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Taking the ghizhek (a traditional violin) from a hanger on a wooden pillar and slowly dusting it off with an old piece of cloth, Ustad Rehmatullah Baig starts playing it with the kamuncha (violin bow). Baig is a 76-year-old musician from the Wakhi community and he is renowned in this region for the Wakhi language songs he performs on his ghizhek.

For decades, Baig has been living in the small town of Ghulken, in the Upper Hunza region of Gilgit-Baltistan, along with his family. Baig has been working tirelessly to impart the skills of playing the ghizhek to the younger generation of his community, with a few youngsters taking an interest in learning the ghizhek. 

“A man in Shamshal village in Hunza used to play the ghizhek and my father bought it for me from him and brought it here. I started learning the instrument since then, when my age was just around 12-years-old. The rabab had been in our home since the time of my grandfather, and I used to play it in my spare time. I can also play the sitar and other instruments,” Baig tells me.

The Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan is not only known for its scenic natural beauty but also for its diversity in the realms of music and culture, which attracts thousands of tourists every year to the area to witness the local traditions. The two most prominent languages spoken in Hunza are Brushaski and Wakhi, with Brushaski being largely spoken in Lower Hunza while Wakhi is predominantly spoken in Upper Hunza. Gojal, Sust and Chapursan are connected to the Wakhan district of Afghanistan, due to which the same culture, music and language exists on both sides of the Pakistan and Afghanistan border.

One of the few remaining masters of the ghizhek in Pakistan, Ustad Rehmatullah Baig hopes to ensure the survival of this historic instrument by passing down his skills to those willing to learn

“For a long time, Ustad Rehmatullah Baig was the only ghizhek player in his community,” reveals Fazal Amin Beg, an anthropologist residing in Gulmit, Upper Hunza. “When the Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association [WTCA] was formed in 1991, it focused on preserving and promoting various aspects of the region’s culture. The traditional violin was, thus, one of the instruments which the WTCA tried to preserve, promote and transfer to the younger generations as part of the indigenous knowledge and craft of the area.”

Ustad Baig has thus participated in a series of events within the Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan region and in Islamabad organised by Lok Virsa and the United States Education Foundation, Pakistan (USEFP). The musician has also transferred a significant amount of his music knowledge to his family members, including his children and grandchildren. He has also trained a number of students in the Bulbulik Heritage Centre in Gulmit and the Nasir Khusrow Model Academy at Ghulkin in the Hunza Valley.

Baig plays and presents over a dozen melodies, both classical and modern, and his daughter Nasima Baig and his granddaughter sit alongside the ghizhek meastro in order to observe and learn how he plays the instrument. Nasima has already learned the ghizek to a considerable degree and tries to play the musical instrument regularly. By passing the instrument down to his daughter, son and grandchildren, Baig hopes that the art of playing the ghizhek will live on.

“I have taught the ghizhek to boys and girls within two months in the Bulbulik Music Academy,” the elderly musician tells me. “I also trained students in the government school of my village in order to preserve this music and now many children have learnt the instrument. Initially there was no one else playing it in the area except me. Mashallah, many boys and girls have picked up the ghizhek now.”

The traditional music embodied by the ghizhek came from Tajikistan to Hunza as the Wakhi people migrated to the region. As a result, all of their culture and practices have been passed down from Tajikistan, which is why the ghizhek is not played in any other part of Pakistan. Baig says they also use the instrument to perform naats [homage to the Prophet, PBUH] and Sufi kalaams while the elders of the community sing and dance. Given its history, the ghizhek has more significance in their culture than other instruments.

The ghizhek has five strings which are called khoraik and the rabab player who often plays alongside the ghizhek is called zakhmek. For a long time, no one knew how to construct and build this rare instrument. When the ghizhek Baig’s father brought for him was lost, Baig had to make his own version of the instrument. He used a tin can since no one could create the ghizhek for him.

Baig played the ghizhek he constructed himself for a long time, even using it during a well-received performance in Islamabad. Fortunately, now an artisan called Shafqat, residing in Hunza, knows how to build the ghizhek.

“We play it together with the tambal [drum], and we can also play it alongside the flute,” says Baig. “It can be played with the rabab as well but it is necessary to have the tambal along with it.”

According to Biag, the sound the ghizhek produces is linked strongly to the weather, with the instrument sounding more mellifluous when the sun is shining than it does when the weather is harsher. Since Baig spends a lot of his time farming and attending to his land, he enjoys sitting in the fields and playing the ghizhek after a day of hectic work.

In many ways, Baig’s steadfastness in ensuring that the ghizhek is taught to as many youngsters as possible is an invaluable service, the fruits of which many generations will hopefully continue to enjoy. We only need look across the border to realise just how easy it is for this historic musical practice to be lost and forgotten.

As musical researcher Kareem Popal notes, Baz Gul Badakhshahi was a prominent musician-cum-folk singer in Badakhshan, Afghanistan, who used to play the ghizhek and recorded hundreds of folk songs. However, upon Badakhshahi’s death in 2009, at the age of 105, none of his children had learned the art of playing the ghizhek from him.

Baig wishes to avoid such a fate and wants the traditional music of the ghizhek to survive long after he is gone and hopes that the government of Pakistan can play a role in the promotion of this historic instrument.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Shangla. He writes about social and human rights issues.
He tweets @Umar_Shangla

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 22nd, 2023

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