om Ananta Harinarayan.
    Else, it’s difficult to attribute. I don’t know of any reference to the pakhavaj in any shastra.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: There is a discussion of the origin of alaap in North Indian classical music in the book by Daud Rahbar I mentioned earlier. Alaap is an integral part of Dhrupad; it transferred to Khayal but has now more or less disappeared in vocal khayal except in the Agra gharana which retains the Dhrupad origins the most. In all other gharanas, there is now a token alaap of a minute or so before moving on to the bilampat. However, Dhrupad still begins with an elaborate Alaap.

      Daud Rahbar speculates on the Dhrupad vocal alaap (galay ka alaap) and offers two hypotheses. The elaborate vocal alaap is associated most with the Dagars and one argument suggests that it comes from their origins as beenkaars – the noom toom of the alaap is modeled on the sound of the Saraswati Veena. The supporting argument points to the parallel invention of the tarana by Amir Khusro modeled on the na dir da sound of the sitar.

      The second argument advanced by pandits is that in earlier times all musical offerings commenced with the mantra Anant Narayan Hari Om. When Dhrupad entered the Mughal court, some Muslim scholars objected to this mantra. The vocalists got around this objection by camouflaging the mantra into a concatenation of otherwise meaningless syllables – Aa, Ti, Na, Ri, Om, Noom, Toom.

      It is a nice story – religions coming together, conflicting, giving rise to new reconciled forms.

      • Aakar Patel Says:

        I’m going to get this book. It’s available on the Sang e Meel site for other readers of this thread who’re interested. There’s another that I’m looking for by Rahbar called Culture kay roohani anasir. Should you know where this may be found would appreciate the information.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Aakar: I should alert you that it is one of those books with a number of great insights sandwiched between a lot of random musings. I still found it worth reading because one can’t find such insights otherwise. My copy shows three other books by Daud Rahbar published by Sang e Meel (smp@sang-e-meel.com): One you have mentioned; the other two are Paraganda Tabah Log and Salaam o Payam. The other day, I also saw the Kulliyat of Daud Rahbar in a bookshop but I don’t recall the publisher. It could be a new publication of SMP. I looked at it and decided against as the poetry was nowhere as interesting as his ideas on poetry and music.

          There was an excellent long video lecture by Daud Rahbar on North Indian music and Urdu poetry on the Boston University website. I had archived it on the blog in the Best from Elswhere section. However, it is now no longer accessible which is a great pity. I had been trying to reach him in Florida to see if there is an alternative access to it but haven’t succeeded.

          • Aakar Patel Says:

            I’m not sure if you have Khaled Ahmed’s book of short biographies (cannot remember what it is called). But there is an exceptional essay on Rahbar. I strongly recommend that book to readers of this thread.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Aakar: I think I have located the book you are referring to by Khaled Ahmed: Pakistan: Behind the Ideological Mask (Facts about Great Men we don’t want to know). Lahore: Vanguard, 2004.

          • Aakar Patel Says:

            Indeed, that is the one. Ahmed handles the ‘conversion’ issue very tactfully and tells us why Rahbar’s research into the Quran is great. Some of the other sketches are also first rate, in particular the ones on Ghulam Ahmed Parwez and on Zeno. Not much on music, however.

  10. zubeida mustafa Says:

    Religion and music? Every society decides its attitude to music. Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim but cherishes music. See my article http://www.zubeidamustafa.com/the-taliban-and-music and you will see how music has been used. It is food for the soul and societies which enjoy music are happier.

  11. Kulkarni Says:


    I thought I will bring up the subject of Qawwalis too , here .
    Some great stuff at this blog – This particular Maru Behag is so soothing

  12. mazhur Says:

    @ zubeida mustafa

    Yeah, such differences resulting from cultural impact on religion have tended to split Muslims into many sects!!
    Music was also a ‘past time’ for the Sufi’s, wasn’t it???
    Idiomatic usage ‘face the music’ proves how much music is ” the food of love”!!

  13. Shahid Husain Says:

    Very informative. I always thought that many raags and khayal gaiki was a Muslim contribution. Of course Amir Khusro’s contribution of not only kalam but also instruments led the way. Was the current harmonium a downsized version of the piano also a creation of a Muslim?

    Altaf, love your articles. Very thought provoking and informative. Great comments. Good crowd.

    Thank you.

    • Kabir Says:


      the harmonium is actually a European instrument adapted for an Indian context.

      According to Wikipedia, the harmonium was invented in Paris in 1840. Because harmoniums weigh less than pianos and were not as easily damaged in transport, they were also popular throughout the European colonies. Also, harmoniums held their tune regardless of heat and humidity, unlike the piano.

      The South Asian harmonium has undergone changes from the Western prototype. The substructure has been removed and the bellows have been moved to the back of the instrument. Drone stops have also been added to produce a bagpipe like effect.

      For more, you can read the wikipedia article on the harmonium:


    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Shahid: As I have mentioned in an earlier comment, I don’t consider the Hindu-Muslim distinction useful in the context of Indian music. There was a period of conversions among those associated with the profession of music. The skill came first, the religious change later. For example, Tansen was born a Brahmin and died a Muslim; all major gharanas of Hindustani music trace their lineage back to Tansen or his heirs. It is obviously true that musicians from Turkestan, Iran and Afghanistan must have accompanied the Mughals and their particular genres (could Qawwali have been one of these?) and instruments would have interacted with the local traditions to give rise to a composite musical tradition. I suppose one can see this admixture as leading to the distinctions between the Hindustani and the Carnatic styles of music both of which rest on the same grammar of ragas. One can draw a parallel with Urdu which has the same grammar as the local Indian languages around Lahore and Delhi but is infused with Persian vocabulary and an Arabic script. The older term for Urdu was Rekhta which means ‘mixture’ and says it all.

      On the harmonium, the Wikipedia article linked by Kabir is quite comprehensive. I can add a bit from a couple of less accessible sources. The harmonium no doubt came from Europe to provide accompaniment to choral music in the smaller churches in India. According to Daud Rahbar in his book Baatein Kuchh Sureelii Sii, it was adapted for Indian music by an Englishman named Moore. The early adaptations had various tonal deficiencies and were rejected by the performers who were mostly Muslims. However, they were accepted by Pandits who found them useful in teaching music. This controversy thus acquired a religious edge and Zulfikar Ali Bokhari who was the Director of All India Radio banned the harmonium from radio broadcasts as a result of this bias.

      Personally, I believe there was more to it than that. In his book Arts of Transitional India, Vinayak Purohit has a section on the debate over the harmonium. According to him the early microphones and recording instruments could not prevent the harmonium from drowning out the voice of the soloist and this was the main reason for its rejection. In arguing for the rejection, the controversy acquired a nationalist dimension – it was easy to condemn something as a foreign influence. Purohit has an intriguing paragraph in the book that is also interesting for reasons other than music:

      In Indian culture, there is a persistent bias against anything produced by little or lesser effort. There is a superior feudal-artisanal value attributed to even senselessly strenuous, prolonged and complicated labour. Therefore the harmonium was resented. R. Tagore seems to have crusaded very early against the harmonium. Comaraswamy also fulminated against the contraption. Jawaharlal Nehru, long before assuming power in 1946, joined the chorus formed by Tagore and Comaraswamy, Clements and Deval, in condemning the harmonium.

      As a result of such powerful opposition, the harmonium remained banned on AIR till 1971. In the meanwhile almost all performers of Hindustani music had begun to use it as accompaniment. This was partly due to the scarcity of good sarangi players and partly due to the reason Purohit mentions. The forum for musical performances was changing; performances were no longer in small settings where the drone provided by the taanpura was sufficient for both the performer and the audience. In large halls with poor acoustics, the taanpura remained sufficient for the performer but was no longer adequate for the audience who felt the voice to be naked and bare. The harmonium with its much greater volume and resonance was ideal for the larger settings.

      Dhrupad singers, for whom purity of notes is sacrosanct, still do not use the harmonium preferring two taanpuras instead and increasingly the electronic taanpura which has a louder drone sound. Carnatic music, as far as I know, does not use the harmonium either; the violin, another foreign instrument, is much more popular. Qawwaalis, on the other hand, cannot be imagined without the harmonium which is not rejected as being un-Islamic.

      There is an interesting story whose accuracy I am unable to vouch for about how allergic Pandit Nehru was to the sound of the harmonium. It is said that when he was to cast the deciding vote on the choice of the Indian national anthem between jana gana mana and vande mataram, the latter used the harmonium as an accompaniment in their presentation. Pandit Nehru was so annoyed that he voted for jana gana mana although that particular piece had been written by Tagore in 1919 to honor the King and Queen of England on their visit to India. This story could well have been made up by the partisans of vande mataram.

  14. zee Says:

    Music is food for the soul. As long as it is used for expressing human emotions. As long as it not used to increase promiscuity and nudity and vulgarity

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      zee: In the context of Pakistan I don’t think that is the operative criterion being used to decide what kind of music would be patronized or encouraged. Classical music would seem to the least deserving of the charge of promoting promiscuity, nudity and vulgarity. The music that is much more open to such an accusation is freely accessible on TV, DVDs and movies. Clearly something else is going on.

  15. anon4cec Says:

    Great article, thank you Anjum.

  16. Owaise Saadat Says:

    The conflict between music and religion was starkly revealed to me when I happened to meet Ustad Bismillah Khan on his visit to Armenia in 2002. During a casual conversation and in response to a compliment my wife paid to him he retorted “this is my vocation but may be in the eyes of Allah I am committing a sin”. My wife responded “Ustad ji ap kiya khe rahen hain ap tau ibadat kurr rahein hain gunah nahi”. He chose not to respond!!!!

  17. mazHur Says:

    Ustad Bismillah Khan was right. His silence was his answer in that his conscience was not happy with what he was doing but doing for the sake of his livelihood. This is why some vocations are considered bad, if not sin, by certain segments of society. Nach girls or the women doing Mujra on the kotha or in private premises are never heard to enjoy a happy conscience with their ”art” which for most of them is only a means of earning their bread and butter. This may be the reason why music-players in Indo-pak are generally called by the name of ”Miraasi’s” in ‘common lingo’ and the fact that the making of music instruments, though an old pursuit by some exporters in Sialkot who make percussion and wind instruments for exports, has never attained the status of an industry nor many people ever got interested in this field. At least the problem with music is that it is not good in Islam if it advocates lechery ,waywardness and abuse. Music, at the best in developing countries like Indo-Pak, is mainly for the pleasure of the upper ‘leisure’ class and merely a food for sensual gratification of the class below them.

  18. Kulkarni Says:

    Bismillah Khan Never Looked like an Ustad uncomfortable with his art . That quote is probably out of context . To my mind and best of knowledge , Most practitioners of Music seem to get all the answers to their Philosophical enquiries . I would shed a tear for the ones who believe that it is all written in a book , as though etched on stone .
    The last words of My late father , as the cancerous cells subdued him , were – I dont care if there is a God , or Not , in the next world . I only hope Music is there .
    Such is the power of music to connect to ethereal , as most of us know.
    South Indian Music has crystallised this process in much greater detail , perhaps . Thanks to some some great composers .
    There is also a small problem about introducing the concept of class of society into this debate . There have always been only only two classess. The one who perform . And the ones who listen.

  19. Anwar Says:

    Excellent article. “The point of the article was that music would never flourish in Pakistan till this conflict between the yearning of the soul and the voices in the head was resolved.” This is the essence of the conflict I too encounter among many Muslim friends and within my own household..
    One of my very deep desire is to play Qari Basit’s recitation of Surah Rahman on cello… one day..
    On a different note, apathy to music perhaps is very unique to Muslims in South Asia. Origin of modern orchestra and string/wind instruments is the Moorish Spain. But that was a unique era.
    Thanks for the very informative article and discussion.

  20. Anil Kala Says:

    I am curious why great musicians come out of Karnataka in Hindustani traditions even though they are geographically closer to Carnatic style.

  21. Kulkarni Says:

    The Karnataka we know today is an amalgamation of the Old Mysore State and parts from the Old Bombay state and old Hyderabad State . Most great musicians who come out of Karnataka are not from the region of Old Mysore state which can be considered closer to carnatic style .
    Having said this much , The churning that has taken place in this area can be a fascinating subject for study . Consider for example the case of the Mysore Maharajah inviting Abdul Karim Khan Saheb to Mysore . The impact of his His acceptance and subsequent development of Hindusthani Music in those regions can be very interesting to study . Mothers of two great Musicians – Gangubai Hangal and Basavraj Rajaguru , were known to be Carnatic Singers .

    Coming from the Centre of this region , I grew up listening to greats from both styles , while catching up on fervent abhang sessions in Vittal Mandirs in the evening and soul searching qawwalis , late in the night . That was Indiam music-in a nutshell- as far as music was concerned .
    Add to this the impact of Drama music from the Marathi stage , and the picture should be near completion
    Hindusthani music’s impression on Carntaic Music is well established by the works of Muthuswami Diskhitar , Muthiah Bhagavathar , among others

    It is this melting pot kind of experiences that led me to travel across this region recently,, to collect recordings of those masters .
    See a sample of that effort here .
    Incidentally Abdul Karim Khan Saheb has sung a couple of Carnatic Compositions too . Most of you must have heard them.

  22. Kabir Says:

    On further reflection, I think that using religious differences to explain the different situation of classical music in India and Pakistan is a bit simplistic. There is also a sociological aspect to it. For example, many Punjabi Hindu families associate music with the kotha and would not want their daughters to practice singing or dance. Presumably since they are Hindu, they have no problem with the fact that Krishna played the flute or that Saraswati invented the vina. Yet for them the association of music with the brothel trumps its association with the temple. It would be interesting to explore why that is.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kabir: That broad generalization cannot explain everything but it goes quite a long way to identify the environment in which something is expected to be healthy. In India, those who disapprove may be exceptions in a generally favorable climate. In Pakistan, those who approve are the exceptions in a generally unfavorable climate. That climate seems to be quite clearly influenced by religious perceptions of the place of music in society.

      • Kabir Says:

        I agree with you, but I think that we have to add sociology to religion. Even in Pakistan, the masses don’t have a problem with music. Sufiana Kalaam is very popular. It is only certain classes that object very strongly.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Kabir: I agree. As I mentioned in my reply to zee, the logic seems quite topsy turvy. Classical music is under an official cloud while most other types of music are tolerated. At the same time, it remains true that the practitioners of classical music itself, in particular those who belong to professional music families, are conflicted about the place of music in religion because they are simultaneously quite religious and conservative. Without the benevolent protection of the Nawabs and Maharajas they have been left without psychological support in society and with no refuge from neighbors who look upon them with disfavor partly because they are poor and belong to a professional caste. Many fewer look down upon the pop singers, for example. So, clearly the argument has to be more nuanced than was offered in the post.

          • Kabir Says:

            But the poor (who tend to be quite religious) have no problem with music. Kaafis and other sufi genres are integral to their lives. The elite also have no problem with music. It’s only the “educated” middle classes who have the problem.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Kabir: I am referring now to issues pertaining to the caste of professional musicians, their own and the one’s others have with them. The associations with practitioners of sufi music are not the same as the ones with classical music. The first has a presumed positive link with the divine, the latter with the kotha. When musicians are sought for a mujra, it is not the sufi practitioners that come to mind. When for a qawali, it is the other way around. Even the poor have a problem with kotha music. The rich don’t but treat the practitioners as outcastes.This could just be an issue of a sub-caste and its associations.

  23. Kabir Says:

    But when you say that people believe music is “un-islamic”, there is a difference in what music they are referring to. Many people don’t see Sufi music as “un-Islamic” but they would put classical music in that category. The elite presumably doesn’t see any music as un-Islamic, or if they do, they don’t really care.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kabir: This discussion is now becoming nuanced and therefore interesting. It also brings out the advantage of the blog format if one can use it well. Your point reminds me of the observation of others (Matthew Nelson specifically about Pakistan; Olivier Roy in general with an illustration of Pakhtunwali in Afghanistan) about the tension between customary law and religious law. Customary law precedes religious law and communities juggle between them driven by a cost-benefit calculus. If the former is to their advantage, they try and retain it while finding interpretations of religious law that would support their choice. The most obvious tension in rural Pakistan regards the inheritance rights of females where the religious law is actually more progressive. Since people want to believe that they are faithful to their religion, this sets up a psychological conflict for whose resolution compromises and rationalizations are sought and found.

      Can we look at music in the same framework? I doubt that there has ever been a society without a tradition of folk music and dance. This can be the analog of customary law. Now a religion comes along that, or so it is claimed, disapproves of music and dance. How does the society resolve that tension. One way we see very clearly in Pakistan – the endless nitpicking about what sort of music and dance are permissible, etc. A drum that is not covered on both sides is permissible, a dufli is permissible because there is a tradition that early Muslims used to carry it into battle, a melody with not more than three notes is okay, etc., etc. The other could be to pick an easy scapegoat that is alien to the folk traditions. Thus classical music and dance fall foul with the rationalizations that these are only for the sensual pleasure of the elites, etc. Here, we start getting into a judgment not of music or of types of music but of the functions of music. All these endless runarounds would be absent if religious tradition were compatible with folk tradition in this particular dimension. We wouldn’t be discussing the issue if that had been the case.

      With reference to Islam I inserted the phrase ‘or so it is claimed’ deliberately. I recall Dr. Moazzam Siddiqi mention that there were stark differences on this issue (of sam’aa specifically) amongst the three main Sufi traditions in India (Chistia, Qadriya, and Naqshbandi, if I remember right). So, secular authorities with different inclinations (Aurangzeb and Mohammad Shah, for example) could just seek legitimacy from the tradition that supported their point of view.

  24. mazHur Says:

    @ Anjum Altaf

    Apparently there is a difference between the Sufi music and the Kotha music but the truth is it were chiefly the Kotha wali’s and some music-minded disciples which had been serving the Sufi’s desire for melody to reach ecstatic heights. Many Sufi’s detested music but some such as Data Gunj Bakhsh Hajvery and the like. If you happen to visit a Muslim shrine you will find some devotee’s of saints playing moving and others swinging to it wildly there. The point is that music of in both forms that induces uncontrollable or gross ”ecstasy’ is foul…even the divine music, because in both cases there is stark loss of ‘consciousness’ and nobody knows whether the singer or the audience have felt themselves with the ‘divine; or are just under the esoteric spell of music.

    Another disadvantage of music is that it cannot be played with the same tune all the time, or at the same time, hence the invention of different ragaa’s. You can compare music to different formulations of scents which have been formulated for uplift of mood during different times of the day! Music may be the food of love as much as wine is the drink of ecstasy. Controversy continues to exist on the nature of ‘ecstasy’ either it is due to the influence of music or wine.
    Similarly there as as many disadvantages of music as there are in drinking wine. Music also tends to encourage the use of intoxicants and other aphrodisiacs which the musician uses to ‘play’ in abandon while most of the staunchest audience uses to get off with their frustration and get into the world of forgetfulness. I cannot agree with the fact that the condition of forgetfulness is condusive to unison with the divine or even any ordinary person. It is simply sensual gratification as a whole.

    Uncontrolled and the wrong use of music tends to become a menace in that it gradually the whole societal structure starts to behave like good and bad artists whose main business is to please others for money and to attain some position in the society.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      mazhur: A couplet of Ghalib comes to mind:

      hai havaa meN sharaab kii taasiir
      badaah noshii hai baad pemaaii
      in the air is the effect of wine
      even to inhale the air is to drink wine

      Should air be banned?

  25. Kulkarni Says:


    These four DVDs , opened up my thinking on this subject , Like no other work – Of philosophy or Art .

  26. mazHur Says:

    & Anjum Altaf

    ”’mazhur: A couplet of Ghalib comes to mind:

    hai havaa meN sharaab kii taasiir
    badaah noshii hai baad pemaaii”
    Kambakht ne sharab ka zikr is Qadar kia
    ”Anjum” kay moonh se aanay lagi boo sharab kee!!

    Yes, Ghalib’s head flew in skies whenever he had no money to buy booze or felt convulsions due to lack of it. Poets would normally stress and exaggerate what they do not possess or aspire for…..metaphorically. Even normal people get exhilarated at the exuberance of cool breeze, fragrance, touch, sight or sound or anything nice to their senses.

    Remember this modern adage?
    …????….mein dam nahi aur biryani kay dakaar!!

    Bhookay ko sookhi roti bhi cake lagti hay!! etc etc

    May I write to say….
    Yaheen meri Mathra yaheen mera Mecca
    Saba day rahi he ye paigham mujh ko
    Agarchay khuda tu nahi hoon mein laikin
    ab itna hi samjho na bay naam mujh ko

    Do you think I have stated the right thing?? No. It’s just exaggeration and self-deception.

    Isn’t this Ghalib again??
    hein kawakab kuch nazar aatay hein kuch
    detay hein dhoka ye bazigar khula!!!!

    Same thing often happens with poets, Ghalib being no exception.
    Whenever someone wants to ‘crush’ his frustration or boredom he or she will resort to Music, dancing or drinking. Some will opt for the pills or heavier ‘medicines’, including narcotics. And, do not forget that too much Music dulls the mind, goes yet another adage. I hope you are not listening to too much music, eh??

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      mazhur: Should I take it that your answer is that air would not be banned but Ghalib would be locked up and a lot of abuse would be spread around?
      Could you cite the source of the adage “too much music dulls the mind”? And how much music I listen to can be my own decision. Is that acceptable in your worldview?

  27. roopa Says:

    Ahhh! the debate has shown a window to the question why our greaatest temple singers were Muslims and why their greatest classical compositions have been based on Hindu Gods. Prior to independence, these Ustads were invited by Princes and Maharajas of various regions to perform for them in their Courts or be their temple singers. They enjoyed royal patronage.As India inched towards independence and the princely states dismantelled, the same singers had no more patronage of royalty and had to seek it from the newly wealthy business houses, seths and even movies in the post 1947 phase.However now they are a dying tribe and nobody has as much reverence left for them as before.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Roopa: I don’t think classical singers in India are a dying tribe today. There was indeed a very difficult period following the decline in the patronage of the princely states because no one stepped in as a replacement. But lately, the Indian diaspora has emerged as a new source of patronage with adequate resources. many artists, including those in the second tier, tour Europe and North America and earn enough in a few months to concentrate on their practice for the rest of the year. There is an entire generation of high quality singers in the pipeline. The Pakistani diaspora has not supported classical singers but has been quite generous to ghazal and geet singers.

  28. roopa Says:

    It is indeed a pity that religious diktat in Pakistan has begun to be issued over something as innocuos as music. Yet, But the point mainly is how much is Indian youth turning to classical music today? We have almost lost our grounding in it.!!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Roopa: The point is precisely that there are many in Pakistan who do not consider music innocuous (neither did Plato, I believe). However, there is a contradiction in the support of non-classical forms of music both local and imported. This could have to do with the prejudice against things considered ‘Indian’ by the majority and the alienation of the elite from indigenous culture. Thus classical music is deprived of both sources of approval and is left without a champion.

  29. Rajat Says:

    Wow so informative post and even more informative are the comments. Well I am not of much knowledge on this topic, so i cannot add anything informative, but I would like to thank contributors for the comments.

    I do have some questions though. If some friends from Pakistan can answer.

    The subcontinet Islam before partition was predominantly Sufi/moderate Islam.

    What I have read is that in Pakistan the moderate Islam was followed till Zia-ul-Haq (1970’s..I suppose). Zia started the Islamization of Pakistan society. My question…what was the situation of classical music before Zia. Was it after Zia the decline of classical music in Pakistan started?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Rajat: The situation is a bit more nuanced. The Islamization of Pakistani society really started right after 1947. The momentum began to swing the other way towards the end of the Bhutto period when the opening was created that was seized by Zia. That was the start of the era of prohibition when the classical arts were banished from educational institutions and the media and opportunities for artists to perform and earn a living began to shrink. Before Zia the classical arts were the object of benign neglect; after Zia, with the active promotion of religious fundamentalism, they became the targets of positive discrimination.

      For more on the beginning of Islamization of Pakistan, see the following post on this blog:

  30. nosheen touqeer Says:

    dear sir anjum altaf ….can i have ur conact nmbr please ,,,i m doing research work on daud rahber.nosheen from pakistan sargodha

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