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.