Wandering minstrel: Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who post-Partition remained undecided about whether to settle in India or Pakistan
Photo credit: Radio Pakistan
Hindustani sangeet is an ancient art form that is performed and appreciated today across the modern political and socio-cultural borders of the region – representing a true Southasian cultural exchange. It might not necessarily be known as the ‘music of the people’, having traditionally been patronised largely by the elite, but its basic grammar – the swaras (notes), ragas (modes), talas (time cycles), instruments and compositions – is used in multiple styles throughout the region. Hindustani sangeet cannot be identified with any specific cultural or religious identity, nor a particular era. Rather, it has evolved over many centuries, having undergone considerable transformation in the 12th and 13th centuries due to influence from Central Asia, and then again in the 20th century with the introduction of modern media such as gramophone recordings, radio and cinema.
But more than anything else, what has shaped the way we perform and appreciate Hindustani sangeet today is Partition. It is popularly assumed that the cultural impact of Partition was mostly felt in Pakistan and Bangladesh, since they were suddenly ‘deprived’ of the ‘central source’ of culture and the arts, namely India. But this assumption ignores the reality of the struggle that the arts fraternities in all three countries have gone through in the last six decades. Unfortunately, there has been little research on the impact of Partition on the culture and arts of the region, partly due to the emphasis on the traumas and violence suffered by those who were forced to migrate during Partition, and partly due to the difficulties faced by scholars and researchers in travelling across borders to study the impact. Only very recently, with some openness about scholarly and cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan, is some attention being paid to studies on the cultural impact of Partition.
In 2005, this writer, who is from India, spent over five months in Pakistan to study the musical-poetic heritage of Delhi’s 13th-century poet Amir Khusrau, following on many years of research in India on this topic for a documentary film. As an Indian, even as a Muslim, I found that I had certain biases about Pakistan, and was in for many surprises. As my research proceeded, instead of constantly lamenting the futility of Partition, I began to change my attitude and nationalist biases. I quickly came to realise that, rather than interpreting Pakistani culture and music as an ‘extension’ of Indian culture, I would have to consider the cultural developments in Pakistan’s last 60 years in their own context. Keeping this in mind, I began to interview musicians, scholars and students of music in various towns of Pakistan. In particular, I kept coming back to the larger question: How had the classical music tradition itself been transformed in Pakistan post-1947?
We know that Lahore (and the rest of undivided Punjab) has long been a centre of aristocratic patronage for classical and folk music. For instance, in 1901, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a patron of classical music from Maharashtra, found Lahore to be the ideal place to start India’s first music university, the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, which trained many well-known musicians. Appreciation of classical music in Lahore has also not been restricted to the elite – ordinary Lahoris have a fairly good sense of sur and tal, and are apt to hoot an artist off the stage if they find the music even slightly faulty.
The old town of Lahore had several public spaces, called baithaks, and Sufi shrines where people gather to listen to classical music in the evenings. Lahore musician Ustad Badruzzaman recalls how an informal club called Zinda-dilan-e Lahaur (Live-hearted Lahoris), comprised of vegetable-, meat- and cloth-merchants, hosted weekly soirees of classical greats such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Before 1947, the famed Takia Meerasian, at the Mochi Gate of Lahore’s walled city, hosted great maestros, including Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Abdul Aziz Khan, Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas, Mian Qadir Bakhsh Pakhavaji and many others.
But Partition affected this cultural scene in various ways, with several musicians and music connoisseurs among the millions of people who migrated on either side. Hindu musicians who migrated from Pakistan to India included Pandit Janardhan, Surinder Kaur, Amar Nath, Shyam Sunder, as well as some patrons of music such as Sardar Harcharan Singh, who had supported many dhrupad artists. Similarly, others went from India to Pakistan, like Sardar Khan Dilliwaley, Ashiq Ali Khan, Akhtar Hussain Khan, Bundoo Khan, Iqbal Bano, Raushanara Begum and the duo Salamat-Nazakat Ali. Overall, one of the ironic effects of Partition was that many Muslim musicians migrated to Pakistan, but many of the important connoisseurs and patrons – overwhelmingly Hindu – shifted to India. This absence of traditional patronage made it difficult for the musicians who had newly migrated to Lahore to find their bearings. Some musicians, such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was from Kasur near Lahore, were undecided as to which country to make their home. Eventually, in 1957, he obtained Indian citizenship, after becoming disillusioned by the discouraging attitude of the new Pakistani government towards music.
While surveying the gharanas from which the musicians migrated to Pakistan, one should also examine who exactly were the patrons of music in India just before 1947. Though Delhi had a vibrant gharana, music school, during the Mughal era, several political upheavals and phases of destruction over the previous two centuries (such as the attacks of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Abdali, and the uprising of 1857) largely stripped it of its cultural shine. The families of almost all artists, musicians and poets had thus shifted to smaller, aristocratic cities, such as Lucknow, Gwalior, Rampur, Patiala and even Hyderabad (Deccan). Thus, a large number of talented ‘Delhi’ musicians migrating to Pakistan in 1947 came from these cities.
Islamisation of music
|Artwork: Venantius J Pinto|
The initial period after Partition proved to be unfavourable for classical music as well as the musicians in Pakistan. The ruling elite was wrestling with the question of how to define the new country’s official cultural identity. Since the basis for Pakistan’s creation was the ‘two nation’ theory, which imagined Hindus and Muslims to be two separate communities unable to co-exist in one space, the cultural roots of several ancient traditions in music and art were doubted in Pakistan. Thus, after Partition, the only institution that musicians could turn to for sustenance was the state-owned radio broadcaster, Radio Pakistan. To its credit, however, its Lahore station did nurture some of the region’s best musical talent, including the singers Mohammad Rafi and Noor Jahan, and many music directors who would go on to great fame.
Part of the process of examining the origins of several traditions in music and the arts entailed government officials attempting to distinguish what types of music should be officially allowed in Pakistan. This deliberate demarcation took its toll on a range of musical forms considered to be of Hindu origin – dhrupad, dhamar, thumri – while others, such as khayal, tarana, qawwali and ghazal, were suddenly favoured. In their efforts to ‘Islamise’, some musicians decided to stop singing songs and ragas that referred to Hindu deities, and others decided to rename them for acceptability. The raga Shiv Kalyan, for instance, became Shab Kalyan. In a 2003 textbook for music students, Akhtar Shirazi writes new khayal and dhrupad compositions in polished Urdu, using Muslim devotional themes to replace the Hindu ones.
However, this Islamisation did not carry on for very long, especially among the arts and intellectual fraternity. Ustad Badruzzaman recalls that he too once, as per the dogma of the times, requested a renowned Urdu poet to compose new songs for classical bandishes (song lyrics) in ‘pure’ Urdu, meaning that they should be devoid of Hindu connotations. The poet rebuked him for his attitude, saying that the traditional compositions in Braj Bhasha, Hindi and Sanskrit were rich in history, and should not be allowed to disappear. Indeed, the social boycott was not able to completely cancel-out interest in learning traditional compositions, and such is the case today as well. During my research, music students in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad expressed curiosity about India, Hinduism and traditional Hindu cultural practices, as well as music. Most poignantly, they asked me the meaning of several difficult words in Braj and Hindi, which they came across in their study but about which they had no one to enlighten them.
While knowledge and history of classical Hindustani music could be transmitted and preserved orally, the instruments needed constant maintenance, relying on materials and craftsmanship from multiple areas. Closure of the political border forced the near-disappearance of many instruments, such as the veena, pakhwaj, sarod and sarangi from Pakistan. Many instrumentalists were forced to shift to orchestras or brass bands. Even today, most of the instruments in regular use in Pakistan, including harmoniums, are imported from India, although some tablas are made locally in a town called Dhonka near Lahore.
Until about 1970, most musicians somehow managed to survive, although they did not attract many pupils. But post-1971, there was a further decline in the public interest in classical music, perhaps due to a rise in anti-India sentiments following the secession of Bangladesh. Fearing a bleak future, many musicians decided not to teach classical music to their children, or to turn them towards ghazal or pop music. Classical musicians, such as those migrating from the Indian Punjab who settled in Multan and Sindh, learned local folk genres such Sindhi Kafi, and tried to blend the two styles. Although some government institutions, such as the Music Research Cell of Lahore Radio, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, and Lok Virsa in Islamabad, were established to promote music, there was little change in the deteriorating condition of artistes. Even record companies and the film industry failed to help the classical musicians. Some musicians, such as vocalists Salamat-Nazakat Ali, were able to survive only by going on occasional concert tours in the West.
The late 1970s saw additional setbacks, as Zia ul-Haq’s military regime further curbed the performance of music and other art forms, to the extent that most liberal and cultural activities were forced to either go underground or completely shut down. Since ghazals, devotional songs and qawwalis were still allowed to thrive, many musicians started using classical techniques of khayal and thumri, such as alaps, sargam, taans and murkis in ghazal singing, making it more evocative of the emotions. Thus evolved a new style of ghazal-singing peculiar to Pakistan, its foremost exponents being Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Barkat Ali Khan.
New sounds: Raza Kazim’s invention, the Sagar Veena
Photo credit: Yousuf Saeed
Many other musicians were trying to cater to the new tastes of audiences that had not had much exposure to the sounds of classical music. Folk musicians such as Tufail Niazi tried using notes from multiple ragas in a single composition; in Niazi’s case, this enriched his renderings and led to a popularisation of ragas, although his approach was frowned upon by the purists. Nonetheless, his style was later adopted by ghazal singers such as Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali. Mehdi Hasan in particular went on to become one of Pakistan’s most popular ghazal singers, composing all of his ghazals in classical ragas and explaining to his audiences the subtleties of each raga.
In addition to the ghazal, qawwali was allowed to flourish in Pakistan due to its supposed association with Islamic culture. Much of Pakistan, especially Punjab and Sindh, is dotted with Sufi shrines that carry on a vibrant culture of devotional music and syncretic ritual. While many local genres of devotional music are performed at these shrines, qawwali (in Urdu as well as local dialects) is by far the most popular. The post-1947 promotion of qawwali and its pick-up by newly migrated exponents in Pakistan led to the nurturing of world-class artists such as Munshi Raziuddin, Moin Niazi, Bahauddin-Qutbuddin, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri brothers. Thus, a musical form that had thus far been restricted to Sufi shrines or private soirees was not only brought onto the national stage, but eventually came to represent Pakistani culture outside the country.
Despite the general decline of classical music, there have also been several more positive stories. When advocate Raza Kazim migrated to Pakistan from Lucknow in 1947, among his prized possessions was a bunch of books and gramophone records of classical music featuring prominent artistes of the 1930s and 1940s. He went on not only to create an amazing collection of archival recordings, but also to begin extensive research into musicology and instrument-making. Through his several decades of intensive work, over a period of 35 years he evolved a new string instrument called the Sagar Veena. This instrument uses nine wires, including some made of silver, iron and brass.
Since the late 1990s there has been something of a revival of interest in different genres of traditional music in Pakistan beyond the qawwali. New institutions, many of them private, have begun to promote various traditional forms; two of the more prominent public undertakings include the musicology department at the National College of Arts, in Lahore, and the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi. Recently, these two institutions have begun a search for new talent to train. Perhaps even more exciting has been the new experimentations by young gharana musicians or classically trained vocalists such as Shafqat Amanat Ali, who have begun to fuse traditional and popular forms. While purists might be critical of such trends, the new approaches have indisputably done much to popularise the nuances of classical music among non-elite audiences in Pakistan – allowing these traditional forms to live on for at least another generation.
Yousuf Saeed is an independent filmmaker and researcher from New Delhi.
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