Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Art Transcends Religious Divides

December 29, 2019

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

Two thousand nineteen marks the hundredth anniversary of the passing away of a remarkable Indian whose seminal contributions to our heritage in the classical arts merit reiterating as a new set of ministers takes charge of shaping our country’s cultural destiny in the next five years.

Born in 1859, Abraham Pandithar was – as his name indicates – a Christian. He was a practitioner of traditional (Siddha) medicine in Tirunelveli and became a teacher. He studied western classical music and not only established a music organisation but also published research papers on Tamil music. His book on music, Karunamrutha sagaram, a tome of 1,356 pages, remains, according to experts, “a seminal work on music till today.” He translated kritis (which are usually in Telugu or Sanskrit ) into Tamil, which must count as an extraordinarily pioneering experiment during those days. He also composed kritis on Christ in Tamil. For his contribution to Indian music, the British administration awarded him the title of Rao Bahadur.

He attended the famous All India Music Conference at Baroda in 1916 (at a time when communication links between the north and south were not as developed as they became later) and even presented his research work during the proceedings. This was the all India conference that saw the participation of several giants in the field of Hindustani music.

In all the archival records of his life and work, there was no mention of any condemnation, either religious, sectarian or artistic, from any quarter.

As I list Pandithar’s contributions to Indian music, I can recall several others who transcended the religious-regional-parochial divides, over the years, to enrich our corpus of artistic work. Jesudas, the popular vocalist , comes to mind. His Christian upbringing has not come in the way of his eagerness to sing at the Guruvayoorappan temple in Kerala, one of the holiest of holy Hindu shrines. One of his most popular CDs is on Lord Krishna (“Swagatam Krishna”). Neither he nor his admirers see any inconsistencies in his religious affiliation and his music. Sheikha Chinnamoula Saheb, the nagaswaram artiste, is another example of a non-Hindu taking to Carnatic classical music and becoming a leading player.

The signature tune that All India Radio plays at the commencement of every transmission – a violin melody – was composed by a Parsi, the father of Zubin Mehta (the famous conductor). That tune has been in use for seven decades and is recognized nationwide. The first woman to become a professional tabla player in India was also a Parsi (Aban Mistry) and was honoured by the government last year among all time achievers among women.

Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan of Rampur-Sahaswan gharana has, at the entrance to his apartment in suburban Mumbai, an icon of Saraswati over the door, along with a verse from the Quran. His “guru-bhai” Ustad Hafeez Ahmed Khan saheb (who was my guru ) remarked once that he saw “no contradiction – for us, music is our religion – everything else comes only after that, and merges with the sangeet”. His guru, the redoubtable Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan and his teacher in turn, Ustad Enayat Hussain Khan, both composed khayals in praise of Lord Krishna. Mind you, they were all very devout Muslims (I have known Nissar Hussain Khan saheb stop in the middle of a recording because it was “time for his afternoon namaaz”; he wanted to be buried only at the holy Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi.

These artistes were unstinting in their devotion to both music and their religion. On the other hand, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sang the khayal composition “Allah Jaane Allah Jaane” in Todi raga, which became one of the favourites with him and his admirers. Neither Joshi nor Nissar Hussain Khan drew condemnation from any quarters, including religious heads. Subramanya Bharati has composed a song that begins “Allah allah allah”.

Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, the celebrated shehnai player, was as devoted to his “Kashi Viswanathji” in Benares (Varanasi) as any devout Hindu. The legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan (father-in-law of Ravi Shankar) even named his daughter Annapurna. He too was a devotee of Goddess Saraswathi (who presides over music)

Singer Gauhar Jan (a tawaif) who was the first Indian musician to be recorded for a gramophone company in 1902, composed a thumri in praise of Lord Krishna (Tore bina mohe chain nahin, Brij ke nanda lala) that is a favourite with many leading vocalists including Ustad Rashid Khan. She was supposed to be of Armenian origin but was brought up as a Muslim and was very well off. She did not have to be asked to chant “Jai Shriram”; she went lyrical voluntarily over “Lord Krishna of Gokul”.

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, one of the leading vocalists of the twentieth century, reveled in singing Hari Om Tat Sat; fans would clamour to hear that song from him.

Examples like these, abound in the chronicles of our history, especially in the performing arts. A Malaysian male dancer named Ibrahim, is making international waves as a leading performer of Bharatanatyam. He is a Muslim; another male dancer in Mumbai, Father Francis Borbosa, is likewise a Bharatanatyam performer, his Christian origins notwithstanding.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom”, has been the core cultural philosophy throughout our history, and that has made the subcontinent one of the most culturally vibrant and multi-faceted areas that has been enriched by several religious traditions (Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and even Greek).

So, shall we say, “let a thousand flowers bloom”? A rose, a carnation and a champa can co-exist, without edging each other out. Especially in the arts, “enrichment” from all sources is the essence of evolution and progress, not “editing out”. That should be our “cultural policy” in the next five years and beyond.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a vocalist with national awards in both North and South Indian music. She has been guest faculty in both styles at the postgraduate level in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

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The Death of Classical Music

January 10, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana died on January 4. Classical music in Pakistan died earlier. Nothing epitomizes that more than the headline in a leading newspaper: “Renowned Qawwal Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passes away.” It is just as well one can’t read one’s own obituary – that would have been the unkindest cut of all for the doyen of the khayal tradition of North Indian classical music. Another leading newspaper had referred to Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum a while back. Mercifully the Malika-e Mausiqi was no longer alive to realize how quickly she had been forgotten.

These kinds of gross oversights in leading newspapers are indicative of the fact that many now have no familiarity with the tradition or the achievements of its leading exponents. One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because the art form is not part of the sensibility of a new generation.

This statement is a factual observation without any moral judgement on individuals who choose or not to familiarize themselves with the art form. North Indian classical music may be dead in Pakistan but it remains very much alive in the other parts of the world with many brilliant and exciting young performers carrying it to ever greater heights.

However, the death of the classical tradition has some implications for music in general which remains alive in Pakistan. The reason is not apparent but should become obvious on reflection. Simply put, the classical tradition is the repository of the rules of grammar applicable to all music and those unfamiliar with them are severely limited in their education and thereby in their exposition.

Ghazal remains an enormously popular genre in Pakistan but has anyone matched, let alone surpassed, the standards set by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum? All these artists were or are classically trained. The same could be said of leading geet singers like Rafi and Noor Jehan and legends of devotional music like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen.

Without knowledge of grammar an artist can become an extraordinarily good mimic, reproducing hits of particular masters, but remain quite limited in the ability to innovate. Only knowledgeable artists like Mehdi Hasan can evolve a new style, moving beyond that of an earlier era characterized in the case of the ghazal by a legend like Begum Akhtar.

This caveat is not limited to singers. The quality of music, embellished by voice, depends almost entirely on the aesthetics of composition. Almost all composers who left a mark on popular music – Naushad, Khurshid Anwar, Feroze Nizami, among others – were deeply conversant with the intricacies of classical music. Only intimate knowledge of the relationship of notes to each other and to particular moods and times can yield memorable music – no accident that film songs that have stood the test of time were composed in particular ragas of classical music.

The relevance of knowing the essentials of a craft goes beyond music. Only a writer deeply familiar with the underlying grammar of a language and its heritage can craft elegant sentences. We do have an innate sense of grammatical structure of the language we speak from an early age but this intuition does not extend to foreign languages. We can observe this in the average quality of written English in Pakistan – it is rare to see a coherent paragraph leave alone a beautiful one. This is also the reason why the vast majority of students memorize passages they hope to reproduce in examinations as answers to questions posed in English. They simply do not have the linguistic mastery to capture abstract thoughts in writing or to craft original sentences in real time. What they can convey relatively easily in their own language they struggle with in a foreign one.

This loss of originality and creativity and the recourse to memorization and reproduction in fields quite unrelated to music is a huge price for the neglect of foundational knowledge of which grammar is a major component. Add to this three other dimensions of classical training. First, the exposure to related art forms. Second, the extended practice under expert tutors that transform formal rules of grammar into integral elements of expression so that they become second nature. Third, the fact that widespread classical training produces not just artists but discriminating audiences that artists have to satisfy. Standards decline rapidly without such audiences which is why a classical education is needed in schools from an early age to sustain an aesthetic sensibility in society.

A digression: Music is a language with a minimal alphabet of seven notes and a fairly simple grammar. The children of musicians encounter this language at birth which is why they can learn it even without any formal schooling. Fateh Ali Khan Sahib conveyed this vividly with the story of a lady of the house who, while rolling dough in the kitchen, was able to reprimand a practicing youngster that he had fallen short of the Nikhad by a shruti. Needless to say, the lady, though not a performer, was the daughter of an Ustad herself. The context was an explanation of why even with such advantages the standards of gharana music were declining over time. No amount of knowledge, he lamented, can make up for the lack of riyaz that is an equally integral part of a classical education. Who is there to step into the shoes of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan or of Roshan Ara Begum?

No real harm was done by referring to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan as a Qawwal nor will the earth shatter with the death of classical music in Pakistan. It is the loss of the classical tradition which renders us incoherent that should be the subject of our attention.             

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 9, 2017, and is reproduced here with permission of the author. A primer on classical music can be accessed at

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Is There a Puzzle in Indian Culture?

July 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The seeming disconnect between the aural and visual dimensions of popular Indian culture has left me in shock and struggling for an explanation. There are many things I don’t fathom but most of the time I can advance plausible hypotheses to work towards an understanding. Not so in this particular case.

I have come upon this puzzle late and in a peculiar manner. Being aurally-oriented to an extreme, I have had very limited exposure to the visual medium. I have watched some classical dance live, attended the occasional play, and consumed some sports on TV. But as far as visual expressions of popular art forms are concerned, I am largely ignorant. Movies, in particular, I haven’t watched for decades.

This changed recently when I found myself responsible for managing senior citizens whose daily routine included a number of hours before the television. Hoping to wean them away from StarPlus soap operas and gruesome news footage, I proposed what I thought would be an acceptable compromise – leveraging new technology to watch video clips of classic Indian film songs of the 1960s and 1970s that evoked pleasant memories for all.

The senior citizens took the experience in stride but for me it was a monumental disaster. What had retained an enormous emotional hold for decades was rendered unbearable when picture was added to sound. I have since found it very difficult to unburden myself of what I can only describe as a contamination of the pure with the profane.

For me, one of the most sophisticated aspects of Indian culture is its music represented at its apex by the classical forms. One cannot miss the influence of this sophistication on popular film music as well, at least that of the 1960s and 1970s. The most haunting and memorable film songs of that period bear the unmistakable stamp of the classical tradition. The same sophistication in the visual dimension is represented by classical dance. Yet, that seems to have virtually no relationship to the depiction of movement in the popular domain. Why might this be the case?

Clearly, one argument would pertain to the nature of the audience; classical forms have a limited audience while popular forms are aimed at the mass market. But this does not provide a complete explanation. If the mass audience can relate to adaptations of classical music, why presume they would be unable to adapt to classical movement?

It is not even as if the visual representations are derived from Indian folk traditions. The folk forms, music and dance both, are beautiful in their own right. After all, the classical is nothing but the extraction of the essence of the folk, a process of refinement that has been going on for centuries. What I saw on the screen was neither classical nor folk; nor was it a caricature of Western dance forms although that might be a possible source of inspiration.

Could it be that popular Indian movies aim to appeal to fantasy and there are many more liberties that can be taken with movement than with sound to serve that end? Would it be correct to conclude that, at least in the minds of movie-makers, the Indian audience cannot be visually entertained without being titillated? Can one assume that this is not a trend likely to be reversed any time soon? And is music now also belatedly being liberated of its sophistication?

If one adds to this another presumption that suggests itself from my recent limited exposure, that the mass Indian audience is amused only by watching something silly, there is the making of a truly surreal experience. From what I remember of the Charlie Chaplin I watched as a teenager, there is an entire tradition in Western movies of being silly in an amusing way which seems quite different from the Indian tradition of being amusing in a silly way. And it seems to me that this acculturation starts at a very early age. Last year, I tried to watch the StarPlus Chhote Ustad series, a music program for very young children from India and Pakistan. I gave up after the first episode because I found the MC unbearable. It seemed it was taken for granted that the children would only be amused, entertained and made happy by the most grotesque kind of silly actions and conversation.

I really have nothing to offer here except my puzzlement and would greatly welcome any enlightenment, even censure of what may possibly come across as elitism. The only comparable experience I recall was pondering over the Ragmala paintings that are supposed to illustrate various classical ragas. I was unable to comprehend the connection but that did not ruin my enjoyment of the music itself. This experience belongs to another category altogether. I am now unable to listen to the songs without the association of the accompanying visuals. Shutting the eyes tight is no help.

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God, Music and Food for Thought

July 14, 2011

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. (more…)

Classical Music in Pakistan: A Requiem?

June 1, 2011

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. (more…)

The Music of Poetry

January 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the pleasures they offer the listener. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 17

September 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In the last installment we introduced the classification scheme in which the ragas of Hindustani classical music are grouped into ten parent families called thaats. Little is to be gained by my describing these thaats and listing the ragas that belong to each; this information is now readily available on scores of websites (one relevant to this topic is here). I prefer to share my own explorations of this schema in the hope that some readers would come up with insights that have eluded me thus far.

Personally, and this is surely a function of my ignorance, I haven’t found the schema to be of much use (because of its many exceptions) asides from the help it provides in identifying closely related ragas. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 16

September 6, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

If you read the last installment you would have picked up a clue to what a raga is about. Keep five swaras (S g M d n) in the air and you are beginning to work with the raga Malkauns. Ergo, it seems reasonable to infer that if you picked a different set of swaras, you would be working with a different raga. Of course, sculpting a fine raga out of these building blocks requires a few more details that we will discuss later but this is a good enough point to start.

However, if we proceed in this ad hoc way, we would be able to list lot of ragas but we would miss out on the schema that organizes the large number of ragas into more manageable sets. In particular, we would miss out entirely on identifying ragas that are related closely to each other. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 15

September 4, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words.

Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 14

August 29, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed.

Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together. (more…)