Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mirza Ghalib - A Musical Feast

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (b.1797 - d.1869) was one of Urdu's greatest poets. No other poet (with the possible exception of Faiz in the 20th century) has seeped into the popular imagination of the Urdu-knowing sub-continent quite like Ghalib. His cultural influence in the world of Urdu is almost Shakesperean. Ghalib's ghazal poetry and prose (in the form of his letters to friends) have left a lasting imprint on the language itself. What is remarkable is that this towering reputation is built on a slim volume. "Deevan-e-Ghalib" is less than 200 pages of Urdu poetry.

Featured extensively in art, film and theater, it is music where his poetry has found a permament home for well over a hundred years. It is a rare popular or semi-classical vocalist of the sub-continent who hasn't sung Ghalib's ghazals. This post will celebrate the wonderfully varied presentations of Ghalib's poetry in music. So much of Ghalib's poetry is familiar to audiences that I have chosen a different ghazal for each of my favorite pieces highlighted here. Every one of these ghazals has been sung by different performers in multiple compositions.

Let's kick this off with a couple of cuts from film music:

Bharat Bhushan played Mirza Ghalib in the 1954 Indian film of that name and the lovely Suraiyya played the courtesan ChaudhviN. Here is Suraiyya singing "Aah ko chaahiye ik umr asr hone tak". The composition is by Ghulam Mohammad (whose music for the film "Pakeezah" years later immortalized him).

Gham-e-hasti ka Asad kis se ho juz marg ilaaj
Shama har rang meiN jalti hai sehr hone tak

In the 1961 Pakistani film "Mirza Ghalib", Noor Jehan played the ChaudhviN character and her rendering of "Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehmaN kiye huue" is justly famous. The composer is Tassaduq Hussain.

Jee dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat, keh raat din
Baithe raheN tasawwur-e-jaanaN kiye huue

Gulzar's TV serial Mirza Ghalib on Doordarshan in the late 80's must be credited with introducing Ghalib to a whole new generation of Urdu lovers. Naseeruddin Shah's sublime portrayal of Ghalib was the highlight of that production and ghazal singer Jagjit Singh sang the ghazals in his beautiful, deep voice. Jagjit Singh who passed away last year helped keep ghazal singing alive in India where the new generation seems ever more removed from the old composite culture of the Urdu/Hindi-speaking belt. Jagjit and Chitra Singh's contribution to Indian ghazal singing is undeniable but even though they sang some great compositions their virtuosity falls short of both the masters of the light genre like Lata and Noor Jehan and the semi-classical greats like Mehdi Hassan and Farida Khanum.

Here's a nice version of "Unke dekhe se jo aa jati hai munh par raunaq" by Jagjit from the TV serial.

Hum ko ma'loom hai jannat ki haqeeqat lekin
Dil ke khush rakhne ko Ghalib yeh khayal achha hai

Before moving on to the semi-classical parade of immortal melodies lets listen to a singer who was his own genre. There has been no other Kundan Lal Saigal; the voice, the mastery, the soul-stirring performances! The music of K.L. Saigal is a human treasure. Saigal singing "Phir mujhe deeda-e-tar yaad aaya".

Dum liya tha na qayamat ne hunooz
Phir tera waqt-e-safar yaad aaya

Begum Akhtar sang countless Ghalib ghazals in her inimitable style. Here she is singing "Nukta cheeN hai, gham-e-dil uss ko sunaye na bane":

Ishq par zor nahiN hai yeh woh aatish Ghalib
Keh lagaye na lage aur bujhaye na bane

Ustad Amanat Ali Khan (the scion of the Patiala gharana) was a classical singer but with few patrons of classical music in Pakistan he started singing ghazals in a light style and gained a tremendous following. He died almost 40 years ago but his ghazals remain highly popular. "Yeh na thee hamari qismat keh visaal-e-yaar hota":

KahooN kis se meiN keh kya hai shab-e-gham buri bala hai
Mujhe kya bura tha marna agar aik baar hota

Anyone who has ever visited this page knows of my reverence for Mehdi Hassan. I remain in awe of the great man's musical genius. Here's a little gem of a performance of a Ghalib ghazal by the emperor of ghazal singing: "Arz-e-niaz-e-ishq ke qaabil nahiN raha".

Bedaad-e-ishq se nahiN darta, magar Asad
Jis dil pe naaz tha mujhe, woh dil nahiN raha

Malika Pukhraj at her best in this melodious rendering of "TaskeeN ko hum na royeN jo zauq-e-nazar mile":

Saaqi gari kee sharm karo aaj, warna hum
Har shab piya hee karte heiN mae, jis qadar milay

The stentorian voice of Farida Khanum (disciple of another Patiala vocalist Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan) singing "Zikr uss parivash ka aur phir bayaaN apna":

Hum kahaaN ke da'na thhe, kis hunar meiN yakta thhe
Be-sabab hua Ghalib dushman aasmaN apna

Iqbal Bano (disciple of Ustad Chand Khan of Delhi) sings "Dayam para hua teray dar par nahiN hooN meiN" on PTV's program 'Nikhar' in 1974. The mehfil is at the house of the writer Ashfaq Ahmed and you can see several prominent writers and poets (Ahmed Faraz, Ehsaan Daanish etc.) in this video.

Yaa rab zamana mujh ko mitata hai kis liye
Lauh-e-JahaaN pe harf-e-mukarrar nahiN hooN meiN

Abida Parveen, the queen of Sufi music brings her uniquely spiritual style to Ghalib in this wonderful performance of "Ibn-e-Maryam hua kare koyee".

Jab Tawaqqo hee uth gayee Ghalib
KyuN kisi ka gila kare koyee

I will end with a reading by Zia Mohyeddin of his own essay "Ghalib aur MeiN". Zia Mohyeddin's literary readings are performance art themselves and he has done a great service in introducing younger audiences to the pleasures of Urdu literature. His multi-CD readings of Ghalib's letters ("Ghalib ke khatoot") are a masterpiece. Here's a little flavor of Zia Mohyeddin reading Ghalib's letter to Mirza Alauddin Ahmed. They introduce the listener to the cadences of the cultured, informal language of Ghalib's era. This was path-breaking writing at the time as epistolary prose in general tended to be ornate, formal and emotionally stunted.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

More Mehdi Hassan - "Allah Agar Taufeeq Na De"

We are fortunate that Mehdi Hassan has left us thousands of live and studio recordings of his peerless performances. Even for devoted fans it is not unusual to come across a gem that has never been experienced before. That happened to me today as I was browsing iTunes and saw an unfamiliar live album titled "Mehdi Hassan - EP" that was released in India earlier this year. Here I share the beautiful ghazal "Allah Agar Taufeeq Na De" which is the second recording in that album. The poet is unidentified. The piece is long (34 minutes) but the patience of true fans will be amply rewarded. My appreciation goes out to the person who has posted this on youtube so I can share it in this space. The ghazal's Urdu lyrics below the video have been transcribed by me.

Allah agar taufeeq na dey insaan ke bas ka kaam nahiN
Faizan-e-mohabbat aam sahi irfan-e-mohabbat aam nahiN

Ya Rab yeh maqaam-e-ishq hai kya go deeda-o-dil ka kaam nahiN
Taskeen hai aur taskeen nahiN aaram hai aur aaram nahiN

KyuN mast-e-sharaab-e-aish-o-tarab takleef-e-tawajjoh farmaaiN
Awaz-e-shikast-e-dil hi to hai awaz-e-shikast-e-jaan nahiN

Aana hai jo bazm-e-jaanaN meiN pindaar-e-khudi ko tor ke aa
Aye hosh-o-khirad ke deewane yaN hosh-o-khirad ka kaam nahiN

Zahid ne kuch iss andaaz se pee saaqi kee nigaheN parne lageeN
Mai kash yahee ab tak samjhe thhe shaista-e-daur-e-jaam nahiN

Ishq aur gawara khud kar lay bay shart shikast-e-faash apni
Kuch dil kee bhi un kay saazish hai tanha yeh nazar ka kaam nahiN 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mehdi Hassan: The "Voice of God" is no more

The legendary Pakistani singer Mehdi Hassan, universally acknowledged as "Shahenshah-e-Ghazal" (King of Ghazal), died on June 13th, 2012 after a protracted illness. The outpouring of grief and the subsequent torrent of tributes testify to the influence of Mehdi Hassan on lovers of music and Urdu ghazal all over the world. The world of music has lost an irreplaceable asset. I wrote a blog post in November 2009 on some of my favorite Mehdi Hassan pieces along with a biographical sketch (I am proud that several people have borrowed facts from that original piece for which I worked hard to dig up authentic information on the maestro's life).

With Mehdi Hassan's passing, most of the formative influences on my musical tastes since childhood have now passed into history with the notable exception of Lata Mangeshkar and Farida Khanum (may they both live long and prosper!). I can never be thankful enough to have been born in a family whose primary mode of interaction to this day are conversation, debate and argument about politics and history and discussion and enjoyment of literature, film, sports and music. This cultural environment and the economic struggles of a "sufaid-posh" middle class family are my dominant memories of growing up. Mehdi Hassan is the quintessential voice of that upbringing. His imbeccable diction, mellifluous voice and sureela-pan will always live in the hearts of those who love semi-classical Ghazal (a genre of which he is a virtual creator).

Here are a few of the obituaries and articles on Mehdi Hassan published since his death. RIP Maestro!! Your music will live forever!

The Guardian - Obituary
Ali Sethi in The Guardian
The New York Times - Obituary
BBC - Obituary
Hindustan Times - Reactions
Express Tribune - News and Initial Reactions
Public Radio International - Tribute

Let's conclude a tribute to the King in the most fitting manner with his immortal music. For the ghazal selection, here is a slightly lesser known beauty. Close your eyes, listen to the words of Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali and the masterful rendition by Khan Sahib. This is an out of the world experience.

Aage barhe na Qissa-e-Ishq-e-ButaaN se hum
Sab kuchh kaha magar na khule raazdaaN se hum

Here's a gem of a film song from the Pakistani movie "Pehchhan". Nisar Bazmi composed the music. My eight year old growing up in a very different time and place loves this song and often requests it in the car. Here is hoping that Mehdi Hassan's music will be discovered and loved by many generations yet to come.

P.S. I will mention it here to remind myself but will write some other time about my passing encounter with Mehdi Hassan when I was a young boy and he stopped his car at seeing my father and I standing by the side of the road near our VW beetle that had just broken down on us!!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Ja MeiN Tose Naahin BoluN - Lata & Noor Jehan

Lata Mangeshkar is a goddess of music. She has sung a staggeringly large number of genuinely great, not just excellent, songs. One of my favorites in a long list is "Ja Tose NahiN BoluN Kanhaiyya". This beautiful duet (with Manna Dey) was composed by the great Bengali music director Salil Chowdhry for the 1956 film "Parivaar". The song (I am told) is in Raga Hamsadhwani. Lata's effortless brilliance in this number makes Manna Dey look like a rank amateur.

Noor Jehan is the only other female playback singer for whom I have the same reverence as Lata. She is the quintessential Pakistani cultural symbol. Even though she had already achieved fame by 1947, Noor Jehan was the only true mega star of the film industry to settle on the Pakistani side of the border. Enchanting romantic songs from films  "Intezaar", "Dupatta", "Haveli", "Koel" and "LaakohN meiN Aik", patriotic 'naghmas' such as "Aye Puttar HattaN Te NahiN Wikde" and lively Punjabi film numbers from "Heer Ranjha" and "Paatay Khan" all evoke cultural milestones in the country's history.  In the 50's, 60's and 70's, when she was still fortunate enough to be working with great composers like Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, Master Inayat Hussain and Rasheed Atre, Noor Jehan sang every bit as brilliantly as Lata at her peak. To experience her at her sublime best, lets listen to Noor Jehan sing very similar lyrics to Lata and Manna Dey above and enjoy her mastery of the sur. This is from the film "Mauseeqar" (1962) with music by Rasheed Atre in Raga Jaijaivanti. I have had this on repeat for the last 2 days.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Favorite Musical Masterpieces: Thankgiving Edition (D.V. Paluskar, Faiyyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali/ Barkat Ali, Salamat Ali Khan)

Ustad Faiyyaz Khan
Here in the United States this is the week of the Thanksgiving holiday. It is one of the more relaxing times of the year and with a four day weekend, I have had plenty of time to re-listen to some great Hindustani classical music. Since its been a while that I posted the sublime Jhinjhoti thumri by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan here are a few more gems that will surely accompany me to the proverbial desert island. Some may notice that these are all by male singers but a post is brewing in my head which will focus on some favorite pieces by female classical singers (Begum Akhtar, Kajjan Begum, Roshan Ara Begum, Girija Devi).
First up is D.V. Paluskar. I have always loved the purity of D.V. Paluskar's sur and the clarity of his singing. What a tragedy that this extraordinary talent died in 1955 when he was only 34. His father, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was a singer and teacher of some renown and founded the premier classical music institute called "Gandharva Mahavidyalaya" in Lahore in 1901.

Here is D.V. Paluskar singing "Piyu Palan Laage More AkhiyaN" in Raga Gaud Sarang:

Next is a little nugget from the emperor of the Agra Gharana, Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. Known as Aftab-e-Mauseeqi (a title given to him by the Maharaja of Mysore), Faiyyaz Khan's mastery and his distinctive, booming voice leaves one mesmerized. Faiyyaz Khan was a towering figure of his time; a court musician for the Maharaja of Baroda for many years, a close friend of the Sarangi-maestro Ustad Bundu Khan and a much sought after "Mehfil ka Baadshah" for musical concerts and conferences. Professor Daud Rahbar (Zia Mohyeddin's first cousin) has written a charming book about music called "Kuchh BateiN Sureeli See" which is dedicated to Ustad Faiyyaz Khan ("Jinn kay gaane meiN mohabbat aur himmat kee goonj thhee").

This is Ustad Faiyyaz Khan's "Pawan Chalat" in Raga Chhayanat:

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his brother Ustad Barkat Ali Khan were great exponents of the Patiala Gharana. Their long association with Lahore makes me think of them even more fondly. Barkat Ali Khan (1908 - 1963) was born and died in Lahore and is buried in the Miani Sahib cemetery. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan moved to India a couple of years after partition but learned much of his music in Lahore with Akhtar Hussain Khan and Aashiq Ali Khan. All these Patiala scions practiced and performed often at "Takia MeerasiaN" near Gawalmandi bazaar.

The two pieces I have selected here are in Raga Pahari so one can contrast the singing of the two brothers side by side in similar light genre performances. Barkat Ali Khan had a gentler voice more suited to semi-classical singing but Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had greater range. His resonant voice and vocal mastery felt equally at home in Thumri/Daadra or Khayaal.

Barkat Ali Khan sings his famous maahiya,"BaaghoN MeiN Parre Jhoole"(written by Chiragh Hasan Hasrat): (unfortunately there is a bit of background crackling noise in this version)

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sings "Qurbaan So Maariye".

When I reflect on the Hindustani classical music tradition and its evolution, there is no doubt in my mind that it is now a shadow of its former self. Pakistan inherited the likes of Salamat Ali/ Nazakat Ali, Fateh Ali/Amanat Ali, Ghulam Hassan Shaggan and Aashiq Ali Khan but the art form died quickly in the culturally hostile terrain despite the best effort of those greats. Their disciples kept up somewhat but almost entirely abandoned the more demanding, long classical forms like Khayaal. Even in India, where there is a much more robust music education infrastructure and far greater number of organized public concerts, the quality of the performers is generally mediocre. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Omkarnath Thakur or D.V. Paluskar are in a different league but amongst under-50 performers one would be hard pressed to find more than a few that are of even Ustad Rashid Khan's quality. The genuinely first rate, even in India, have either passed away or are quite aged (Kishori Amonkar, Girija Devi).

Lastly, we have a heavenly performance by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan with a bandish that seems particuarly apt as one remembers all these vocalists who are no longer with us.

Salamat Ali Khan sings "Daiyya, KahaN Gaye Woh Log" in Raga Allahiya Bilawal.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Vanished Cultural Landscape - A Reverie Inspired by Alamgir

Flipping channels this morning I stumbled on to a live phone interview with the 80's pop icon Alamgir on Pakistan's Hum TV channel. Listening to the conversation with him took me down a nostalgic spiral into the Pakistani music of my teens. He sang his signature toe-tapping and melodious numbers like "MeiN Ne Tumhari Gaagar Se" and "Dekha Na Tha". He was the bridge between the lively film music singers like Ahmed Rushdi and the future pop phenomenon of Nazia and Zoheb Hasan. Alamgir's Urdu pop songs with their western beats are justly considered the progenitors of Pakistani pop music. I have always particularly loved an enchanting Bengali song which he first sang on PTV in the mid-80's in a benefit concert raising money for typhoon victims in Bangladesh. I was watching that concert at the time and immediately fell in love with "Aamay Bhashaili Rey, Aamay Dubaili Rey".

Then surfing on YouTube I found this gem "Soona Soona Jeevan Apna":

This is Alamgir singing as a guest star on Anwar Maqsood's late 80's television drama serial "Aangan Terha". I have watched this video many times since the morning and find it unbearably sad for it represents a cultural landscape that has likely vanished forever. Surrounding Alamgir you see a group of actors, who in retrospect seem to me the last survivors of the disintegrating urbane old world of the shurafaa of U.P.

Transplanted to their new abode in Karachi after partition, the migrants couldn't help but bring a slice of U.P. (and Delhi, Hyderabad, Bihar and Bhopal) to this alien commercial city far from their ancestral imaginations. (Na woh saawan, na woh hariyaali, na woh jhoola, na woh sakhiyaan, na woh maanjhe ka jora, na woh thumri, na woh kabootar-bazi, na woh mushaira, na woh soz-khwani!). As they settled down, they naturally kept the flame of old traditions alive and enriched their adopted home. If you want to experience some sublime echoes of the Karachi phase of these traditions of the Urdu heartland, here are some personal favorites:
- Album of wedding songs called "Yeh Hari Hari Chooriyan" released in 1978
- Zehra Nigah's tarannum renditions of Faiz ("Jis Roz Qaza Aayegi") and Nasir Kazmi ("Gaye DinoN Ka Suragh Le Kar Kidhar Se Aaya Kidhar Gaya Woh"),
- Kajjan Begum's divine thumris "Sanwari Sooratiya Pe MeiN JaaooN Waari" and "Meherwa Ras Boondan Barse" and a Moharram Noha ("Run MeiN Jab Bano-e-Bekas Ki Sawaari Aayee")
- Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi's uncategorizable masterpiece "Aab-e-Gum". (Yusufi Sahib is Urdu's greatest living writer in my opinion. How I wish he would publish something more. It has been almost 22 years.) "Haveli", the first essay in the book is one of the best pieces of writing chronicling the manners and mores of that old Muslim U.P.(in this instance Kanpur) which in 1947 was already being upended by the steady march of time but whose demise was virtually assured by the consequences of partition. The phrase "Yeh chhorr kar aaye haiN" at the end so poignantly illustrates the grand tragedy of human existence on a miniature scale that it is hard to choke back tears whenever I read it.

But this long-winded reverie orginated with Alamgir's song and the actors in the video. It is because several of the actors in this clip like Shakeel, Mahmood Ali and Salim Nasir along with playrights like Anwar Maqsood were amongst those who familiarized the rest of Pakistan to that old country Urdu-speaking culture. To a child like me sitting in Lahore, turning the television set on and watching the Karachi dramas of Haseena Moin, Fatima Surayya Bajia, Anwar Maqsood, Khawaja Moinuddin and Athar Shah Khan opened the window to another world of refined culture, proper diction and humor steeped in an almost impossible command of spoken literary idiom. Even the street patois of the less literate characters seemed somehow more sweet. Today, when I picture Qurban Jilani, Jamshed Ansari or Azra Sherwani in Uncle Urfi, Salim Nasir in Aangan Terha, Mahmood Ali in Taleem-e-BaalighaN and Shakeel and Neelofer Aleem in Shehzori I imagine them as the last unknowing flag-bearers of the Muslim Urdu culture of Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Aligarh and countless smaller U.P. cities that produced their own leading lights. Both Salim Nasir and Mahmood Ali have passed away. So have Subhani BaYounas, Jamshed Ansari, Azra Sherwani, Ishrat Hashmi, Arsh-e-Munir, Qurban Jilani and Begum Khurshid Mirza. Shakeel, Talat Hussain and Qazi Wajid continue to work along with some of the writers like Anwar Maqsood and occasionally Haseena Moin. But in Karachi too, once the original generation of Urdu-speaking migrants passes from the scene we will increasingly look back at the golden period of PTV dramas from the late 60's to the late 80's as the dying flicker of a culture that has long ceased to exist in the Indian cities of its birth but was not able to take root in its new home either.

Perhaps that was never a realistic expectation but many children and grandchildren of the U.P. migrants are barely aware of what has been lost and the state's general deterioration will ensure that the original legacy will almost completely peter out in another generation. Even though as an ethnic Punjabi I am not a direct cultural descendant of the Urdu-speaking Muslims, no one interested in the cultural history of Urdu and of Muslims in India can be indifferent to this tragic loss.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Magic of Qawwali

For the last few weeks I have been immersed in listening to traditional Qawwali music and what a transporting experience it has been! The initial impetus was a couple of divine Coke Studio Pakistan performances this season by the scions of the "Qawwal Bachhay" gharana: Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad's "Kangna" (Raga Malkauns) in episode 2 and Ustad Naseeruddin Saami's "Mundari" (Raga Adana) in episode 3. Additionally, I have drawn endless inspiration from Musab's blog "Tangled up in Blue" which has become my home destination when I want to learn about qawwali and its traditions and savor the offerings of the great qawwals. (Musab is someone I have gotten to know only in the blogosphere but this 24 year old in Pakistan genuinely makes me optimistic that our rich cultural heritage will survive and maybe even thrive for many more generations!)

For me, a large part of the pleasure in the arts comes from sharing treasures with others who also love the diversity and ingenuity of human creativity. So here are a few qawwalis I have been enjoying by some of the masters of this genre.

Let me start with the most famous practitioner of all: Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He recorded so much and experimented with so many things during his final few years that some of his music started to lose its sufi / qawwali essence. Poorly done fusion tracks, thumping incongruous beats and amateurish videos of the Ustad singing "Afreen, Afreen" can only be described as regrettable. For, he was indeed a great qawwal! You have to listen to his traditional qawwalis to remember his magic and to recall the great tradition of qawwali in Punjab to which he was an heir. (We are fortunate that with his father Fateh Ali Khan, uncle Mubarak Ali Khan, cousin Badar Miandad and nephew Rahat Fateh Ali we have access to three generations of this family's qawwali music.) Here's Amir Khusrau's famous kalaam, "Mun Kunto Maula" in a wonderful live rendition in London in 1989:

The next piece is by the lesser known Javed Taufiq Niazi and party from the Khurji Noharbani gharana of Bulundshehr, U.P. Along with Punjab, Delhi and U.P. are the other great centers of qawwali tradition in the sub-continent. Niazi sahib and party are based in Karachi. I hope that they gain more public prominence as their style of singing still feels beautifully rooted in the soil of U.P. and retains a great charm. (Zak, maybe you folks can invite them to T2F!). I have listened to the qawwali "Aaya bana aaya, haryala bana aaya" below at least a couple of dozen times in the last few days. The imagery of Hazrat Imam Hussain (visualized as a bridegroom) transformed to the U.P. landscape mixes the spiritual and the local in a manner unique to the syncretistic culture of the region.

Haider ka poot aaya, Zainab ka jaaya aaya
Haider ka poot aaya, Zehra ka jaaya aaya
Hoor-o-malak nay gaaya
Haryala bana aaya, dulara bana aaya

The last piece is a well-known qawwali (among the afficionado) but what makes it quite unusual is that it is a bhajan with lyrics by Nawab Hilm of Hyderabad. This version below is by Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal, the worthy current flag bearers (along with Naseeruddin Saami) of the longest line of qawwali singers originating in Delhi at the time of Amir Khusrau. Just the "Qawwal Bachhay" generation ahead of them boasted the great Munshi Raziuddin, Manzoor Niazi and Bahauddin/Qutbuddin Qawwals. I understand that recently the sons of Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad had their initiation and gave their first public performance in Karachi inaugurating the next generation of the 750 year old tradition. I wish them the very best in keeping alive the illustrious family tradition. Here is "Kanhaiya yaad hai kuch bhi hamari".

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Favorite Musical Masterpieces: #1 - Abdul Karim Khan ("Piya Bin NaahiN Aavat Chain")

I heard music in my house for as long as I can remember. There was my father's record collection and his spools of taped recordings from which he would sometimes play his favorite pieces for us (K.L Saigal, Mehdi Hassan, Begum Akhtar). There too was my mother's ubiquitous transistor radio, with a brown leather covering, on which over the years I listened to untold hours of music broadcasts from Radio Pakistan Lahore and All India Radio's (AIR) Urdu service. There was the twice weekly doses of 'Chitrahaar" on Doordarshan. My love of old film songs owes much to AIR's program "Aawaz de kahaN hai".
This may just be a personal peculiarity but I have always felt an urge to share with others whatever music, art and literature moves me. More often than not it has been my wife on the firing line but many others have received my enthusiastic "gifts". I now intend to use this 'safe' space to introduce some of the pieces that have deeply moved me over the years. (No chance here of holding people forcibly hostage). I have listened to many of these recordings dozens of times and the few people who periodically hit this page may chance upon something that they otherwise may not have experienced.

My first selection is Ustad Abdul Karim Khan's famous 1925/26 thumri "Piya bin naahiN aavat chain" in Raga Jhinjhoti. Abdul Karim Khan was the doyen of the Kirana Gharana and fittingly its is his bust that sits in the main entrance of the All India Radio headquarters. This thumri is revered by many fans of Hindustani semi-classical music. This is marvellously effortless singing and Abdul Karim Khan's mastery of 'sur' is breathtaking. Virtually all Kirana musicians (including Malika-e-Mauseeqi Roshan Ara Begum) at one time or the other have performed this thumri but Abdul Karim Khan's original recording remains in a league of its own.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Faiz's 26th Death Anniversary - A Noor Jehan Tribute

Faiz Ahmed Faiz died 26 years ago yesterday (November 20th, 1984) aged 73. Over the years, regardless of whether governments tried to suppress his poetry or to promote it, his hold on the Pakistani literary culture has never flagged. In addition to the seemingly eternal relevance of his poetry to the Pakistani masses, Faiz was also fortunate to have had his works performed by the greatest Pakistani vocalists of the twentieth century. Malika Pukhraj, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hassan, Amanat Ali Khan and of course Iqbal Bano all have signature recordings of Faiz's kalam.

However, starting with "Mujh Se Pehli Si Mohabbat Meray Mehboob Na Maang", Noor Jehan came to be identified as the voice of the revolutionary poet in captivity. Faiz is said to have heard Noor Jehan's rendition in prison and permanently dedicated the ghazal to her. With the possible exception of Iqbal Bano's "Hum DekheiN Ge", Noor Jehan's original version of "Mujh Se Pehli Si Mohabbat" is the ghazal that most reverberates in the Pakistani popular imagination.

As a tribute on Faiz's anniversary, here is a version of Noor Jehan singing this ghazal live. The video is old but I love the quintessential Noor Jehan you see in this performance.

Here is another personal favorite of Noor Jehan singing Faiz: "Tum aaye ho na shab-e-intezaar guzri hai"

Woh Baat Saare Fasane MeiN Jis Ka Zikr Na Tha
Woh Baat Unko Bohat Na Gawaar Guzri Hai

Photo: Faiz with the Chilean 1971 Nobel Laureate poet, Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Vay MeiN Chori Chori" - ReshmaN, Meesha Shafi & Lata Mangeshkar

Coke Studio is Rohail Hyatt's innovative and extremely popular music program on Pakistani TV. Since his days as one of the original band members of Vital Signs in the early 90's he has come a long way as a highly respected and sought-after music producer who is creatively showcasing the breadth of Pakistan's indigenous music talent from well-known veterans to unfamiliar but promising young performers. Coke Studio is in the midst of its third season this summer and amongst several excellent performances thus far, Meesha Shafi's "ambient and trippy" revival of "Vay meiN chori chori" has been widely admired both for her deep, resonant voice and the quality of the vocals. In part the popularity of the song owes something to the young, attractive and charismatic presence of Meesha Shafi and the anticipation that behind the raw talent she is a potential star in the making. As the daughter of TV actress Saba Pervaiz, her performing arts pedigree is an additional marketing boon. "Vay meiN chori chori" is a revival of a song that was first performed by the virtuosic folk singer ReshmaN several decades ago. Here is Meesha Shafi's version:

ReshmaN, the popular Pakistani folk singer with a stentorian voice, is best known for her raw, almost primal renditions of Punjabi and Rajasthani folk songs. She was born in Loha village in Rajasthan in 1947 in a gypsy family which moved to the Pakistani side of that desert terrain after partition. She is often reverently referred to as the "Voice of the Desert". Here is ReshmaN's version of "Chori, Chori":

While listening to Meesha Shafi's version, I felt right away that I had heard the melody before in an Indian film song. Finally, after humming a few bars I recalled that Lata Mangeshkar's wonderful song "Yara sili sili" from the film "Lekin" is the exact same composition. That 1991 film starring Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia is set in Rajasthan so it is not surprising that a Rajasthani folk melody would be used. Once I went to YouTube to look at a video of "Yara sili sili" all sorts of hostile comments from internet Indians and Pakistanis unpleasantly confirmed that it is indeed the same "dhun". Personally, I think it takes nothing away from the masterful and atmospherically different song sung by Lata. The added bonus are Gulzar's lyrics. Here is Lata singing "Yara sili sili" behind Dimple Kapadia's moving lips:

Photo:  A young ReshmaN

Sunday, April 04, 2010

"Toomba" and "Aik Alif" - The Brilliant SaieeN Zahoor at the Coke Studio

SaieeN Zahoor is a Pakistani Sufi musician who has spent his life singing at Sufi shrines in Punjab and Sindh. He has become a household name relatively recently thanks to Rohail Hyatt's brilliantly produced program of fusion music called "Coke Studio". Here are two wonderful "Coke Studio" performances by SaieeN Zahoor; "Toomba" is a solo performance and "Aik Alif" is with the talented duo Noori (Ali Noor and Ali Hamza).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Farida Khanum Singing Raga Kamod - Manna for the Soul

The internet is a remarkable treasure trove and I continue to marvel at the doors of culture, information and connectivity that it has opened. My recent discovery is a wonderful collection of Hindustani Classical music on the file sharing site esnips. I have been spending hours listening to pieces I love and discovering unknown treasures of the sub-continent's greatest vocalists.

Here's my selection of the day; Farida Khanum singing Raga Kamod. This is unfortunately the kind of performance by the the sister of Mukhtar Begum and a disciple of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan (son of the founder of the Patiala Gharana Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, one half of the legendary duo Aliya Fattu) that Pakistani audiences have witnessed only rarely. In a country with almost no appetite for classical music she shifted her focus to lighter forms of singing decades ago.

Raga Kamod by Farida Khanum:

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P.S. Here is an excellent article on Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan in the online classical music magazine Sadarang. There is also a wonderful personal recollection by Mr. M.A. Sheikh of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's "shakkar" ceremony at Takia Meerasian in Lahore in 1932/33. At this event Bade Ghulam Ali Khan honored his two Patiala Gharana gurus, Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and Ustad Akhtar Hussain Khan (father of Fateh Ali/Amanat Ali).

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:

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

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".

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".

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.