Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bruce Springsteen Tribute at "The 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors"

The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., which opened in September 1971, is one of America's premier arts facility and features thousands of performances by the greatest artists from America and across the world every year.

It is best known for its recognition of the lifetime contribution of some of America's greatest artists through the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. This year for the 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors the Center honored Mel Brooks (actor, writer, director), Dave Brubeck (pianist, composer), Grace Bumbry (opera singer), Robert DeNiro (actor, director) and Bruce Springsteen (singer, songwriter). The honorees come to the Center and are presented by many of their peers with heartfelt tributes honoring their life's work. This event is televised and this year's event was shown on CBS on December 29th.

I was particularly moved this year by the wonderful tribute performances of legendary Bruce Springsteen songs by some exceptional artists : John Mellencamp ("Born in the USA"), Ben Harper / Jennifer Nettles ("I'm on Fire"), Melissa Etheridge ("Born to Run"), Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam ("My City of Ruins") and Sting ("The Rising"). Here are the performances in two separate exceptionally good quality video clips:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Monday, December 21, 2009

"TitliyaN" - Strings

The Karachi-based pop duo, 'Strings' is one of my favorite Pakistani music bands. Faisal Kapadia (son of television actor Lateef Kapadia) is the vocalist and Bilal Maqsood (son of talk show host, poet, painter, dramatist, music lover Anwar Maqsood) is the lead guitarist with supporting vocals.

Strings have recently released a video of their song "TitliyaN" from their 2008 album "Koi Aane Wala Hai". The video is conceptually wonderful and it delighted me that, with this video, Strings have paid tribute to so many Pakistani cultural icons who are being lost in the mists of time. For the younger generations who likely constitute a majority of Strings fans, the video may introduce many of them for the first time to the rich cultural legacy to which they are heirs. The selection of the 'legends' is excellent and other than some quibbles I had with omissions (such as Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, Patras Bokhari or Noon Meem Rashid for example) the chosen list is uniformly worthy of recognition.

The romantic lyrics gently tinged with memories of loss are quintessential Anwar Maqsood and form the perfect backdrop for this tribute.

Dil tha khilauna
Chalo toot gaya, kya kaheiN
Koi saathi tha, jisse chaha tha
Wohi loot gaya, kya kaheiN

TitliyaN yaadoN ki urti jaayeiN
RangoN meiN mujhse kuch kehti jaayeiN

Ek jheel thi, kayee phool thay
Sub mit gaye, kya kaheiN

Chaha tha kehna, na kaha, chup rahay
RahoN meiN tanha chalte hi hum rahay

TitliyaN yaadoN ki urti jaayeiN
RangoN meiN mujhse kuch kehti jaayeiN

Girti kirneiN, tera aanchal
Kaise bhooleiN, kya kaheiN
Gaati koyel, mehka aangan
Kaise bhooleiN, kya kaheiN

TitliyaN yaadoN ki urti jaayeiN
RangoN meiN mujhse kuch kehti jaayeiN

Teri chaah thi meri roshni
Abh bujh gayee, kya kaheiN
Dil tha khilauna
Chalo toot gaya, kya kaheiN
Kya kaheiN

Here's Strings' performance of "TitliyaN" in the wonderful new innovative music TV programme Coke Studio. Here's a link to Coke Studio's YouTube Channel.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Khan Sahib" Mehdi Hassan - Some Immortal Pieces by the Legendary Musician

Writing about some of the cultural influences of my childhood and adolescence was one of the reasons I started writing this blog a couple of years ago. In part, it is an exercise in nostalgia but it is also a desire to share the treasures that I feel I was unusually fortunate to be exposed to from an early age.

One such indelible influence has been the sublime singing of Mehdi Hassan. I have long wanted to write something about his life and craft but have not found myself equal to the task. A performer of his caliber, I have long believed, needs an in-depth and first rate evaluation. Sadly, to my knowledge, no such effort has emerged, at least in English or on the internet. Finally, a recent conversation with Adil Najam has prompted me to at least share some of my favorite Mehdi Hassan pieces in this post. These can at least be my humble personal tribute to one of the greatest sub-continental singers of the post-partition era.

It is deeply sad that even though his music still has many passionate devotees only the bare bones of Mehdi Hassan's biography are documented. The most comprehensive facts on the internet have been collected by Mr. Anis Shakur whose biographical sketches (even if somewhat unsystematic) of many Pakistani artists and musicians are an invaluable contribution for the preservation of Pakistani cultural memory.

Mehdi Hassan was born in 1927 in the town of Luna, district Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. Luna is about 100 miles from Jaipur. He was born in a family of musicians and his father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle ('chacha') Ustad Ismail Khan were notable classical singers of their time. Mehdi Hassan started learning at a very young age from his father. It is said that his first public performance was at age eight at the palace of Maharaja of Baroda. Mehdi Hassan moved to District Khushab in the Sargodha region in Pakistan after partition and worked as an automobile mechanic for some time. Eventually, to pursue his life's calling and seeking a career in music he moved to Karachi. Here he debuted from Radio Pakistan in 1952 singing one of his best known ghazals (by Faiz Ahmed Faiz), "GuloN meiN rang bhare baad-e-nau bahar chale". The composition is by Pandit Ghulam Qadir, who was Mehdi Hassan's older brother and an exceptionally talented composer. I have not been able to find even rudimentary information on Ghulam Qadir other than Mehdi Hassan's statement in a TV program that his older brother was also the composer of two other masterpieces; Hafeez Hoshiarpuri's ghazal "Mohabbat karne waale kum na hoNge" and Razi Tirmizi's "Bhooli bisri chand umeedeiN".

Update: September 20th, 2012
I found a great detailed PTV interview with Mehdi Hassan from the 1980's on YouTube the other day. The interviewer is the well-known compere Yasmin Tahir. In this interview Mehdi Hassan provides a lot of rich biographical detail about his life including the fact that he was likely born in 1934/35 not 1927 as is commonly reported. I am including this interview here:

And now for my selection of five personal favorites. For the embedded videos below, with one exception, I have tried to choose some of the lesser known gems in the Mehdi Hassan oeuvre. The last video is the only non-ghazal piece I have included. That semi-classical composition in Raga Tilak Kamod demonstrates Khan Sahib's virtuosic brilliance like few other performances. The effortless beauty of the vocals are mesmerizing and for those who enjoy Hindustani classical music this is the piece de resistance of my selection.

First off the most well known of my selections is Ahmed Faraz's "Ranjish hi sahi":
Ik umr se hooN lazzat-e-girya se bhi mehroom
Aye rahat-e-jaaN mujh ko rulane ke liye aa

Next is Aziz Hamid Madani's ghazal "Taaza hawa bahaar ki":
Taaza hawa bahaar ki dil ka malaal lay gayee
Paa-e-junooN se halka-e-gardish-e-haal le gayee

A ghazal by Hakeem Momin Khan Momin, "Navak andaaz jidhar deeda-e-janaaN"
Phir bahaar aayee wohi dasht nawardi hogee
Phir wohi paaoN wohi khaar-e-mugheelaN hoNge

Khan Sahib's divine singing of Razi Tirmizi's ghazal "Bhooli bisri chand umeedeiN" mentioned above:
Bhooli bisri chand umeedeiN chand fasanay yaad aaye
Tum yaad aaye aur tumhare saath zamaane yaad aaye

and finally the marvelously executed semi-classical number, "Dukhwa meiN kaase kahooN moray sajni" in Raga Tilak Kamod:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Security of Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons

In the cloak and dagger world of military affairs and espionage it is particularly difficult for journalists to penetrate the surface and to get to the essence of a story when it is in every side's interest to obfuscate or even lie. On this tough beat I have always had tremendous respect for Seymour Hersh, who has broken more than his fair share of explosive stories which have been extremely embarrassing to the powers that be (e.g. My Lai Massacre, Abu Ghraib prison abuses).

His latest story in this week's New Yorker titled "Defending the Arsenal" on the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons is incredibly illuminating. It exposes the profound lack of trust in the relationship and how both sides clearly do not believe a word of what they say to each other. The relationship is fundamentally transactional; the rest is rhetoric.

Today, Hersh did an interview with Terry Gross on her NPR program Fresh Air discussing this topic. I thought the interview was excellent and clarified some things that are not in the New Yorker article. For anybody interested in the US-Pakistan relationship and the nuclear issue this interview is a must-listen.

The link to the Terry Gross interview is here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Some (Morbid) Fragments After a Hiatus

Several months have passed since I wrote something in this space. There was nothing in particular that held me back other than the routine, ordinary distractions of life but often it is a work of literature or art that, as the Quakers say, "moves one to speak".

Recently a friend and a colleague died at a young age and I had the subject of death on my mind when I came across W.H. Auden's poem "At the Grave of Henry James". How well it expresses the finality of death, the utter despair that even the "great and talkative" Master will forever dwell in eternal silence! A unique mind and his particular novelty gone forever just like all those others under those "rocks named after singular spaces" in that Cambridge municipal cemetery.

While rocks, named after singular spaces
Within which images wandered once that caused
All to tremble and offend,
Stand here in an innocent stillness, each marking
the spot
Where one more series of errors lost its uniqueness
And novelty came to an end.

To whose real advantage were such transactions,
When worlds of reflection were exchanged for trees?
What living occasion can
Be just to the absent? Noon but reflects on itself,
And the small taciturn stone, that is the only witness
To a great and talkative man,

Has no more judgement than my ignorant shadow
(excerpt from "At the Grave of Henry James" by Wystan Hugh Auden)

While on the subject of death, I recently revisited one of my favorite Phillip Larkin poems and I would be remiss if I did not share his great but terrifyingly dark poem "Aubade" (pronounced 'o-baad').

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

This past summer's great pop culture anthem has been the Black Eyed Peas' wonderful song "I Gotta Feeling". The catchy track is in their latest album titled "The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies)". Every time I see the title of that album I think to myself: "But it does, it inevitably does".

Photograph: Phillip Larkin

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Evolution of a "Third Culture"

In a blog entry I wrote early last year on the Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and his essay "The Moral Instinct", I expressed my great admiration for a whole generation of world class scientists who have ably taken on the task of speaking not just to their peers but also the wider audience of curious non-specialists. We increasingly live in an age where serious study of the social sciences and even the humanities have to account for the findings of cutting edge neuroscience, cognitive biology, cosmology and other scientific disciplines if they are to be taken seriously.

Edge Foundation has an excellent website devoted to the promotion of the "Third Culture" which in their own words "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." What recently took me to the site were six video interviews posted there with eminent intellectuals asking them about the progress of the Third Culture (the term is derived from a 50 year old lecture titled "The Two Cultures" by the English physicist C. P. Snow who bemoaned the serious gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals).

While on this topic I must mention the delightful profile of the pioneering Univ. of California, San Diego behavioral neurologist, Vilayanur Ramachandran in the May 11th, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. It is frustrating that this excellent profile by John Colapinto is not available online to non-subscribers so I cannot link to the full article. Suffice to say that I would highly recommend finding the article and reading it. Ramachandran comes across as a brilliantly innovative scientist with a fascinating biography, a warm and quirky personality and a passion for problem solving and the communication of ideas. The profile describes his ingenious solution to the problem of pain in phantom limbs using a simple mirror therapy. In a blog on the New Yorker site, Colapinto provides a fascinating description (including photos) of how the mirror therapy works by tricking the mind. Atul Gawande also wrote about this therapy in his New Yorker article called "The Itch" which I blogged about here.

To get a first hand flavor of Ramachandran's genius and his engaging lecture style here is his talk entitled "A journey to the center of your mind". He gives several extremely interesting examples of how the brain works (including the phenomenon of phantom limb pain).

Photo: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (from the TED website)

November 1st, 2009 update:

Ramachandran dazzles in this video interview below hypothesizing how the problem of consciousness is likely to be explained. He believes that the potential explanation lies in some unique trajectory of human neurological evolution and that qualia (conscious knowledge of a sensation) and awareness of self are linked phenomena.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Justice Souter Retires

After 19 years, Justice David Souter has decided to leave the bench at age 69. Linda Greenhouse in today's Sunday Times, has an admiring portrait of the somewhat eccentric, reclusive and scholarly New Hampshire jurist who even as he was ill at ease in the public aspects of his office was intellectually very well equipped to be an associate justice.

For years now, Justice Souter had come to be seen as a reliable vote on the side of the court's liberal justices and despite being acknowledged as a keen intellect, his tenure on the court will likely be seen as unexceptional. Unlike a Scalia, he was not an icon for any particularly staunch philosophical view of constitutional interpretation. He did not occupy a pragmatic (sometimes indecipherable) middle in the way of Kennedy which makes him the obsessive focus of court watchers in every close case. And unlike Justice Brennan (whom he replaced) he was not a coalition builder with any penchant for shaping close opinions that could garner a majority for his preferred outcomes. Instead, Justice Souter will most likely be remembered as an independent-minded elder Bush appointee who upset Republican expectations of a reliable conservative vote for Scalia and surprisingly reaffirmed the constitutionality of the court's previous abortion decisions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

An excerpt:
This pattern gave rise to a widespread view of Justice Souter as a misfit or a loner, not quite in touch with modern life. But to focus on his eccentricities — his daily lunch of yogurt and an apple, core and all; the absence of a computer in his personal office — is to miss the essence of a man who in fact is perfectly suited to his job, just not to its trappings. His polite but persistent questioning of lawyers who appear before the court displays his meticulous preparation and his mastery of the case at hand and the cases relevant to it. Far from being out of touch with the modern world, he has simply refused to surrender to it control over aspects of his own life that give him deep contentment: hiking, sailing, time with old friends, reading history.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

National Poetry Month - "Moment" by Wislawa Szymborska & "Account" by Czeslaw Milosz

April is National Poetry Month and the New York Review of Books has been posting a poem every day this month to celebrate the, I suspect, not widely recognized occasion. Even though I can only read them in translation, I have always had a particular affinity for twentieth century Eastern European writers and poets (Brodsky, Milosz, Szymborska, Kundera and of course Kafka). They seem to capture the twentieth century zeitgeist in deeply intimate ways, perhaps because so many of the century's defining struggles and human tragedies played out on their soils.

Here are two poems by two Polish Noble Laureates that NYRB picked for April 28th and 30th respectively. The poem "Account" is by Czeslaw Milosz (pronounced chess-wahf mee-wosh) who was the recipient of the Nobel in 1980 and "Moment" is by the 1996 honoree Wislawa Szymborska.

I have posted Szymborska's wonderful poem " A Few Words on the Soul" in a previous post. In this poem "Moment", she evokes the serene, timeless harmony of nature's beauty. These beautifully contemplative descriptions of nature are a popular theme in her poetry. However, the subtext is the ephemeral human observer, with or without whom nature would continue on oblivious of being observed and indifferent to history's events unfolding around it.

"Moment" - Wislawa Szymborska

I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children's illustration.
The misty sky's already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.

As if there'd never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
upturned abysses,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.

As if plains hadn't pushed their way here
in malignant fevers,
icy shivers.

As if seas had seethed only elsewhere,
shredding the shores of the horizons.

It's nine-thirty local time.
Everything's in its place and in polite agreement.
In the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.

This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach.
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak

The second poem here by Milosz is considerably darker. As is to be expected from the author of "The Captive Mind", this is a powerful poem of intellectual introspection.

"Account" - Czeslaw Milosz

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle's flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it's late. And the truth is laborious.

(Berkeley, 1979)

Translated from the Polish by Robert Haas & Robert Pinsky

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Memoriam - The Great Iqbal Bano (1935-2009)

Iqbal Bano, one of the great exponents of semi-classical ghazal singing in the sub-continent, passed away in Lahore at the age of 74. I have recounted a reverie precipitated by her beautiful rendition of Faiz's ghazal "Yeh mausam-e-gul" in a previous post.

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn has a good obituary of Iqbal Bano here and some great photos of the icon in their media gallery. She was born in Delhi in 1935 and was the pupil of Ustad Chaand Khan of the Delhi Gharana. She moved to Pakistan in 1952 at the age of 17 and had her first public concert at the Lahore Art Center in 1957. She was awarded the "Pride of Performance" by the government in 1974.

Even though in the popular imagination her singing is eternally connected with the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and in particular with the anthem "Hum dekheiN ge", which she performed in virtually every public concert, Iqbal Bano was a versatile singer. She sang some very popular numbers for films in the 1950's. However, along with Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Farida Khanum and the maestro Mehdi Hassan her real distinction was to be a part of that august group of vocalists in Pakistan who revolutionized post-partition ghazal singing by transforming it into a semi-classical form like thumri and dadra. If you listen to pre-partition ghazals, even by eminences such as K.L Saigal, the ghazal was performed like a light film song. As Pakistani audiences were more hospitable to Urdu poetry rather than the arachaic lyrics of traditional semi-classical forms, the classically trained musicians such as Iqbal Bano adopted ghazal as their medium for classical musical expression. The effect was exhilarating for fans of both Urdu poetry and the Hindustani classical vocal tradition. In the next generation there are few who have the stature and skill of the first-generation of pioneering icons with the possible exception of Abida Parveen and to a lesser extent (in my opinion) Ghulam Ali.

But for any artist it is always the work that speaks most clearly so here is some sampling of Iqbal Bano's singing. I have selected, as embedded videos, a few of my favorite ghazals/geets by Iqbal Bano. Some are slightly lesser known but I have also provided some youtube links to her most popular music below.

Iqbal Bano singing Faiz's wonderful ghazal "Na gaNwaao navak-e-neem kush":

Here is a personal favorite semi-classical piece with traditional lyrics "Ab kay Saawan ghar aaja": (her live image starts at 1:52):

The semi-classical piece above was adapted as a "zippier" song version for the 1959 film 'Nagin' and here Iqbal Bano is singing that version on PTV:

For the last sample let's go out with perhaps Iqbal Bano's most popular geet "Payal meiN geet haiN cham cham ke" originally sung for the 1954 film 'Gumnaam":

And as promised links to some of her best known pieces: "Dasht-e-tanhai meiN" (Faiz) ; "Yeh mausam-e-gul garche tarab khez bohat hai" (Faiz); "Ulfat ki nai manzil ko chala" (Qatil Shifai); an unusual foray into Punjabi folk music "MeiN kamli da dhola hai raat" ; and the perennial "Hum dekheiN ge" (Faiz) which is inseparable from Iqbal Bano's persona in the Pakistani imagination.

Photo Courtesy: Dawn

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Exploring the Paths to Happiness - To the Best of Our Knowledge

I am an unabashed fan of National Public Radio. I listen to the radio only in my car so driving this Easter Sunday evening to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy I was pleasantly reminded once again of the variety of excellent public radio programming.

Wisconsin Public Radio produces a two hour weekly radio show called "To the Best of Our Knowledge". This Peabody award winning show calls itself an audio magazine of ideas and that description is as good as any. Each hour of the show is centered around a theme which is explored through intelligent thought provoking interviews.

The theme of today's first hour was "Our Peace of Mind" and had a series of wonderful conversations illuminating the idea of happiness and the persistent human quest for peace of mind. Conversations are with people as diverse as Jill Bolte-Taylor (a brain scientist who has written an interesting book about insights developed from her own stroke), Richard Davidson (a neuro-psychologist who has studied the effects of meditation on human brain by working with Buddhist monks), Satish Kumar (a former Jain monk) and a particularly interesting conversation with cultural historian Richard Schoch who is the author of "The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life".

You can listen to this segment of the show and see information on the various books and music in this piece here. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Laal" - Anthems of a Different Pakistan

Few musical voices are more emblematic of the rise of Pakistan's civil society in the last couple of years than the group that goes by the name "Laal". The day after the restoration of the Chief Justice on March 16th, 2009 they headlined a concert on Geo Television Network celebrating this hopeful moment in Pakistan's history. I love the spirit and music of these young men who, unlike many in their elite ranks, are embracing the struggle for a just society. Here is a relatively old interview with them.

"Laal" in Urdu means the color red and fittingly the members of the group are passionate left wing activists. Supporters of democratic freedoms they wish to highlight the wretched class divisions of Pakistani society and struggle against them. Shahram Azhar, the vocalist and Taimur Rahman who has composed most of the songs met at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where Taimur was a lecturer and Shahram a young student. They have only released a few songs but the lyrics they have chosen to sing are overtly political anthems by the leading socialist and liberal voices of Pakistan like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib. Shahram's Facebook page lists people as diverse as Evo Morales, Rosa Luxemburg and Bhagat Singh as influences.

My personal favorite is "Umeed-e-Sehar" ("The Promise of Dawn") by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It is a wonderful composition, the video is simple but powerful and the impact of Faiz's beautiful poetry is enhanced by skillful vocals. Surprisingly, the English subtitles are not clumsy literal translations but actually convey something of the power of the original.

Their biggest hit so far was the first track they released called "MeiN ne us se yeh kaha". This is Habib Jalib's famous poem called "Musheer" or "Advisor" which lampoons the obsequious advisors who seem to surround everyone who attains power in Pakistan. Thanks to Zakintosh, I have a 1960's recording of Habib Jalib singing his own poem a cappella. The melody is exactly the same as Laal's version with instruments. Unfortunately this video does not have subtitles.

Here is a link to a blog that has videos of some other performances by "Laal".

Saturday, March 14, 2009

And, now, for something completely different -- Pakistani Women Cricketers

Even as I follow the twists and turns of the political and security situation in Pakistan with grave concern, observe the myopia of the country's governing leadership and witness its hapless citizens experience the steady erosion of state institutions, I have chosen not to write much about it on this blog. Instead I have stayed engaged in that ever evolving discussion on a separate online political forum so as not to inundate this blog with minutiae of Pakistani politics.

However, I was disappointed but not surprised that amongst all the political hullabaloo a wonderful Pakistani story went under-reported. The ICC Women's Cricket World Cup is currently being played in Australia and the Pakistan Women's team is not only ably representing their under-siege country but has performed significantly better than expectations. On March 9th, they beat Sri Lanka Women by 57 runs in Canberra to win their first ever World Cup match after six previous losses. This was also the team's first ever win against Sri Lanka in 19 ODIs. The team lost their next two matches against India and the favorites, England. However, the victory against Sri Lanka allowed the Pakistanis to move into the Super Six round where they were ranked at the bottom. Even as they were always unlikely to make the semi-finals they demonstrated some fighting spirit once again by defeating the West Indies Women by four wickets in the Super Six round match on March 14th in Sydney. They now face Australia on March 16th and New Zealand on March 19th for their final two Super Six games in Sydney.

The star performers with the bat have been the captain Urooj Mumtaz, the opener Nain Abdi and Armaan Khan, who in partnership with Urooj led the successful fight back in the chase against the West Indies. The fast bowler Qanita Jalil has been the main strike bowler but has been assisted strongly by the allrounder Sana Mir and the captain herself. Sana's steady performances both with the bat and the ball have been the critical contributors to the team's success.

This World Cup seems to be a turning point for the team as they will gain tremendous confidence from their victories on foreign soil and against better fancied opposition. If only they got some steady support from the Cricket Board and the people of Pakistan, perhaps one day these women would win Pakistan the World Cup that the men have not been able to win since 1992. The courage of these young women to play competitive sport in a culture that hardly encourages it and their heroic performance without much support from any corner deserves rich tributes and is particularly poignant in the wake of the Talibanization of parts of the country and the dastardly terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan national team in Lahore. I hope that Pakistanis will make an effort to recognize and reward the marvellous contributions of this band of pioneering cricketers.

Photos: 1) Urooj Mumtaz lifted up in celebration 2) Naila Nazir, Qanita Jalil & Urooj Mumtaz; 3) Nain Abdi playing a square cut 4) Qanita Jalil running in to bowl 5) Sana Mir playing an off drive (Courtesy Cricinfo)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Divine Musical Collaboration - Noor Jehan & Khurshid Anwar

In the wake of Khalid Hasan's death, the great Pakistani songstress Noor Jehan (Wikipedia) has been much on my mind. Khalid Hasan was a great admirer of the late Madam and wrote a much quoted tribute essay on Noor Jehan. Perhaps more importantly he translated Saadat Hasan Manto's great portrait of Noor Jehan's early years as a rising diva in pre-partition Bombay under the title "Nur Jehan: One in a Million" (unfortunately this link is to a scan of the essay and hard to read but the essay is included in the collection "Stars from Another Sky"). "Stars from Another Sky" includes other translations of Manto's brilliant Urdu sketches published in "Ganjay Farishtay" and "Loudspeaker" on film industry icons like Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Naseem Bano (Dilip Kumar's wife, Saira Bano's mother) and Shyam.

I have been listening to many of Noor Jehan's great songs from the 1950's. Listening to this music when she was at the pinnacle of her singing powers is a magical experience but one thing stands out. She was at her greatest when teamed up with that other giant of Pakistani film music: the virtuosic scholar composer Khawaja Khurshid Anwar. After he moved to Lahore in 1955, his music in films like Mirza SahibaaN" (1955), "Intezaar" (1956), Zehr-e-Ishq (1958), "Koel" (1959) and as late as 1970 in "Heer Ranjha" provided the perfect platform to showcase Noor Jehan's vocal talent. Khawaja Khurshid Anwar needs a separate blog post all his own but one of my treasured possessions is the recordings he arranged in Pakistan under the title "GharanoN ki Gayaki" to help capture and preserve the various styles of classical singing of several of the "Hindustani" schools of gayaki.

Now for my choice of the brilliant collaboration between Khurshid Anwar and Noor Jehan. Here is the song "Tere Bina Suni Suni Lage Re, Chaandni Raat" from the film "Koel". I love listening to this over and over again much to the chagrin of my family.

and here is the beautiful "Aa Bhi Ja, Aa Bhi Ja" from the film "Intezaar":
Ghazab kia tere waade pe aitbaar kiya
Tamam raat qayamat ka intezaar kiya

Top Photo: Noor Jehan and Pran in Lahore fimmaker Dilsukh Pancholi's film "Khandaan" (1942) - This was Noor Jehan's first film in Urdu (she had previously starred in four Punjabi films). The music was by Master Ghulam Haider.

Bottom Photo: Khawaja Khurshid Anwar in 1957 holding the President's Award for Best Story and Best Music for the film "Intezaar".

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Khalid Hasan (1934 - 2009) - Rest in Peace

Khalid Hasan, a giant of Pakistani journalism, died on February 6th in Northern Virginia of prostate cancer at the age of 74. In him, Pakistan and the sub-continent have lost a remarkable journalist, a talented translator, an acute cultural critic and an inside chronicler of people and events on the Pakistani cultural scene, particularly of the times before the barrenness of the Zia years set in.

There has been an outpouring of appreciations of Khalid Hasan as a man and a journalist. Here is a message from his son and an appreciation by Afzal Khan. For a flavoring of his lifetime of writings the best resource is his own site Khalid Hasan Online. This site has an extensive collection of his journalistic writings but I would direct people to some of the "Longer Pieces" such as "Nur Jehan" or "Sialkot" to fully experience his fine social sensibility and the infectious warmth for people that shines through.

On this blog, one of the most read entries is on the child prodigy Master Madan. That piece had derived inspiration in part from Khalid Hasan's column on Master Madan's lost recordings in Dawn. We never met in person but at the time I reached out to Khalid Hasan Sahib to express my appreciation for his contributions to Pakistani letters. He was extremely generous in his response and I will cherish that brief exchange with him.

In memoriam, here is the e-mail tribute I had written to him on October 2nd, 2006 and his warm acknowledgment of it.
Khalid Hasan Sahib,

I have been a fan of your journalistic writing for years. Although, on many occasions I have meant to reach out and express my gratitude for your writings on Pakistani (& sub-continental) culture, somehow I never got around to actually doing it. An important part of your contribution is your choice of writing in the English language. In doing so, you are helping preserve the memory of precious bits of our culture, both for the Pakistani diaspora and the young Pakistani elite, which even if it cares about our heritage, no longer considers knowledge of literary Urdu an important component of its identity.

There are so many forgotten corners of our cultural history that you have illuminated, its hard to know where to start. Your writings on Government College, Lahore and the many illustrious people associated with it have always brought back wonderful memories and revealed wonderful tidbits about those luminaries. My father, Khawaja Muhammad Zakariya studied there, taught Urdu there for a year in 1962 before spending the rest of his career at Punjab University, so I grew up hearing stories about legends like Patras, Dr. Nazeer, Taseer, Sufi Tabassum and countless others. I also particularly enjoy your writings on Lahore and your profiles of distinguised people (statesmen, writers, musicians, poets, film and radio-wallahs). I have been delighted that you have been translating much of A. Hameed's personal recollections of Lahore as they capture so many little details of a Lahore that no longer exists (even if some details of A. Hameed's accounts have been disputed by others, but then again that is the nature of memory) .

Cultural history, memoir and biographical essay remain much neglected areas in our country and you are helping capture so much of what is being lost. At least in Urdu there are many more volumes but one wishes more of those were translated as well. Manto's biographic sketches are, of course, pure genius. Ashiq Hussain Batalvi ("Chand yadeiN chand taasurat"), Daud Rahbar ("Paraganda tab'aa log", "Nuskha hai wafa", "Chand bateiN sureeli see"), Intizar Hussain ("CharaghoN ka dhuaN", "Dilli tha jis ka naam"), Lutfullah Khan ("Sur ki talash", Hijraton ke silisile") and Manzoor Ilahi's "Silsila-e-roz-o-shab" have given me great pleasure over the last few years. Perhaps other talented and prolific people like you will take the cudgels one day and bring these works to an English-speaking audience.

I apologize for this impolitely long communication. What finally prompted this e-mail was an essay I just read by Pran Neville on Master Madan. It took me back to your illuminating article on Master Madan published in Dawn in 2001 (from which his seems to be derived) and your account of the discovery of his lost recordings by M. Rafiq. I had heard the two Saghir Nizami ghazals growing up as my father played those recordings for us but I am fortunate enough to have listened to the other six recordings on the internet as well. Pran Neville's essay prompted me to write a brief entry on my blog which I thought you might find mildly interesting(

Please carry on your wonderful work. There aren't too many people left who can shine such a bright light on the hidden corners of our rich and beautiful cultural heritage.

Kind Regards,


My dear Fawad Zakariya Sahib,

I am overwhelmed by your letter (which is what emails can be but seldom are). I really had no idea I have done all that you credit me with. I take it you are able to access The Friday Times for which I write the "memorabilia" pieces every week. I should add that I have translated almost all of Manto's Ganjay Frishtay which was first published by Penguin in New Delhi as Stars from Another Sky. Those translations were later included in the omnibus volume A Wet Afternoon, published by Alhamra in Islamabad. You will be pleased to know that I have translated a lot more of Manto (including his only stage play, the little-read 'Iss Manjhdaar Mein' and many stories I had left out, plus some of his sketches) which is now under publication by Penguin in New Delhi. I hope the book is in print by the next Spring.

By the way, I studied at Murray College and though I joined Government College for a few months for MA (English) but (is that heresy?), I preferred to return to Sialkot where we still had wonderful British teachers like Prof A. W. Mowat. That being so, I cannot (and have not) called myself a Ravian. Prof. Zakariya Sahib of course I know of but as far as I can recall I have never met him. Our son lives close to ___ and next time I am in that part of the world, perhaps we can meet.

All the best and thank you for your most heart-warming message.

Khalid Hasan

Photograph: Khalid Hasan with Ahmed Faraz (seated)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

At the Inauguration

I wrote a very brief note in Washington DC on the day of Obama's inauguration on January 20th which I sent to some friends. Here it is below with some photographs I took that day:

"It was freezing cold today in Washington DC and I have never experienced this kind of chaos in event management in any developed country. However, I was extremely fortunate to get in to the gates and to witness a palpably historic event. Cold and lack of organization was simply not enough to dampen anybody's enthusiasm.

From the moment I got onto the metro at 7am to head to the Capitol Building to the time that I walked out of the venue at 1pm I was surrounded by an extraordinary bonhomie between people. There were stories on every street corner and I felt lucky to be around it all. As I walked up the escalator on the stop at Judiciary Square there was a girl behind me singing a surreally beautiful Negro Spiritual. The pride of African Americans in particular was clearly evident. The experience seemed to have brought people together and there was a warmth and friendliness amongst strangers that alas is not our normal demeanor. I had a marvellous day on the National Mall today. I hope that the promise of Obama's leadership is realized, even if only in part. He, perhaps unfairly, is the repository of tremendous hopes and expectations. This is a unique point in Amercian history and he carries an immense burden of history on his shoulders.We will have to see if he is up to the task.

I want to thank my Haverford friend Gendi who wrote to me while I was waiting in line to get in after seeing my Status Update on FB. His father was on the same flight as Obama's father when they both came to study in the US under a program sponsored by Senator John F Kennedy for Kenyan students to study in the US."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Debating Economics - What to Read if you Expect Intellectual Rigor

Mainstream US media is a vacuous echo chamber where conventional wisdom is endlessly repeated with a sprinkling of semi-relevant insider quotes and anecdotes to provide a veneer of credibility. Reading the popular press on economic and financial matters is a particularly frustrating experience. The more specialized a field the greater the propensity of journalists to rely on a few easy to reach sources of authority and pass half-digested opinion on to readers as information. To expect intellectually rigorous original thinking from economic journalists seems to be asking too much.

The global economy in general and the U.S. economy in particular is experiencing economic conditions unlike any other since the Great Depression. With the incoming Obama administration fully cognizant of the scale of the problem the urgent debate in the United States right now is focused on the best means to extract the economy out of its current morass. The nature of the problems and the debate about the potential approaches to ameliorate these problems can be staggeringly complex and given that we are in uncharted economic waters it is difficult to get a concise, consistent and fact-based discussion of the issues.

Most people are starved for time so they have to rely on a few easily accessible news sources to get the relevant facts. They will default to The New York Times (WSJ, FT etc.) or if they have a more serious appetite they will read The Economist. These are of course generally good sources but the richness and the quality of the debate on the internet can no longer be surpassed.

If you are not resistant to some minor wonkishness I would recommend two blogs for their excellent information content and relevant discussion of economic issues. Intelligently arguing a traditionally Keynesian view for an aggressively interventionist government role, informed by knowledge of depression-era economics and the Japanese "lost decade", is Krugman's popular blog "Conscience of a Liberal". Krugman does an excellent job of educating and informing while at the same time cutting through the fog of popular coverage. For an intelligent counter view, skeptical of government's capacity and ability to cure the economy's ills is Greg Mankiw's blog. Mankiw is a professor at Harvard and was the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush (do not write him off because of that). He was the youngest tenured professor of economics in Harvard's history (beating Larry Summers' prior record) and is an intellectual leading light on the conservative scene. However, the drawback of Mankiw's blog is that is fairly terse and not pedagogical enough when compared to Krugman. If you want to explore even more I would recommend the more frequently updated blog by Brad Delong (Berkeley) and the relatively new blog on Finance topics by the illustrious Eugene Fama and Ken French (U. Chicago).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Magical Trio - Kabir, Abida Parveen & Gulzar

Bhagat Kabir Das is a revered 15th century Indian saint poet much loved for his mystic verses that beautifully embrace a simple, non-sectarian and egalitarian spirituality. Sikhism's holy book Guru Garanth Sahib includes almost 500 verses by Kabir. Gulzar (born Sampooran Singh Kalra in 1936 in Jehlum District in pre-partition Punjab) is a modern Indian poet and lyricist best known for his sublime poetic contributions to Indian cinema. Abida Parveen has been mentioned on this blog a number of times. Hailing from Larkana, Sindh (born in 1954) she is one of the finest performers of sufi classical music and is justly referred to as the Queen of Sufi Music.

Below is a soul-stirring rendition of Kabir's "Mann Laago Yaar Faqiri MeiN" by Abida Parveen. In the introduction in Urdu, Gulzar pays rich tributes to Abida's divine talent. Here's a poor translation of Gulzar's beautiful words: "Her voice sounds like the voice of all worship. When she calls out to the divine you think yes, this voice must reach him; he too must be listening to this deeply sincere, truthful voice."

Mann Laago Yaar Faqiri MeiN
Bura Bhala Sub Ko Sun Leejo
Kar Guzraan Gharibi MeiN

Mera Mujh MeiN Kuch NahiN
Jo Kuch Hai So Tera
Tera Tujh Ko Saunp de
Kya Laage Hai Mera
Mann Laago Yaar Faqiri MeiN
Aakhir Yeh Tun Khak Mile Ga
KyuN Phirta Maghroori MeiN

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sufi Islam in South Asia – “A Staggering Multicultural Achievement”

Every year, The Economist magazine prints a delightful ‘special holiday double issue” around Christmas. It is filled with unfailingly interesting essays on an amazingly wide array of subjects. This year’s piece de resistance is the essay on South Asian Sufi Islam titled “Of Saints and Sinners”.

The essay is a wonderfully reported depiction of popular Islam as practiced by the millions of devotees of Sufi saints whose tombs and shrines are dotted all across India and Pakistan. These adherents range from the more serious-minded who seek self knowledge as a path to knowing God through contemplation, meditation and Quranic recitations to the far more numerous who flock to these shrines to beseech the saints to answer their prayers, leave offerings of gratitude and to celebrate the popular festivals centered around the urs (death anniversary) of their respective saint. An urs is a festive celebration because the word literally means wedding night to signify the saint's union with God after death.

The Economist essay is focused in large part on the celebration of the urs of the sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif in Sindh, Pakistan where almost a million people congregate for this 3-day event. (2008 was the 734th anniversary of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar's death.) The descriptions of the throngs of devotees, their diversity and tolerance, the ubiquitous scenes of dancing and celebration with non-stop performances of beautiful music and sufi poetry are joyous and heart-warming.

The Economist does not acknowledge it but it would be unfair not to give credit here to Declan Walsh of "The Guardian" who first reported in the Western press on this great gathering in Sehwan Sharif last year and where I first learnt of this incredible festival in rich detail. His two pieces in 2007 called "Devotees go for a whirl at the country's biggest party" and "The greatest party on earth?" are well worth reading. In particular there is a fantastic audio slideshow that I highly recommend. It has several wonderful photographs from the festival and a very traditional qawwali performance at the shrine in the background.

We cannot move on without sampling some music deeply associated with Sehwan and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The signature performance honoring Qalandar (also affectionately known as Jhuley Lal because devotees believe that he fulfils the fertility wishes of childless mothers) is "Lal Meri Pat Rakhio Bhala Jhule Lalan". Every major Sufi musician or Qawwal performs this regularly and it is not unusual to end the program with this as a finale as it tends to bring the house down. Here are distinctly different versions of this piece from two of the greatest sufi singers of the last half century. Here is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who is in superb form here:

and here is the inimitable Abida Parveen:

There has been a relentless onslaught in Pakistan against this popular and syncretic form of religion for the last 30 years. Since the beginning of the Russo-Afghan war in 1979, the Pakistani military state, Saudi Wahhabi zeal fueled with petrodollars and American cold war myopia all conspired to promote an intolerant and jihadi Islam that has done tremendous damage to the fabric of mostly tolerant South Asian Islam practiced in much of Punjab and Sindh for centuries. Mercifully, it has still survived in very large pockets because it has roots in the people. Yes, it is superstitious but it is also remarkably generous, tolerant and joyful.

Lahore, where I grew up, is a city full of shrines and mausoleums of saints with each of these hundreds of sites tended to by dedicated keepers and visited in large numbers by devotees, particularly for the annual urs celebration. Each saint has their own legend and mythology and locals keep these traditions alive primarily through oral story-telling. Even when you move beyond the large and well known destinations, like the tomb ('mazar') of Data Ganj Baksh Ali Hajveri (the 11th century sufi who is virtually the patron saint of Lahore) or that of Hazrat Mian Mir (the 16th century saint deeply venerated by Jahangir and Shahjehan and whose tomb was constructed by Shahjehan's son, the poet-prince Dara Shikoh), there is an endless stream of people who visit lesser known but no less fascinating shrines of saints whose stories read like something out of Arabian nights.

There is the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain (which is actually two separate people, the Hindu boy Madho and the saint Lal Hussain, who legend has it were inseparable), the site of the annual Mela ChiraghaN (Festival of Lamps) and a place revered by both Hindus and Muslims. There is the remarkable 16th century mazar of the child saint Ghoray Shah (who died when he was 5) and who, it is believed, loved toy horses so a gift of a toy horse from his followers would result in their prayers being answered. This mazar is crowded with people and you can see the many toy horses that devotees continue to bring for Ghoray Shah. There is also Bibi Pak Daman (Chaste Lady), one of the most popular shrines in the city (not far from Queen Mary's College) which is reputed to be the sepulchre of Ruqqaiya or Bibi Haj and her five virgin sisters. Again, according to local legend Bibi Haj was from Hazrat Ali's family and came to the sub-continent in the early 8th century several years after the battle of Karbala. However, the earth opened up and buried her alive after she had been asked to appear in front of the local ruler which the chaste lady did not wish to do. (Historians date this grave instead to the 12th century and surmise that the daughters buried here were those of Syed Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi). And hundreds of these Shehrzad-like stories go on and on in a muddled but tolerant, rich and captivating mix of religion and superstition.

Credits: Information about Lahore's shrines are sourced from Yasmeen Lari's excellent Heritage Guidebook on Lahore.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Gotham Book Mart's Collection Goes to Penn

Having whiled away many pleasurable hours in antiquarian bookstores, this story about New York's historic Gotham Book Mart caught my eye. The precious collection of books from this bookstore, founded in 1920, will now belong to the University of Pennsylvania thanks to an anonymous benefactor. It is amazing that the entire inventory valued at several million dollars was bought up for a mere $400,000 at auction.

Here's a little excerpt and a photograph from the news story that gives a sense of the bookstore's history:

The Gotham Book Mart was founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff. It was the haunt of literary figures like Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill. It exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey. Its customers included George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones and Tennessee Williams (for a day) worked as clerks there.

The Gotham Book Mart was famous for its literary eminences. A December 1948 party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell (seated, center) drew a roomful of brightlights to the Gotham Book Mart: clockwise from W. H. Auden, on the ladder at top right, were Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford (cross-legged, on the floor), William Rose Benét, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart,Gore Vidal and José Garcia Villa. (Photo: Gotham Book Mart)