Where music is concerned, there are no boundaries and no demarcations
By Sakuntala Narasimhan
The elite among Islamabad’s cognoscenti is gathered before me as I tune the tanpura and prepare to begin my recital. I have come prepared with some ghazals and thumris, thinking that heavy classical music may not go down well with Pakistani audiences, but after the opening ghazal, when I ask the gathering what they would like me to present, several voices reply in chorus, "Classical!" Quickly shifting my mental focus, I ask again, "Common ragas, or rare ones?" And the voices pipe up, "Rare ones!"
This is unexpected. Hastily, I abandon the list of ghazals I had come prepared with, and launch instead into a khayal in Chhayanat, a speciality of the Rampur gharana that I belong to. The bandish is a famous one, "Jhanana jhanana, jhana nana baaje bichhuwa", and a male voice from the audience turns it into a spontaneous duet, matching my rendition with his own, tinged with melodic nostalgia.
Why had I assumed that only ghazals would be appreciated across the border? After all, Lahore and Karachi were as much centres of classical music in the pre-independence era, as Mumbai and Kolkata — the legendary vocalist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar opened his first music school (which went on to become the renowned Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, with several branches) in Lahore, before he started one in Mumbai. Come to think of it, if you take away Muslim ustads and their contribution to Indian music, there will be precious little left.
Rampur gharana, in which I have been trained, originated with the legendary Enayat Hussain Khan, whose son-in-law Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan, one of the stalwarts of the 20th century, was my guru Ustad Hafeez Ahmed Khan’s teacher (and father-in-law). Ustad Rashid Ahmed Khan, father of Hafeez Ahmed Khan (who, incidentally, was Delhi-based but had performed in Pakistan) was so devout a Muslim that he wanted to be buried only at the holy Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi. And yet, he is famous for composing a bandish on "Brij ke Kanhaiya" in Keervani raga (which Ustad Rashid Khan, the current flag-bearer of the Rampur gharana, has recorded on a popular CD).
Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan (my teacher’s teacher) was such a devout Muslim that he would stop his recordings if it was time for the midday prayers. Yet, he sang "Kareem naam tero" in Mian-ki-Malhar and "Sugreeva Rama krupa" in Chhayanat with the same melodic fervour. For these ustads, being Muslim or Hindu had nothing to do with artistic excellence.
Whenever I went to Hafeez Ahmed Khan saheb’s place for lessons, he would say, "Aap aaj idhar hee khanaa khayenge – aap ke liye vegetarian banwaya hai." And he, his daughters and sons, and I would sit together for a meal, sharing rotis, dal and sabzi. I learnt to sing Soz, when it was Moharram time. His house was a home-away-from-home for me. He, his wife (daughter of Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan) father Rashid Ahmed Khan saheb and father-in-law Nissar Hussain Khan saheb, are all buried at Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah.
Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan is another senior disciple of Nissar Hussain Khan, and the oldest living representative of this gharana. At the entrance to his house in Mumbai, is an inscription from the Koran, and facing it, is a large statue of Goddess Saraswati. There is neither contradiction nor conflict, religious or artistic. In music, it is co-existence of the finest kind.
Delve into the lives of musicians around the sub-continent, and you unearth details that are as touching as they are astounding The late Ustad Bade Ghulam Khan, who moved briefly to Pakistan before returning to India, was most famous for the song Hari Om Tat Sat, which brings tears to the eyes of elderly music lovers, even today.
Innumerable Muslim names come up when we look at the classical genre in the subcontinent’s cultural heritage — Wajid Ali Shah (ruler of Avadh, who was ousted by the British in the 19th century — his Babul mora thumri is one of the all-time great songs, immortalised by the great K.L.Saigal), Nawab Raza Ali Khan (a great patron of classical music and also composer, who ruled Rampur before independence — his durbar was famous for a galaxy of great musicians) Ustad Allauddin Khan (father-in-law of Ravi Shankar, who was a devotee of Goddess Saraswati and even named his daughter Annapurna), Ustad Bismillah Khan (who was devoted to Lord Kashi Viswanath despite being a devout Muslim) besides contemporaries like Amjad Ali Khan (sarod) and the iconic Ustad Zakir Hussain (tabla). My gharana specialises in tarana (Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan was known as Tarana samrat) and Hazrat Amir Khusro, a cultural icon of both India and Pakistan, was the originator of the tarana form.
When I was a teenager, I had a broadcast from All India Radio. The sarangi accompanist, Masit Khan, commented at the end of my recording, "Yeh to Roshanara Begum jaise gaatee hai." Roshnana moved to Pakistan after partition, and when I went to Islamabad recently, my students asked me to look for CDs of her music. The salesmen at the music store, however, brought out other CDs that they said, "achcha biktaa hai (sells well)" — Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute, Ravi Shankar’s sitar, even DVDs of Om Shanti Om — all Indian favourites. It took some effort to locate Roshanara Begum’s recordings, though elderly Indian connoisseurs still remember her amazing singing.
Borders? Political and geographical, perhaps, but where music is concerned, there are no boundaries, no demarcations. Not merely between India and Pakistan; it is universally true — Iranian music can come close to Indian music, so does medieval Thai classical vocal, defying borders.
At the end of my recital at Islamabad, a couple, Shahin and Ahmed, introduced themselves and told me about a Pakistani vocalist named Zahida Parveen who had taught Shahin’s mother and passed away in 1976. I had never heard of her. The next day Shahin handed me a Zahida CD, and I played it on returning to India. It was beautiful and I Google-searched for additional information about her. This has triggered a chain of contacts that now link the two countries — the couple picked up Rashid Khan’s CDs during their recent visit to India, and my students are excitedly delving into Zahida’s repertoire.
There is a global network called Reporters Without Borders, linking journalists worldwide, and another called Medicins Sans Borders (Doctors without Borders) linking medical professionals globally. Perhaps, a Musicians Without Borders link, can achieve far better results in terms of defusing tensions in the sub-continent, than any amount of political or bureaucratic initiatives. Those who sing together, live and laugh together....