June 11 was a very hot day in Kuch Khaas, probably the best known private cultural salon in Islamabad. An obscure private organisation called the IPAC — Institute for the Preservation of Arts and Culture — had invited me to a fankar baithak. I didn’t know what this would turn out to be but as musician after musician stood up and talked about how it was only the love of music which kept them in the profession, I understood what was happening. Genuine artists are dying of poverty, indifference and neglect. And yes, despite the Lok Virsa’s National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage and a few connoisseurs, those who still meant to teach their dying arts to their children were very few and they persisted despite all odds because of the love for their art and their pride in being ‘the last of the Mohicans’.
The person who had brought these artists together was Umair Jafar — a young man of twenty-eight, with very unlikely beginnings for a patron of dying arts. The son of an army officer, Umair got the usual privileged schooling available in the post-Ziaul Haq period to boys of his class, i.e. large doses of Pakistan Studies and that brand of Islamic studies which prepares one to support the policies of a garrison state. Typically enough, he studied for his MBA at the University of Adelaide in Australia and specialised in corporate strategy. And, even more predictably, he came back to Pakistan where he has worked in the corporate sector, probably spending most of his energies in making rich people richer.
But somewhere in the deep crypts of his being, there was a chord which reverberates to classical music. Yes, classical music, not the lilting film music with romantic words which most of us enjoy. It all began, says Umair, when he heard dhurpad — classical music at its best — performed by three European young women. The dhurpad is so ancient that it is played on the pakhavaj not the tabla. The tabla is said to have been made by cutting the pakhawaj into half and the last expert (ustad) who could play it was Ustad Allah Lok from Faisalabad. But how did the European girls learn such an esoteric art form? The story is that there was a musical family (gharana) called the Talwandi Gharana. This gharana migrated to Pakistan and last year its great performer, Ustad Hafeez Khan, passed away. However, the remaining gharana is in India. They spend their time in Europe as well. This is called the Dagar khandan and some of its ustads are employed by the Rotterdam Music Consortium in Holland. These girls were their students. A flute player among them was so extraordinary that Umair was moved by the idea of creating such people here in Pakistan.
The first step was to find out those who existed. For this Umair, dipped into his own savings and started going around the countryside in search of art and artists. And sure enough, he found practitioners of many art forms. For instance, he found that the borindo is still played by people in Sindh. This instrument is a hollow sphere of baked clay with three holes in it. One plays it like the flute by blowing in it.
At one time it was a popular instrument, but now only Zulfiqar Ali Lund carries in his mind the legacy of centuries. The others are under the earth. Similarly, the sarangi is played by Ustad Allah Rakkha and there are a few survivors of the art of sarod playing. The chang — also called the Jews’ harp — is played by Ijaz Sarhadi. It is a typical musical instrument of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Ijaz’s father, Munir Sarhadi, used to be an acknowledged master of it. The murliyon (murli or been) is played by jogis or snake charmens. Iqbal Jogi was its last master player.
There are other names, both dead and living, but space restricts me to these few. The point is that Umair set up this institute as a one-man venture and, as yet, he has received no funding for it. He argues that the arts are discouraged as Pakistanis are so confused about their identity as to disown the thousands of years of common roots between the peoples of the Indo-Gangetic valleys. The shared cultural heritage of music is denied and, therefore, there is no enthusiasm to keep it alive in Pakistan.
Secondly, there is the debate on listening to singing — samaa — as the books of the Sufis such as Imam Ghazali’s Ihya Ulloom al–Deen and Ali Hujwairi’s Kashful Mahjoob bring out. Though a number of authorities allow samaa under certain conditions — that women and beardless men should not be singing and the songs should not be erotic — there are interpretations which even disallow instrumental music.
Thirdly, the Ziaul Haq years created a generation which does not care for music, though western musical forms are now getting popular amongst the youth. So it is our cultural heritage which is in danger while ephemeral musical forms, especially those which are borrowed from the West, are flourishing. In any case, classical music requires a greater attention span and maturity of taste.
Umair plans to introduce classical music to schools so that children can at least listen to it. He also wants a big socio-economic database of all surviving artists so as to support their art. He went to Sadiqabad, Kashmore, Jafarabad and other flood-affected areas in 2010 and helped artists. He even bought shoes and chadars from artisans to help them reconstruct their houses or get their daughters married off.
And he has heart-rending tales of whole communities leaving their ancestral professions. For instance the Mohana community in Sindh, which was very fond of singing and dancing, has left it not only because there is no money in it but also because preachers have told them it is sinful to be an artist.
The IPAC may succeed or not — one-person endeavours are always fragile — but if we want to give our young people some pride in their cultural roots, in their centuries-old identity, in their non-violent traditions, then this is the idea we must cherish and promote. It may not be an effective antidote to extremism but it is a first step towards rebuilding a tolerant Pakistan. And in the process it may even give us something of a positive image — something we desperately need!
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2011.