Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Khwaja Khurshid Anwar and music in Pakistan

Readers may notice a new picture of me on this blog, as well as a slightly modified layout, and therein lies the "hook" of this blog. Here is the story:

Earlier this year I was visited by Rabiah Khajah, granddaughter of the late Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, one of the towering figures in Pakistan's musical history (photo at right). She came to my VOA office with her husband, Salman Gauhar, and we shared many reminiscences of her grandfather. As it turned out, Salman took the picture you now see on my profile. But in any case, that attribution gives me the occasion to share some of my own memories of my first meetings with Khwaja Sahib ("sahib" being the honorific title in Urdu equivalent to the English "Mr.," only somewhat more respectful.)

In 1976, when I was teaching Urdu at Harvard, I spent the summer in Lahore (the cultural center of Pakistan), as Language Teaching Coordinator for the Berkeley Urdu Program in Pakistan. In connection with my work there, I met for the first time the late Saeed Malik, one of Pakistan's leading authorities on the traditional classical music of that country, with numerous newspaper articles and at least three books on the subject to his credit.

When Saeed learned of my longstanding interest in that music (it had in fact been music that led me to Urdu, but that is another story), he said that it was essential that I meet Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, who, as he explained, had been a major figure in composing some of Pakistan's most popular film music. Khwaja Sahib, he said, was now devoting most of his energies to documenting, preserving, and championing the traditional classical music that had been performed in Pakistan since the birth of the country in 1947, in what is usually referred to as Independence, or Partition, when India also became a separate independent state.

In our first meeting, Khwaja Sahib explained the center of his dilemma: the classical music of Pakistan--previously called Hindustani music ("Hindustan" being the historic Urdu name for the Indian subcontinent)--could not now 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. As a solution, 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.

At the end of our first meeting, Khwaja Sahib invited me to come again the following Sunday morning. I arrived as planned, only to find an array of television cameras and tangles of cords and cables in his living room, and it soon became clear that a national television program was scheduled, with Khwaja Sahib addressing all of Pakistan. I tried to excuse myself, seeing that he was busy, but he insisted not only that I remain, but that that he wanted to be speaking directly, in person, to me--a westerner who had studied and practiced the music of the area--to emphasize that this music was of international interest.

Portions of the resulting program are available on YouTube in installments as the "Khurshid Anwar Raag Mala Interview," with Khwaja Sahib speaking to his countrymen about the historic contributions of Muslims to their classical music tradition, and this writer, back to the camera (and complete with prematurely balding head) appearing periodically in some of the footage. The photo at left was taken at that session. . . .

In our earlier conversation, Khwaja Sahib had explained that his task of championing Ahang-e-Khusravi 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 fact, as he emphasized in his television address to the nation, most of the leading gharanas (historical traditions, usually associated with a specific princely state in what was then British India), were established and propagated by generations of Muslim musicians, and that it was the cultural responsibility of Pakistanis to honor and continue the efforts of their Muslim predecessors.

In addition to this nationwide broadcast, Khwaja Sahib had already begun earlier to work for the continued patronage and recognition of this music. He had alaready established the Classical Music Research Cell in Lahore 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 Hindustani 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 in the traditional fashion--now rarely heard--on the sarangi (a box fiddle whose sound is the closest instrumental approximation I have heard to the human voice) 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, maestros) in existence.

After returning to Lahore in the 1997 and 1998, and impressed as I was with the quality of both these extraordinary series, I made two concentrated efforts, with the blessings of the late Salim Bukhari (the head of EMI Pakistan) to offer both series to EMI India--then the leading producer of long-playing records in that country. I tried to make the case that Khwaja Sahib had done in recordings what the late Indian musicologist V. N. Bhatkhande (1860-1936) had done in written notation: the classification of the major ragas into ten modal categories, a system which Khwaja Sahib himself followed in his recorded documentation.

Unfortunately, neither of these attempts succeeded. But as noted in my posting earlier this month on how the Internet has facilitated the widespread availability of an enormous range of music from around the world, I am very happy to note that the entire Ragamala Series is available on the Website, complete with the elegant commentary spoken by Khwaja Sahib himself, as a preface to each raga, in his incomparably rich and smoky voice.

Additional material on Khwaja Sahib is available on subsections of, created by one Dr. Surjit Singh, who describes himself as a "diehard movie fan(atic), period," and who sounds quite colorful; his home page (like all his pages, perennially "under construction") is prefaced with "This page should really be called Surjit Singh's Ego corner. I just blab on and brag about things I have accomplished. Enter at your own risk." But there is, in fact, much there of interest:

many audio and video clips of Khwaja Sahib's beloved film songs,
a documentary film from 1984,
and a miscellany of articles and tributes.

Finally, to return to the beginning of this entry, Khwaja Sahib's daughter, Rabiah, has established a Facebook group in his honor.

Thank you, Salman, for my new picture, and you, Rabiah, for the two photos of Khwaja Sahib. And a particular thanks to Khwaja Sahib himself, for all his rich contributions to our world of music.

No comments: