Raga resurgence – by Aftab Datta

The internet and a number of cultural organisations in Pakistan have made it viable for classical musicians to stick to gharana-based music.

 The internet and a number of cultural organisations spread across Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi have made it viable for classical musicians to stick to gharana-based music .The segmenting of the population of the Indian Subcontinent into distinct Muslim and Hindu majority countries had an immediate impact on the musical traditions of India and the then new country of Pakistan. Many Muslims in Pakistan didn’t want to encourage classical music because of its Hindu roots. Radio stations (the most effective means of musical exposure at the time) started replacing bandishes that glorified Hindu deities and saints with Urdu poetry or words with Arab/Persian origins. Ragas with Hindu-sounding names too were renamed. Station directors encouraged classical singers to sing ghazals, qawwalis, g e e t s, filmi music, which eventually led to the rise of ‘pop’ music. Due to the lack of state patronage, musicians became discouraged and many emigrated to India or other parts of the world where they would be more appreciated. In the meanwhile, the aesthetics and quality of musical techniques in Pakistan declined rapidly. This decline was also due to the growing shortage of platforms where musicians could perform with or for fellow musicians in an atmosphere of spirited competition. Without the stimulation of connoisseurship it became difficult for them to maintain high standards of artistry. There were other factors in this decline in the interest in and the quality of classical music in Pakistan — the temporary banning of music by Zia-ul-haq, the pressure from religious groups that declared classical music ‘un-Islamic’, and, of course, the amount of effort it takes to appreciate this music. Due to the lack of national patronage, many artistes who had descended from established gharanas switched to popular types of music in Pakistan such as ghazals and filmi music. They found this line of music more lucrative because there is a steady demand for their work here. I’d like to point out that there is a lot of interest to keep music alive in Pakistan. But, if we look deeper we will find that ego, pride, selfishness, and the petty desire for individual glory prevents the growth of concerted effort to revive this genre. However, in recent times, artistes like Shafqat Ali Khan (son of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan) have re-embraced his classical roots after straying towards popular ‘modern-Sufi’ music. In Khan’s case, this was a result of personal encouragement from people who knew his potential. In the past few years, he has given one memorable concert after another of traditional classical music that is aligned with his gharana, Shamchaurasi. He now executes ragas in the manner his ancestors did, and of course adds his own style and mastery to his heritage. In recent years, there have been a number of initiatives to promote the promoting/learning/teaching of classical music in Pakistan. Non-profit institutes such as Lahore Chitrkar, the Institute for the Preservation of Arts and Culture (IPAC), and Sampurna, have provided the facilities and the environment for senior artistes to teach eager students. These organizations also hold regular functions to allow musicians from many fields to demonstrate their particular regional styles. On the institutional level, the National College of the Arts (NCA), the Punjab University, the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), and the Tanrus Academy offer degrees in classical music. In addition, the All Pakistan Music Conferences (APMC) in Lahore and Karachi and the Tehzeeb Foundation in Karachi have provided a highly publicised and well-attended venue for artists to demonstrate their prowess, as well as encourage young artists to demonstrate their progress in competitive environments. Earlier this year, the Lahore Music Forum was established. Its aim was to improve the quality of classical music in the country, revive an art that was suffering because artistes had begun straying from g h a r a n e d a r music and were leaning towards crowd-pleasing gimmickry. The internet has been used in recent years to spread the awareness about classical music by ‘sharing’ this art as well as by exposing artists who had not received the appreciation they so richly deserved earlier. This medium is also providing young classical talent from Pakistan a platform to showcase its music. The internet isn’t just a means to bolster personal glory but also a stage to reassert the fact classical music still has a firm place in the substratum in Pakistan’s rich and diverse heritage. Such websites as www.sarangi.info, Dr Ashfaq Khan’s musical archive, and sadarang.com have all contributed to the renewed interest in Pakistan’s musical heritage. As a result of this resurgence, we are now getting to hear strong artistes with pure classical roots. Singers like Akbar Ali, Bashir Ahmed, Amanat Ali, Shujaat Ali Khan, and many others across the bigger cities of the country are gaining a reputation for singing in classical styles that boast of high integrity. This includes a number of sitar, tabla, and sarangi players as well. This new ‘era’ in music has also allowed female artistes to re-enter the performing and teaching arenas — dhrupad singer Aliya Rashid and sagar veena player Nur Zehra are some prominent names. This rise in interest, inside and outside of Pakistan, is bound to encourage and sustain the next generation of classical musicians. 

(Aftab Datta was born in Lahore. He lives in Washington and is a  vocalist, connoisseur  and  part  of  the  team  that  runs  sarangi.info)