Common chords and borders

Spiritual Music of Punjab encapsulates 40 years of research on musical forms

Aqsa Ijaz January 30, 2016
Spiritual Music of Punjab encapsulates 40 years of research on musical forms


The first thing that strikes you about Dr Virinder Singh Kalra’s latest book, Spiritual Music of Punjab, is the unique – and somewhat unusual – typeset of its title on the cover.

While the name of the book appears in English, it is accompanied by the original title in Punjabi – Punjabi Mouseeqi dey Roohani Ang tey Rang – embossed in the Persian script. This is followed by a Gurumukhi rendering of the same title.

The cover carries a picture of an assortment of musical instruments set against the backdrop of a gurdwara. It opens the portal to a multifaceted world and provides a glimpse into the book’s layered richness. Not only does it present two languages and three scripts which are pivotal to the South Asian identity, it also vividly portrays the diversity that the book represents.

Although we have been warned of the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover, Kalra’s work fails to disappoint.

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Spiritual Music of Punjab encapsulates Kalra’s 40 years of research on the subject. He is well-placed to comment on the matter as he has worked extensively on the subject. Many people who have attended weekly gatherings at Najam Hussain Syed’s house on Jail Road, Lahore would find in this book a resonance of unforgettable conversations that were the toast of these evenings.

Kalra’s work is an in-depth academic study of spiritual and religious music in Punjab on both sides of the border. It is a rigorous intellectual enquiry into the forms of spiritual music and immerses you into the worlds of musicians who teach and practice their craft.

The author draws upon examples from the musical forms of qawwali, kirtan and dharmic geet. Kalra’s argument revolves around the existing literature on musicology and extends to debates on postcolonial identity and comparative musicology. It also presents a geocritical understanding of South Asian music and uses a diverse range of methodological tools.

Furthermore, the book encompasses the history of musical traditions on both sides of the borders. It establishes a careful understanding of the terms in the geographical space of both the Punjabs.

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Spiritual Music of Punjab breaks the dichotomy between the sacred and secular in spiritual music by discussing these terms. The author believes this is pivotal because the words do not embody the same meaning as one travels across the border from India to Pakistan.

According to Kalra, the sacred, the secular as well as the profane in Pakistan are inextricably linked to “the profoundly Semitic usage relating to the instances of blasphemy or some artistic use of God with negative connotation.”

The book begins as a journey. It takes you through the introductory pages of historical literature on music and religion and the development of their relationship to colonial India and Britain. It then establishes the key theoretical approaches that it employs for analyses.

Kalra’s study of the local music scene of Punjab is then expanded through an extensive overview on musical forms such as kirtan, qawwali and dharmic geet.

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However, the information is largely based on secondary sources.

Given its wide range of themes and rigorous analyses, the book would be of greater interest to academics, lovers of music, students, scholars and all those who enjoy classical and spiritual music of the subcontinent.

While Spiritual Music of Punjab is not a page-turner, it presents several years of experience in an engaging and interesting manner.

However, on a critical note, the book’s readership could be vastly extended if editing errors are corrected in subsequent editions.

Title: Spiritual Music of Punjab

Author: Dr Virinder Singh Kalra

Pages: 321

Publisher: Punjab Lok Lehar

Price: Rs400
The writer is the American Institute of Pakistan Studies fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and is currently translating Mirza Athar Baig’s short stories, ‘Be-Afsana’, in English

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2016.

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