Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reposting: Classical Music in Pakistan

Regarding music in Pakistan, I find myself very happily in that country once again on a musical mission, sponsored by the U. S. Department of State as part of their cultural outreach efforts: meeting other musicians, scholars, educators, students, and many old and wonderful friends. Having arrived early yesterday morning after three weeks of furious planning and a long sequence of international travel, and having moved immediately after arrival into a series meetings and interviews, this moment is literally (again, with the help of my usual insomnia, enriched by jet-lag--it's 3:03 am here in Pakistan . . . ) the first time I have had a chance to return to this blog. Since I should still try to get a little sleep before an equally busy day begins, I would like to repost my earlier musing on "Classical Music in Pakistan" as my first offering from this amazing country I have visited so many times, and where my wife Shubha and I have so many friends and well-wishers:

(Originally posted 11 October 2008):

"Earlier this year, an e-mail from Pakistan brought the sad news of the death at the early age of 59 of Adam Nayyar, described in an announcement from UCLA Professor Emerita Hiromi Lorraine Sakata as "Pakistan's foremost cultural anthropologiest, ethnomusicologist, and cultural interlocutor."

"While I only met Adam once, I'm using this occasion to begin the first of a series of entries on the classical music of Pakistan, spurred by the e-mail, mentioned above, from a musical colleague I had not met, Riaz Ahmed Barni, who is associated with an interesting Website,, which is devoted to traditional South Asian classical music as performed in Pakistan.

"My first full awareness of the state of traditional music in Pakistan was given to me by the late Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (1912-84), a major figure in Pakistani film music who also dedicated a good part of his later life to championing the cause of classical music in Pakistan. Facing the dilemma of what to call this music, he originated the unique yet comprehensive phrase "Ahang-e-Khusravi", or the "the music of Khusrau", referring to the thirteenth-century polymath Amir Khusrau, who is mythically credited with the origination of the sitar, the tabla, qavvali music, and Urdu poetry, among other important cultural expressions.

"As Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (hereafter used with the honorific "Sahib") explained to me when we first met in 1976, the music could not be called "Indian music" for obvious political reasons, nor could it be properly named "Pakistani music", because Pakistan had been in existence only since 1947--whereas the origins of the music, as currently practiced, date back to medieval times. His dilemma was complicated by the fact that most Pakistanis, simply associating the music with historical connections with Hinduism, were unaware of the enormous contributions that Muslim musicians had made to the development of this music over the centuries.

"In order to work for the continued patronage and recogniction of this music, Khwaja Sahib established the Classical Music Research Cell in collaboration with the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84), arguably the greatest post-Independence Urdu poet. Together they established a library and archive which still exists in the offices of Radio Pakistan. But perhaps most significantly, they released through the recording company, EMI Pakistan, two important series of long-playing discs. The first, "Ragamala" ["garland of ragas"], presented the melodic structure of a hundred ragas along with brief performances in khayal style (the dominant form of South Asian classical vocal music) by Pakistan's leading vocalists. The second, "Gharanon ki Gayaki ["the vocal music of the historical traditions"], presented 80 of these ragas in more extended (10 minute) renditions by the same major vocalists.

"Both series--featuring the incomparable melodic accompaniment on the sarangi and rhythmic accompaniment on the tabla by Pakistan's leading masters of these instruments--were subsequently released on cassette, but are now unfortunately out of print. Yet these recordings present the best and most comprehensive anthology of khayal performances by Pakistani Ustads (masters) in existence.

?YouTube includes a number of videos (see the various installments of "Khurshid Anwar Raag Mala Interview") of Khwaja Sahib speaking to his countrymen about Ahang-e-Khusravi, with the back of this writer's prematurely balding head appearing as his one-person audience in some of the footage.

"Khwaja Sahib was not alone in working for the survival of this tradition in Pakistan. The late Hayat Ahmad Khan (1921-2005), who founded the All Pakistan Music conference (in which my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I had the honor to perform a number of times), devoted his life to the cause. Raza Kazim, a prominent Pakistani attorney, founded the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts in Lahore, which includes a music division devoted both to the documentation of musical performances and an exploration of the philosophical and aesthetic motives of music.

"But to return to Adam Nayyar. At the time of his death, as noted in obituaries in Dawn and The News, he was Executive Director of the Pakistan National Council on the Arts, and he had previously Director of Lok Virsa, The National Institute for Folk and Traditional Heritage. In his passing, Pakistan has lost a great scholar, and an important cultural emissary."

* * * * * * *

So this is a beginning, albeit initially on a sad note.. As Internet access (and breaks from a very busy schedule allow), I'll be sending further postings from this musical odyssey, from which I hope to find many new friends from Pakistan. Again, I urge you to send your comments and feedback.

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