Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Sehwan, Sheema and Faiz

February 24, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

 

For Sheema Kermani – because she went

 

Go
(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Aaj Bazaar meiN Pa ba JaullaN Chalo)

Unwept tears, inner torments
Enough
Hidden desires, silent accusations
Enough

Go
Flaunt your fetters in the street
Arms aloft, enraptured, intoxicated
Disheveled, blood stained
Go
Lovers are yearning for your love
Go

Tyrant and crowd
Await
Slings and stones
Await
Sorrows and failures
Await

Who else is left to love
But you
Who else is left to fight
But you
Who else is left to die
But you

Arise and go
For love’s honor
Go

 

Note

Sehwan is home to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a major sufi saint in Sindh, where a suicide bombing killed 88 devotees on February 16, 2017.

Sheema Kermani is a symbol of defiance in Pakistan as a dancer who has continued to perform in public all through the rise of fundamentalism and suppression. She went to the shrine to join the devotees on February 20.

The news story is here.

This poem appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily  on February 23, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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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 https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Music

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Reflections on Lost Times

August 1, 2014

By Ibn-e Eusuf

Father was like that. Eager to have us learn everything, oblivious to details. Busy, busy. Shunting trains by day, learning French by night. Mother never said much, went along mostly.

Handed over to a music teacher or somesuch. Eight or thereabouts. No Sa Re Ga. Right away on to aye maalik tere bandey ham tuu ne zarrey se keeRaa banaya or somesuch. Closet evolutionist. Wept. Mother gently requested change of tune. Merey maalik bulaa le madeenay mujhe. About death and dying. Final requests, etc. Nothing doing. End of music hall career.

Still, thanks and all. Never forgot bulaa le madeenay bit. Coming in handy now. Understand all about politics. Aatey umrah jaatey umrah. Mountain of rye. Mice. Roared. Wind ke jhonkoN se. Pudeenay ke bagh. No offence. miaN khush raho ham dua kar chalay. Farsighted bastard. Somepeople know it all. Should have stayed with him. Might have been PM now. Other way blocked. Father said only duffers went into forces. Mother agreed: only one in entire family.

Handed over to very short Maulvi saab. Nine or thereabouts. Went through the text twice. Didn’t understand anything. Quarreled every day. Molly saab said duad mother said zuad. Molly saab fed up with food. Me fed up with duad-zuad. Third time got bored. Gave up halfway. Never went back. End of religious career. Could have eliminated some heathens. Earned hasanas. Hosannas? Gone to jannah early. No bukbuk of longmarch to Islamabad. Tantrums of Imran Khan. Missing Aunt Jemima. Pancake.

Handed over to Mohd Shafi painter. Ten or thereabouts. Lived in servant quarters. Carrying on with Bibbo next door. Accompany to Friday prayers. Garhi Shahu mosque. First time. New shoes stolen. Never went back. End of second chance. Unsolved mystery. Bakistan ka matlab kya. Whatever. Jo bhii. More heathens saved. Mohd Shafi made wooden box with name painted on top. For secret stuff. Now lost.

Handed over to Ijaz sahib. Real artist. Eleven or thereabouts. Bad at art. Failing at school. Art teacher Choosy mad yelling caning. Six of the best. Takhti wala skool me jaenga darakht ke neechey baithenga. Ijaz sahib trying all. Nothing works. Lines all crooked. Everyone resigned. End of art career. Picasso made crooked lines. Crooked lines not bad. Crooked good. More crooked the better. Things one learns too late. Life.

Handed over to Mehtab. Caddy. Twelve or thereabouts. Picked up fast. Excellent on fairway. Excellent on green. Daily practice. Hitting long. Lost father’s favorite red ball. Big fight. End of golf. End of golfing career. Forest for trees. Wood. Wooden headed. Live and learn. Don’t fight over little things. Little things seem big when little. Big folks mostly little. Live and learn.

Not handed over anymore. Given up. Teens or thereabouts. Did alright. Passed school passed college. Read Wilde stayed sober. Read Russell Why I am not a Christian etc. I doubt therefore I am. Mother read GhalibMirSauda. More doubt. No more same I. Faiz. PostmenoN ke naam. Girlfriend gifted origins of family and private property. World turned upside down. Pak sar zameen. Things not what they seem. Hain kawakib kuch nazar aatey haiN kuch. Bogey shunted to branch line. 786 Down.

End of college. Big fight. Want to study literature. Write poetry. Mother’s dream CSP. Commissioner. King of the district. Orderlies etc. Father MA English from GC. Handed over to father’s best GC buddy. CSP. Secretary of somethingortheother. Writer as well. Big pow-wow. Verdict. Only duffers study arts. Hath meiN hunar hona zuroori hai. Bad times. Bhutto idiot. Screwing up civil service. Lateral entry. Duffers.

Entered engineering university on high merit. Everyone proud. Many DN duffers. Headpiece full of straw. Real rulers. futtey. phitte munh phitte munh phiite munh e un e un e un. ATTESHA! Present arms. Gather alms. ghutliyoN ke daam. Baang. Whimper. Thusss. Hell on earth. Voted best English writer. Pansy. Wrote blasphemous poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote obscene poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote angry poem for magazine. Turned down. End of writing career. Obscenity ok. Manto. Ismat. Lihaaf. Before Zia. No more. Obscenity everywhere. Not much smut. Vanilla obscenity.

Frustrated. Selfhanded over to female. Twentyone or thereabouts. Life’s lesson. Never be frustrated. Too late. As ever. End of career. Dead end. End dead.

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Brown as the Mouths of Rivers

May 9, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

Excerpts from an essay published in a special issue (A Country of Our Own – A Symposium on Re-Imagining South Asia) of Seminar, India, April 2012.

*

A nation cannot grow in entirely barren ground, however, and so in Pakistan we have attempted to replace “South Asia” with “Islam”: to substitute for culture, religion, in theory a straight one-to-one transfer. There is no space for chaos here, either, though; the Islam we choose to imagine is monolithic, straight-from-the-sands, brooking-no-argument; it ignores the vast diversity even among our Islams, let alone all our religions and cultures, and says that in the interests of simplicity, order, there will only be one, there has always been only one right way to go about this business.

Once again, it was the Met that put things in context. (more…)

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…)

Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi

June 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I am an Urdu speaker from Pakistan who wrote an account (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond) of an immensely rewarding experience of learning the Devanagari script very quickly. As a result, I have been asked to guide those wishing to cross the divide from the other side. Nothing could be more gratifying and I have decided to devote a separate post to the effort in order to have enough room to indulge myself.

For those who know Hindi, the news is all good. You already know Urdu so there is really nothing to learn. Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar and therefore are the same language from a linguistic perspective. (more…)

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

March 6, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut.

I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? (more…)

Reflections: A Visit to Karachi

February 9, 2011

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

“So how was your trip to Karachi? How was the conference?” my friends back home in India asked, when I returned to Bangalore after a week in Pakistan.

Good? Bad? In trying to choose a short answer I find myself stumped.

The second question is easier to answer – the three day conference was a fruitful, enriching, and enjoyable experience, as we interacted with artistes, activists from the arts, writers and academics from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Germany, UK and USA discussing the interfaces between politics, performing arts and gender. (more…)

Love’s Labor Lost?

February 7, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work.

The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as it seems. (more…)