Putting a mirror to classical music

Joanna Lobo attends a screening of a documentary on the post-partition state of classical music, and finds that our musical heritage holds audiences even today.

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The young, visually-impaired dhrupad singer has the audience in splits with her innocent charm. She talks about being sent from Lahore to India to study music — “why else would she leave”, and not being scared of Indians — “I will straighten them out”. As it happens, Aliya Rasheed was so overwhelmed by her welcome in Bhopal that she willingly gave up eating non-vegetarian food to fit in. She spent four years at the Gundecha brothers’ gurukul mastering the dhrupad.

Rasheed’s story is just one of the many that Indian filmmaker Yousuf Saeed came across during the seven-odd months he spent in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The culmination of that, the documentary Khayal Darpan, is known as one of the foremost South-Asian documentations of Pakistani classical music post-1947. At its latest screening at National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, the documentary had audiences clapping during particular moving performances, laughing at the veiled digs at the state of Indian classical music and marvelling at the abundance of talent in the country. For Pakistanis, the film is an eye-opener to the rich culture of this music that is still considered ‘elite’. For the Indians, the movie forces them to question the survival of its tradition. “We take classical music for granted here…,” says Saeed. “We think that since it is part of our culture, it will not go anywhere.”  fated By accident

It was a fellowship study on Amir Khusrau that took Saeed on a trip to Pakistan. An aficionado of Sufi and qawwali music, after meeting and interviewing musicians, he realised that there was a bigger story to explore. Specifically, looking at classical music from the point of view of the artists struggling to keep it alive.

“Since Pakistan was created on the basis of dividing Hindus and Muslims, I wanted to explore how the Partition defined this heritage,” he says. Armed with a video camera and recorder, he visited archives, libraries, musical institutions and other musical centres, and recorded around 35 hours of interviews with musicians like ghazal singer Beenish Parvez, classical singer Sarah Zaman, sitar player Nafees Ahmed and dhrupad singer Malikzada Hafeez Khan. “All I told them is that I wanted to learn about the history of music,” says Saeed. Each artist he interviewed spoke for two to three hours, many interspersing their conversation with song. “I don’t think they would’ve opened up this much if a Pakistani filmmaker had interviewed them,” says Saeed, adding that for many, it was the first time they were interviewed on the subject.

Sub-continent war

 There were a lot of changes in Pakistan post-Partition. Laws banned forms of classical music — often terming it as Hindu. Saeed digs deep into how this affected the musicians and the quality of the music. Some of the interviews have disguised or open references to the Indian scene; not intentional but there nonetheless. 

One of the musicians spoke about how his family are the proponents of the “real Dilli gharana” not those seated in India. Musicologist Raza Kazim, while nonchalantly puffing on his cigarette, says, “India has culture, everyone else has science and technology”. Kazim is one of the pioneers working to make classical music more interesting to the newer generation.

While detailing his work on the sangeet veena he lets slip that Pakistan afforded him more freedom to work, as compared to India where the government would’ve interfered. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a classical singer from Islamabad, wanted to send a message to Indian musicians about how “Indian films are not bringing out good music”.  

Despite this, there is no animosity in the musicians for a shared musical heritage that has evolved differently in both countries. In fact, many of the artists wanted to come to India to perform. Given that they receive less support and patronage in their own country, they were keen on expanding their boundaries,” says Saeed. Immediately after the release if the documentary, Saeed had invited a few artists to Delhi for a conference on classical music. Given the reams of  footage he has, Saeed intends to work on a sequel. Because while classical music isn’t dead, it is still struggling for survival.

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