The Music Rooms of Lahore
Lahore, 1996-2010My musical initiation
My real initiation in the traditional music culture of the Indian subcontinent began on 11th November 1996 in front of a hotel room in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural metropolis. Of course, already as a young man I had been taping Indian, Afghan and Iranian music, which was broadcast regularly by Jan Reichow on the Westdeutscher Rundfunk,on an old tape recorder, and I almost never missed a live concert of these foreign worlds of sound in the area of Bonn and Cologne where I lived. But something was still missing: the true, deep experience of being completely seized by the music and the experience of that slipstream which can be triggered by the classical raga music with its treasure of overtones. At that time I was more fascinated by the exotic colourfulness and wealth of this Eastern music. However, the carefully composed and orchestrated Western classical music with its theory of harmony dating back to ancient Greece failed to move me.
Later, ethnographic field research took me regularly to the high mountain regions of the Karakoram and the western Himalayas. Authentic musical experiences there remained as sporadic as in the following years in which I spent more and more time in the lowlands of Pakistan. In the early Nineties in Munich I met Al Gromer Khan, a pupil of the Indian sitar master Vilayat Khan, to whom I owe a much better understanding of the music of the subcontinent. Al became a good friend whom I often visited in his studio where he composed his wonderfully subtle meditative music. I began to listen much more intensively and learned to appreciate the ragas he played in concerts. Taking my background to date in blues, rock, jazz and what is known as Indo jazz (with Collin Walcott, Paul Horn and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti as a point of departure), I now discovered paths to another, extremely versatile musical culture in which the music is absorbed not only by the ears but at live concerts by the eyes as well.
In India and Pakistan, the classical music of the ragas is experienced by the whole body! Such a holistic hearing is the very opposite of the rather stiff atmosphere of Western concert halls. In the latter, the musicians seated on the stage are spotlighted, separated from the listeners who are wedged into rows of seats. While Indian and Pakistani music lovers sit on carpets on the floor in a traditional environment and express their emotion by gestures and acclamations, Western listeners sit in silence and rapt attention, often with their eyes closed, and only applaud at the end of a concert. Listening habits and behaviour could hardly be more different! Thus it was only in 1996 that I had by chance a musical experience which ultimately became a turning point in my understanding of art as a whole. These were sounds which would change the course of my life. After all, musical experiences are always steps toward self-realisation.
The Anarkali Bazaar
At that time, I was on a field trip to India and stopped in Lahore in Pakistan where I spent the night in a small hotel in Anarkali. Anarkali, which means ‘pomegranate blossom’, is the most famous bazaar in Lahore, not far from the fortified old city – named after Anarkali, a lady of the harem who was buried alive by the Mughal emperor Akbar because she had responded to a smile from his son. The son had loved Anarkali passionately and after her death had an exquisitely decorated tomb erected for her. That evening I strolled past the shops of the quarter which in the Twenties and Thirties of the previous century was reputed to be the largest and most beautiful bazaar in all of North India. At that time, almost all shopkeepers were Hindus, with only a handful of Muslims.
At the entrance to the old Delhi Muslim Hotel, I was drawn by the rasping sound of a tabla in the garden of the inner courtyard. The drummer tapped out a few rhythms and then adjusted the head of his tabla, the main instrument on his right side, by striking the wooden pegs beneath the leather straps with a small hammer. The narrow straps are attached to the woven leather cord surrounding the drumhead. He tuned the smaller drum on his left side by adjusting some copper rings. When I asked whether there would be a mehfil, a concert, he confirmed this, nodding toward the door of the next bungalow hotel room where the famous Maharaj Kathak was staying.
I had already heard of and read about this extraordinary man who was, after all, considered the most important living master of North Indian kathak dance. Already after his first appearance in 1936 in Benares he received standing ovations. Two years later he was awarded the honorary title of Maharaj Kathak – ‘Great Prince of Kathak’. The dignified elderly man with sparse, long, white hair, gentle features and lively facial expressions received me at dinner with his friends, immediately had a plate of vegetarian delights brought to me, and invited me to be his guest. First food for the body, then food for the soul!
At the age of twenty, Maharaj Ghulam Husain Kathak, who was born in Calcutta in 1905, felt drawn to this sophisticated form of the dance which was performed at the courts of Muslim princes in North India. Kathak is a kind of story-telling with dance movements, mimicry and singing which goes back to early Hindu traditions. This dance displays vertical posture, pirouettes and agile footwork which accompany singing in the thumri ‘enraptured step’ style. Against the will of his conservative father (a cleric), the young dancer devoted himself entirely to this passion and perfected his skills with a famous teacher from the legendary kathak school in Lucknow in which a particularly graceful and elegant style was taught. In addition, he studied painting as well as ghazal and thumri singing. After the partition of India in 1947, Babaji, as Maharaj Kathak is respectfully called by lovers of his art of the dance, went to Lahore. Some ten years later, he told me, he ended his active career as a dancer due to his advanced age in order to continue as a teacher. With some degree of pride, he pointed out that such prominent dancers as Nahid Siddiqi and Fasih ur-Rehman were among his pupils. Dancers from Hira Mandi, the ‘diamond market’ and red light district in the old city of Lahore, came to him for training as well.
In the course of the evening, more preparations were made for the mehfil on the terrace in front of the hotel room in which Babaji had been living for over fifteen years. Servants spread out carpets and decorated the side wall with cloths interwoven with threads of gold and silver on which invocations to God and the Prophet were embroidered. They placed pots with fragrant white jasmine on the terrace, sprinkled the ground with rose water, installed microphones and loudspeakers and arranged cushions for the guests. Within virtually no time, a separate, semi-private space for the performance was created.
When Maharaj Kathak finally emerged from his room and took his place in the first row of those waiting in a semi-circle around the musicians, one of his friends quickly placed a silver bowl with paan (betel) and a large brass spittoon before him. Now the performance with the singer Hamid Ali Khan was ready to begin! This versatile artist, schooled in all classical styles, who belongs to a famous school of musicians, restricted himself – in accordance with the host’s wishes – entirely to ghazals and accompanied himself on the harmonium. I still recall certain songs he sang, with homoerotic content, whose Urdu verses are so clear and pronounced, full of devotion and longing and with a remarkably warm timbre. They include tark-e muhabbat kar baithe ham – ‘How Could I Give Up Love?’ And most of all sirf ahsas ki aankhon se nasar aunga – ‘Visible Only Through the Eyes of Feelings’.
However, it was not only because of certain ghazals that this night became an outstanding event for me, but particularly because of the special atmosphere and the authentic context in which music lovers felt fully included. They demonstrated their admiration for the poet and musical expression – and also their own delight – through hand gestures and calls of praise like wah, wah – Bravo! Fantastic!, subhanallah – Honour to God!, kya kehna – What can one say?, or kya baat hai – Such poetic words! Ghazal lovers rapidly exchanged one-hundred-rupee notes for bundles of two-rupee notes, tossed the notes into the air, and showered them on Maharaj Kathak and the vocalist in a traditional gesture called vel which I experienced here for the first time. Those present were linked by the feeling of a common bond and closeness – anthropologists call this communitas. I too was included in the lyrical musical event and, moved by the subtleness of the ghazal songs, felt as if I were part of it, exchanging looks with the listeners seated next to me. In this way we shared our impressions. Paan, water and later tea were continually passed around to the guests. Again and again touching gestures of respect for the ninety-year old Maharaj Kathak, which I can never forget: banknotes which his admirers circled over his head to consecrate them, persons arriving who touched his feet respectfully, friends who scattered fragrant rose petals over us. When a servant finally distributed paan wrapped in silver foil among the members of the audience, the master called me to him, shoved a plug with sweet betel in my mouth and said jokingly that his group of friends was really a paandaan-khaandaan – a family which gets together over the betel box. He asked whether I knew the story of a prince from Lahore who chewed paan every evening in his palace and from his balcony expectorated onto the street below. One unfortunate day he confused this procedure, expectorated in his room and jumped from the balcony – from which we see that chewing paan is a bad habit!
Only some time later did I notice that off to the side a policeman with a loaded gun was standing guard while another was positioned on the roof of a house nearby. Apparently even private or semi-private concerts of this kind could become a target of religious extremists. With some concern, I observed an elderly man with a long beard and white prayer cap – to all appearances an orthodox Muslim – who had initially remained at the edge of our semi-circle and looked on without showing the slightest feeling. However, with time, his stern facial expression seemed to soften. Finally I noticed how he gave the two musicians some banknotes and then sat down with the rest of us in the semi-circle.
Babaji died two years after this concert and with him died part of the traditional music culture of Lahore. The next time I looked into the courtyard of the Delhi Muslim Hotel, little remained of the garden, which had been restored, and the room of the old dance with the terrace where the mehfil had been held was practically unrecognisable.
Enemies of music
Orthodox Muslims – whether Sunni or Shia – distrust music. The more fundamental their interpretation of Islam, the more they reject music. However, such opposition to music according to normative Islam is not based on the Koran but on supposed traditions of the Prophet in which the ‘forbidden pleasures’ of music are mentioned. Nevertheless, this attitude contradicts traditions according to which Mohammed not only listened to music but even endorsed it. Despite this, Sunnis point to the ultra-orthodox theologian and student of jurisprudence Ibn Taimiyya who, in Mamluk Egypt at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries, sharply criticised forms of expression of popular culture with their intoxicating celebrations, erotic poetry and ecstatic musical rhythms, declaring them to be illegal and even perverse innovations. Listening to mystical music attracted demons, he asserted. The anti-Sufi Ibn Taimiyya thus sharply distinguished normative Islam in order to marginalise popular, living Islam as heathen.
Did the pious Muslim with the prayer cap whom I had observed during the concert in the Delhi Muslim Hotel share the narrow-minded view of this theologian? I should have asked him! Today the puritanical Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Salafi Islamists from North Africa to South Asia and Indonesia are the heirs of this ideology, which is supported by many orthodox Muslims – and even conservative Sufis.
In Pakistan, clerics of the Deobandi school, their Taliban pupils and the radical religious party of Jamaat-e Islami have put their harsh stamp on society. With their Calvinistic tyranny of virtue, they oppose the mystically-influenced daily practice of Islam and thus also the religious space in which women can freely develop and express themselves. The intolerant Taliban who grow up and are drilled in a world virtually without women and seem to have entirely lost feminine dimensions of gentleness and beauty attempt to intimidate the followers of Sufi Islam, in particular musicians and dancers.
Shabana, the most famous dancer from the Swat Valley, was killed at the beginning of 2009 after she danced in her own house; her murderers covered her body, riddled with bullets, with banknotes and CDs of her dance performances and exhibited it on the main square of the town of Mingora as a deterrent to ‘immoral shows’. In so doing, the militant Sunni Taliban poison and destroy their own Pashtun culture in Pakistan and Afghanistan which, along with a cult of masculinity, also cultivates a romantic spirit and appreciation of beauty.
Crusade against music
However, Shia theologians in Iran are equally hostile to music, if not more so. The only expression of emotion which they allow is crying for the martyrs! All these hardliners and puritans are convinced that music distracts from faith in God, especially melodies and rhythms which entice people to drink wine and enjoy erotic pleasures. This music is sent by the Devil, they believe, and results in the loss of control over body and soul. On the day of judgement, everyone who has listened to forbidden music will have hot liquid lead poured into their ears.
In their religious crusades since 2002, the Taliban have burned down cinemas and shops in which music cassettes and Bollywood films are sold, forbidden music and dance at weddings, attacked musicians or even killed them. To avoid their anathema, many vocalists from the Pakistani Northwest Frontier Province have been forced to migrate to Punjab. But even in Lahore, the religious extremists have produced a reign of terror in recent years, with their bombs targeting concerts and other cultural events.
Since 2008, posters have been hung in some mosques in England with the heading ‘Listening to Music is Haraam and Sin’, listing all the bad things caused by the ‘anti-social behaviour’ of listening to music. If an act is deemed haraam according to the Islamic legal system, in other words forbidden and sinful, the perpetrator must be punished. And the deluded bigots who believe they are in possession of the religious truth act accordingly, taking it upon themselves to mete out punishment. In the Middle East in their dogmatic strictness they have even banned the keeping of songbirds, obsessed by the fear that the sweet singing of an innocent bird could distract people from prayer and give them a little pleasure in their daily lives. What uncompromising ‘consistency’! Spontaneously I recalled what an Iranian friend once told me: the master of Iranian classical music, Nur Ali Borumand, once began one of his concerts in the U.S. with a taped recording of a nightingale singing. What better example of how music naturally arises!
The schools of the masters
To start with, I would like to ask you, the reader (particularly if you are a Westerner), to open your mind and gradually approach the extremely foreign nature and intensity of these musical worlds with all their unfamiliar terminology. The concepts of Eastern musical traditions cannot be forced into the restrictive framework customary in the West. If the following discussion is too tiring for you, remember that the path to the oasis leads first through the desert. And one more word of warning: the spiritual music of South Asia in which religion and aesthetics are always present is anything but mainstream.
When I met Dr Ashfaq Khan for the first time in October 1998 at a private mehfil in Lahore, we discussed music after the concert, and he compared the different artistic forms of expression of Islam – poetry, calligraphy, miniature painting, ceramics, metalwork, carpets, fine weaving, wood and ivory carving and many others – with Muslim prayer beads. The voice and the sound, however, the first original expressions of God, were like the minaret-shaped last bead, the crown of the arts, he emphasised. For him, music was like an oasis or a castle into which he could withdraw, he added. After this brief talk, we saw each other every year in Lahore, became friends and travelled together to shrines of Sufi saints with their music and dances. However, classical music has its own environment, mainly in the city – in the music rooms of artists, connoisseurs and aficionados and naturally at public festivals, weddings, and sometimes at saints’ festivals.
‘To understand classical music here,’ explained Ashfaq in one of our nocturnal talks in his music room, ‘you need to know more about the institution of the takias and baithaks in Lahore. The masters used to teach in the baithaks. There were some for music, calligraphy, miniature painting and for learning Arabic.’
‘Doesn’t this word in Urdu just mean a place where someone sits?’ I asked. ‘I’ve heard the word used particularly for the audience rooms of living “Friends of God” and the descendants of deceased saints.’
‘Yes, that’s where the master of divine love and the spiritual leaders live. You recently visited the old calligrapher Ustad Salim, who still works in his father’s baithak.’
‘Baithak Katiban, exactly - the “room of the writer” as it is called, located in the Walled City just behind Lohari Gate on the left side on the first floor of a building. I really liked the old architecture with its high casements opened onto the lane, and the low writing desk where the calligrapher worked.’
‘When the Ustad dies, this will probably mean the end of his baithak, ‘Ashfaq said regretfully. ‘Sons usually don’t follow in the footsteps of their fathers any more, and take up other work instead. One baithak after the other is then torn down and replaced by an unsightly shopping mall. Our cultural inheritance has been dying out very fast since the middle of the twentieth century. Only a few masters of classical music attract groups of pupils as they used to in the old days. Refuges like this are becoming rare.’
‘But there are still a few baithaks in Hira Mandi’, I said. ‘Last year, sometime in February, I was strolling down the lane near the grave of the “Green Saint”, and suddenly I heard a ghazal singer! When I stopped to listen, a woman appeared on a balcony and gestured toward the next door.’ Ashfaq grinned. ‘Don’t think I was there looking for a hira – a “diamond” in the form of a girl,’ I hastened to correct him - because the old quarter around the “market of beauty” is the area where dancers, prostitutes and musicians live. It is known as Hira Mandi after the prince Hira Singh. ‘Behind a very narrow door some steep steps led up to a small room with space for only a few people. The vocalist was accompanied by a tabla and a harmonium player, and around the three a few men sat listening. I stayed for quite a while before visiting an acquaintance nearby.’
‘Wasim, these musicians who accompany the girls at evening dance performances were always there. In the old days, they were promoted by educated courtesans. But the great masters of raga played elsewhere, in the takias located outside the gates of the fortified Old City, or further away in gardens. Unfortunately, these places for music have all disappeared now.’
‘How did these takias look?’ I asked. ‘This word actually only means “cushions” or “bolsters”.’
‘They were places to relax and enjoy traditional conviviality; shady spots, surrounded by trees with a fountain, mats on the ground where cushions were spread. At night, oil lamps were lit. Sometimes there was also a room for the chilly season.’
‘In other words, a kind of outdoor music room?’
‘Yes, more or less. Men came together to talk, play chess, pachisi, ludo or cards, to recite poetry, listen to music, or perform athletic exercises and gymnastics. Travellers camped here for the night if the city gates were closed after dark, which meant they could only do business in the Walled City the following morning. There were many such takia caravanserais, especially near Bhatti Gate, some of which are named after saints. Usually they were maintained by a fakir who was supported by wealthy patrons from the area. But there was a very special takia in the colonial era which was well-known in all of North India – Takia Miraassian – where concerts of classical music were held almost daily. It was a kind of improvised open concert hall. Absolutely unique! After every concert, huge cauldrons with delicious food were brought.’
‘It was surely an honour for many musicians to perform there,’ I commented, while Ashfaq’s oldest daughter replenished my glass with more cardamom tea.
‘Of course! Less well-known musicians could make their mark there before an audience of experts, or disgrace themselves so much that people threw shoes at them. Anyone who made an outstanding appearance here was recognised as Khan Sahib. Great masters often performed, some of them from as far away as Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Kabul - vocalists like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, Umrao Bundu Khan Sahib, Roshan Ara Begum, Ustad Umid Ali Khan Sahib and Ustad Sarahang Sahib.’
‘Unfortunately, no one in the West knows these names; at best, ethno-musicologists can associate something with them,’ I interjected.
‘I’m afraid that’s true; but surely there are well-known jazz and classical singers and instrumentalists who most people know in Europe or Germany, aren’t there?’
‘Well, I can think of classical virtuosos like Anne-Sophie Mutter, Anna Netrebko, Andrea Boccelli, Lang Lang. But I have no idea whether the man in the street knows them. At any rate, they earn well and are the stars of the music world. Unfortunately, jazz musicians are much less well known.’
‘Our masters of the classical music tradition also frequently died in poverty and couldn’t appear in big concert halls.’
I recalled pictures from a catalogue about ‘Masters of Raga’ which the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin published some years ago. A unique gallery of rare black and white portraits and a who’s who of the most renowned musicians of the subcontinent. Some of them had certainly performed in Takia Miraassian in the old days.
‘Let’s continue our talk tomorrow evening,’ suggested Ashfaq, who had noticed my exhaustion after the long day I had spent in the Old City. When we walked out onto the terrace, we were received by the intoxicating fragrance of the ‘Queen of the Night’, the night jasmine whose dainty white blossoms only open after dark and emit their heady perfume.
‘You know, in the Thirties and Forties, singers like Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan Sahib, who belonged to the Patiala school, had a strong influence on music here. He spent his last years in Takia Miraassian, and when he died in 1949 his pupil Farida Khanum had him buried there in the courtyard.’
‘The great ghazal singer! I thought the Patiala musical dynasty only produced khayal vocalists.’
‘No, these artists were versed in all classical styles. Farida Khanum’s voice was soft and light and therefore ideal for ghazals. Hamid Ali Khan, whom you heard at the concert at the Delhi Muslim Hotel, sings all styles, from khayal to ghazal. And Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang wonderful thumris. Wait, I’ll pick out an old recording he made where he sings Raga Darbaar Kanaada in khayal.’ Ashfaq stood up and went to his music archive. As we became engrossed in the majestic, melancholy mood of these ragas, whose sounds wafted out through the widely opened windows of the music room, we completely forgot our green tea and ginger biscuits….
Music at the Mughal court
The genre of khayal singing is an important contribution by Muslims to classical ragas. Muslim vocalists merged Persian influences with the vocal forms of the ancient Indian dhrupad and qawwali singing. Music historians assume that this style developed in the Middle Ages in North India and found its most perfect expression in the first half of the eighteenth century among musicians at the courts of Mughal rulers. Khayal means something like an idea or imagination, expressed in warm emotional style by taans, melodic ornaments, through repetitions of poetic verses, by elongations of the voice called meend; particularly, however, through vocal coloratura performed either as gamak at a medium tempo or cascade-like, even at lightning speed all the way to ecstasy. Truly vocal acrobatics! These musical forms of expression provide the vocalist with sufficient space for individual creativity and ecstatic improvisation. Khayal lyrics, sung in an archaic form of Hindi, are devotional.
‘The human voice is the greatest of all instruments. Do you hear these fantastic ornamentations which Master Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sings?’ Ashfaq reappeared from his entrancement.
‘Like arabesques on a carpet or a wall of decorative tiles!’ I interjected.
‘Dhrupad singing, on the other hand, is simpler and more reduced. But you feel beauty, devotion and spirituality in both forms of musical expression,’ Ashfaq commented. ‘Khayal is a delicious fruit of dhrupad and Sufi Islam!’
‘Was khayal especially cultivated in the musical tradition of Patiala?’
‘Not only by musicians at the court of Patiala who – as far as I recall – came to Lahore from this little principality in the Indian part of Punjab when India was partitioned, but already earlier by the masters of the Gwalior school. But the style of singing in khayal was especially vibrant and sparkling when performed by Patiala singers. You almost never hear such bole-taans elsewhere.’
‘Literally the word means ‘word-ornaments’, doesn’t it? So did they emphasise poetic texts about the love of God?’
‘Yes, that’s one of their features,’ Ashfaq continued. ‘You heard Ustad Fateh Ali Khan at the last National Pakistan Music Conference, but you should have heard him earlier together with his older brother. Incomparable! In the Patiala school, the masters always set great store by daily practice, by riyaaz. My father told me that some vocalists sang at least one hour every day after their morning prayers. The last person who looked after Takia Miraassian was Chote Ghulam Ali Khan. Incidentally, he was a good friend of Maharaj Kathak.’
‘Did he call himself chote – the younger or smaller one – out of respect for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the “older”, “great” one?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Both came from the same town, from Kasur, but they sang mainly in the music rooms of Lahore. Chote Ghulam Ali Khan suffered the same fate financially as many other musicians after India was partitioned, because many wealthy Hindus who had been enthusiastic patrons of music had to flee overnight from Lahore.’
‘What singing schools are still alive in Pakistan today?’
‘Well, along with the school of Kasur, a town located in our part of Punjab, there are at least twelve or thirteen other famous gharaanas or “houses” on the subcontinent. They are named either after the princely courts where the most prominent musicians served or the places where they lived.’
‘But some musicians moved here to Lahore and Karachi after Partition in 1947, didn’t they?’
‘Only some? No, many masters emigrated with their families, so we gained at least eight or nine Indian gharaanas. For example, some very famous singers of classical music of Pakistan belong to the Gwalior gharaana, as do Sadiq Ali Khan, the master of the clarinet who played at the saint’s celebration with his brass band.’
‘So instrumentalists also belong to schools dominated by vocalists,’ I remarked. ‘What exactly are gharaanas, then? There are many families of musicians in which this profession is passed on – actually they are probably castes, like the Mirasi, for example.’
Ashfaq leaned back, supporting his chin with his right hand and asked his daughter to pour us more tea. ‘It takes at least six to seven generations before a musician’s family is allowed to call itself a gharaana. The masters take great care to ensure that their blood remains pure. As wives for their sons, they only accept girls who come from other famous families of musicians. In this way they try to enhance their family’s talents. Musicians who are born into a school have something special – their own lifeblood, if you understand what I mean.’
‘An innate gift, in other words?’
‘Yes. For outsiders who do not belong to these castes it is far more difficult to make a name for themselves as musicians. People say that a well-known singer from Lahore was breastfed by a servant because his mother died when she gave birth. Through her milk he inherited musical talent because she belonged to a gypsy-like caste whose women sing and accompany themselves by beating a rhythm on a metal pot.’
Talent for voices and melodies is surely a gift which is carefully fostered and cultivated in families of musicians, but the pleasure in singing is very pronounced in Punjab anyway. I recalled students at the National College of Arts in Lahore to whom I had become very attached. We had barely left the boundaries of Lahore when they began to sing in the bus – pop songs, bhangra hits and wedding songs – for hours, encouraging each other, young men and women in duets, inspired by an irrepressible zest for life. The songs, drum rhythms and dance steps of bhangra epitomise Punjab culture like no other kind of music! In the evening in the hotel, we had invited a local singer to a private concert. After a few ghazals, she entertained us with popular Punjabi folksongs and film songs to which the audience clapped frenetically. I still recall one line of the songs: raat din men rahungi bas tere saath, tere saath… ‘Day and night I am only with you, with you…’ The girls and boys danced exuberantly to the last songs in the concert, and afterwards sat in a circle in front of our hotel rooms and sang far into the night. A bevy of young songbirds … Some of my students had wonderfully clear, bright voices. They were accustomed from their earliest youth to sing at the frequent wedding celebrations. If these students sang like this, what amount of practice must classical vocalists have had?
The mark of a good voice
‘What do the masters of individual schools pay most attention to when training their pupils’ voices?’ I asked Ashfaq. ‘What is considered the mark of a good voice? If a singer interprets different ragas, then it can’t just be a question of singing the last part at top speed.’
‘Exactly,’ Ashfaq nodded in consent. ‘If someone only shows off his technical skills and imitates his master, without creatively developing his own voice or his expression on his instrument, then he remains thanda – cold – and will never be garm – warm. Cold music is the worst thing possible. Everything else can be lukewarm, but music must have fire and sparkle! A tabla player remains tassa – ‘wooden’ if he believes all that counts is playing fast in a virtuoso manner. Many can do this and errors can be quickly concealed. But is that a form of personal expression at all?’
‘So you think that today the deeper emotional content of music is being replaced by technical skill. Is that a fact?’
‘Yes; you have to learn to really listen! The art of a true master is gudaaz – “full” and “rounded” – like the body of a woman. And a good voice must not be “dry” but should turn like a top – round and hot. Pay attention to the first succession of notes – then you’ll notice how his voice is developed, whether he has too much phlegm in his throat from smoking and drinking! You can recognise an accomplished singer because his voice in vibrato shoots effortlessly like a waterfall from above down to the deep pitches and climbs in the other direction over three octaves.’
‘In other words, a musician who is really pukka?’
‘Exactly - “fully matured”, and not kachcha – “rough” – and untrained,’ Ashfaq replied.
‘At the celebration of Imam Gul, I wondered about the musicians’ ties to the Sufi tradition. Mustn’t a singer, like a mystic, ensure that his heart is pure in order to cultivate this divine spark in himself?’
‘Yes, we say that he must develop his qalb-e avaaz, his “voice of the heart”, and he can only achieve this through mystical experience and much practice. The “voice of the heart” calls the pilgrims to the graves of the saints. All great musicians pay homage to the Sufis without whose blessing they cannot exercise their art. They venerate Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and visit the graves of saints of the Chishti Sufi order, especially that of the famous poet and musician Amir Khusrow in Delhi. This thirteenth-century poet sang about the dark nights of the soul in which the lover yearns for a glimpse of the beloved.’
‘Didn’t Amir Khusrow once say that Indian music – a fire that sets heart and soul afire – is superior to the music of all other countries?
‘Do you doubt it?’ Ashfaq smiled.
Although the institution of the Takia Miraassian has ceased to exist since the 1970s, I want to form an impression on the spot of what the mood must have been like at the time. Starting from the ‘Cobblers’ Gate’ at the south-eastern corner of Lahore’s fortified Old City, I cross the bustling Circular Road and walk down Chamberlain Road. After a few minutes, I reach the entrance on the right-hand side, concealed by workshops, to a large empty courtyard surrounded by brick walls of buildings several storeys high. Next to the grave of the singer Ashiq Ali Khan stands a mosque that dominates the entire square. The building looks new. I suspect that the original mosque which, according to bazaar traders, had always stood there, was much smaller. Behind the Sunni prayer hall, a door leads to an adjacent Shia assembly room. The charm of the former location of the takia is all but gone today. Its vitality has been lost. The undistinguished one-storey room near the entrance must have been the masters’ former music room. Today there is nothing to remind us of their art, or the semi-public room in which the classical music of the subcontinent was once so vibrantly celebrated.Excerpt from the ethnographic narrative written by Jürgen Wasim Frembgen: Nachtmusik im Land der Sufis. Unerhörtes Pakistan, Waldgut-Verlag, Frauenfeld 2010. The English edition Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis. Unheard Pakistan will be published in 2012 by Oxford University Press / Karachi.
Translated by Jane Ripken
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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