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NARRATIVE ARC: THE SONGS WE SING

NARRATIVE ARC: THE SONGS WE SING

It was a cold and misty Islamabad morning some 15 years ago when a friend wanted me to drive him to a posh neighbourhood in Rawalpindi. He had to see two very senior retired officers; one from the military and the other from the civil service. They wanted to build a hospital in their native locale because their children had graduated from various medical schools in Pakistan and the United States. They wished to consult my friend on how to materialise their plan. This friend, a leading gynaecologist and obstetrician, has served needy patients across Pakistan for decades. It took him a bit of effort to convince the two brothers that their hospital should be more than just a commercial enterprise; besides making money they could also serve poor patients of the area.




Having no idea of how medical practice is organised and hospitals are established, I kept quiet. But as we were leaving, one of the two gentlemen — perhaps out of courtesy — asked me: “Being a poet, why don’t you suggest a good name for our hospital?” Since the idea was to build a women’s hospital near Lala Musa in the district of Gujrat, I promptly replied: “Well, you can name it Roshan Ara Begum Memorial Hospital. The great classical singer lies buried in your town.” Disapprovingly and with a hint of anger, he said: “Young man, you want us to name the hospital after a kanjri [lewd woman]?” I was younger and less inhibited. “If it were a general hospital, I would have suggested naming it after Alam Lohar,” I said curtly. Alam Lohar, the leading Punjabi folk singer, is also buried at Lala Musa.

There is an obvious element of class at play when we speak of music and musicians. In recent years, we’ve seen many forms of modern, urban, Western and pop music performed by young women and men from the richer classes. They are often less talented, but treated differently from traditional musicians who, despite nurturing our classical or folk music, are treated with disdain, contemptuously called mirasi or kanjar — even if some individuals do not strictly come from those castes — by not just the elites and the affluent, but all who are around them.

In Pakistan, the troubles of our musicians are compounded with the rise of violent extremism and religious orthodoxy, putting their lives and livelihoods at risk. Many singers and performers have been killed over the past few years. In these times, Muhammad Athar Masood is to be congratulated for meticulously editing, annotating and introducing the recent edition of Hindustan Ki Mauseeqi [Music of Hindustan] by Abdul Haleem Sharar (1860-1926), published by Oxford University Press, Pakistan. This brief book is essential reading not only for those with a penchant for the classical music of the subcontinent, but also for readers interested in understanding how new forms of art and fresh genres evolve through the cross-fertilisation of cultures and conversation between civilisations.

Sharar was born in Lucknow and considered one of the symbols of the best of what that city has offered to enrich our literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His trailblazing historical fiction and scholarly essays in Urdu make him stand out among his contemporaries and successors. Hindustan Ki Mauseeqi is the keynote speech he made at the first All India Music Conference in Baroda in 1916. Sharar based his speech on one of his earlier essays on the subject and according to Masood, edited and refined it further before presenting it at the conference.

Sharar established that the contemporary classical music of the subcontinent evolved from an interplay of Sanskritic, Arabian and Persian traditions. He begins with the celebration of the rich musical tradition in Vedic India and then takes us to appreciate the development of music in Arabia, the Near East and Persia before and after Islam. He also speaks of the influences of Greek and Roman traditions, before and after Christianity. After 100 years, Sharar’s speech continues to open new vistas for appreciating the depth and expanse of our classical music.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 29th, 2017

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