While most musicians venture into commercial music after spending some time dabbling in more classical and refined forms, 18-year-old Rani Taj (real name Shahanara Taj), is going through the transition at a much quicker pace. Based in Birmingham, the British-born Kashmiri dhol player started her music career playing folk music to popular songs, particularly at weddings. However, now Taj has her eyes set on classical Sufi dhol music. “I always found the Sufi style of playing dhol much more intricate and soulful,” she told The Express Tribune.
Her dedication to the Sufi style was apparent when she surprised students of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Rawalpindi by revealing to her audience that the renowned dhol brothers Goonga and Mithu Saaen had joined her from Lahore to perform. Though the duo, accompanied by a ghungroo-wearing dancer named Michael, delivered a mesmerising and powerful 25-minute set; the venue, the National Library Auditorium, was a far cry from the rawness and grit of Lahore’s Shah Jamal shrine.
A few students were enveloped in the percussion mania and let loose with dance; however, the majority remained seated. Unfortunately, Taj didn’t accompany her Sufi counterparts as she was quite tired after performing a five-song set. “Playing the dhol gets tiring for men quite easily. Seeing a petite girl like Rani playing long sets is a testament to her dedication and passion,” commented Mithu Saeen. However, Taj re-emerged for her last set, accompanied by another surprise: Islamabad-based Punjabi rapper, Bally Shah, who urged students to the front of the stage saying, “I don’t play to a sit-down crowd.” To the performers’ delight, the audience complied.
A fourth year student at NCA, Hira, said: “Rani Taj did a performance for us last year as well and it was great, but this one was even more electrifying.” Another audience member, Haseeb, said that he wanted to go to Shah Jamal to catch a performance by Sufi dhol players and was unable to do so, but this surprise brought Lahore’s Shah Jamal to him.
However, if Haseeb and others like him want to experience Sufi dhol in its true essence, they will have to venture out to Shah Jamal, especially given that its newest and most novel recruit, Rani Taj is honing her classical skills under the mentorship of Goonga and Mithu Saeen. Though Taj must go back to Birmingham to continue her everyday life and education, she says she always keeps Pakistan close to her, “It is the heart of dhol,” she stated.
She plans on making frequent trips back to Pakistan to continue studying under Shah Jamal’s canopy, but will continue to pursue classical instruments, such as the tabla and viola, back in Birmingham.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2012.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had incorrectly mentioned member of the audience from the National Council of Arts. This is incorrect. The error is regretted.
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