Clad in a crisp silver suit, the bespectacled Ustad Shahbaz Ali playing the harmonium seemed in perfect accord with a small gathering of music lovers at Kuch Khaas on Friday evening.
The unassuming musician, academic and writer is the only remaining soloist harmonium player in the country. Ali believes the genre is fading away and the only semblance of revival is performances such as these.
Organised by the Institute for Preservation of Art and Culture, the 13th show of the ongoing instrument ecstasy series featured the soloist harmonium player’s performance who was accompanied by Ustad Ajmal on tabla.
Opening with the Kaushal Ranjana raga, the duo rendered an eclectic combination of music ranging from a Sindhi folk tune to some western chords, merging the two instruments from diverse cultures.
An instrument of West European musical traditions, the harmonium belongs to the piano and accordion family and was originally played in church music. Introduced in the Indian subcontinent during the British rule, it was used to accompany classical vocal music, semi-classical ghazals and bhajans. Eventually, it was played as a solo instrument for classical forms by maestros such as Ustad Aijaz Hussain Hazarvi and Muhammad Sadiq of the Indian subcontinent.
While it has become one of the most ubiquitous instruments in the subcontinent’s classical music, film and theatre, and is the instrument of choice for composition and accompaniment, its use in Western music has disappeared.
Sprawled on the floor or seated on the sidelines, the audience warmed up to the melodies transcending the chilly weather. “I enjoyed this more than vocal music,” said Imtiaz Gilani, a guest, who punctuated the various performances with words of appreciation. “Playing harmonium solo is such a novelty since usually it is used as a support instrument and coupled with the tabla, it creates a wonderful effect,” he added.
Unlike a number of classical musicians, Ali does not belong to a musical gharana. He was trained under the tutelage of late Ustad Qazi Zahoorul Haq, who in turn was a disciple of Pandit Krishna Rao Ji of the Gwalior gharana. Ali then went on to learn the harmonium from Ustad Muhammad Sadiq in the solo classical style and has been performing for audiences for over three decades.
Currently, he serves as visiting faculty for Musicology at the National College of the Arts and is also a professor of Urdu Literature at Government College Rawalpindi, where he has been teaching for the last 25 years. He is also the award-winning author of the book “Sur Sansaar,” published in 2004 in the field of musicology.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2014.