South Asian Art

Emperor Jahangir receiving his two sons, c1605-06

16 March 2010

Succession intrigues:Emperor Jahangir receiving his two sons; an album painting in gouache on paper, c1605-06.

Read the related story here: Power, then as now, brings its own price. Neither life nor death was kind to this unfortunate son of Jehangir. AROON RAMAN recounts one of the most tragic yet inspiring stories to come out of Mughal India…

A red card for the Secular Indian Muslim

14 March 2010
I am posting a brilliant piece (published by Indian Express) by my dear friend Rakhshanda Jalil - she is a bold yet sensitive writer based in Delhi. All power to her pen.

The controversy regarding the conferment of Qatari nationality upon M.F. Husain — and his acceptance of it — has given us the opportunity to revisit an old but neglected debate. The debate on being an Indian Muslim or a Muslim Indian is old hat; but the one concerning the “secular Indian Muslim” — the SIM? — needs our urgent attention. Those who doubt the existence of such a breed and view it as a contradiction in terms would do well to remember the legacy of a long line of distinguished people, from Mirza Ghalib, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr M.A. Ansari, Maulana Azad, Dr Zakir Husain to M.F. Husain, to name just a few. Then there are the nameless millions — doctors, lawyers, writers, journalists, teachers, wage earners who are living proof of Indian secularism. Husain is simply another link in this ganga-jamuni chain. He needs to neither establish his credentials nor protest his innocence; his work speaks for him.
Having established the credentials of this breed, let us set out the contours of its present dilemma: one, it exists in sufficiently large numbers to have escaped our notice yet, oddly enough, has never managed to establish a public profile for itself; nor has it, given its numbers, translated into a sufficiently large, and therefore woo-able, vote bank. Two, despite its largish presence (I imagine roughly half the population of Muslims in India), the breed is under severe threat.
One is not interested in establishing the presence of the SIM, for that one takes as a given. It has always existed in the weft of the Indian tapestry as the warp that runs alongside. In fact, what ought to concern us is the threat to its existence. That this threat is (more…)

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Man Kunto Maula

10 March 2010

In memoriam – Asim Butt (1978-2010)

1 March 2010

He was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall not look upon his like again

(Hamlet, Shakespeare)

It is only when Asim has gone that one takes measure of the legacy he has left for his troubled and torn country. A decade long association was lost on the fateful day of January when we heard of his untimely exit from this world. For hours, I sat in my office, numb. Not that Asim’s suicide was a surprise, for he had warned us all many times of this inevitable dénouement to his dramatic life.

Five years ago, when I wrote a piece on the Pakistani poet Mustafa Zaidi and the romance with nurturing a death wish, Asim wrote to me and said that I had no clue what this was all about. His words were: “loved and was deeply moved by your piece on Zaidi… saw so much of myself in his life story, hoping I don’t die unsung and on the fringes, and wondering why you of all people would have a death wish.” Asim had suffered and struggled with his inner demons with an intensity that most of us will never appreciate. This was the first time that I knew about the seriousness of his other side: a dialectical dark side to his otherwise cheerful, loving and warm persona. Asim cannot be mourned; he can only be celebrated. He would have hated the melodramatic statements that I am inclined to write in this remembrance.

Two of my dearest friends were close to Asim in a way that is difficult to understand. Nearly a decade ago I met Asim at Ali Dayan Hasan’s home in Karachi. I was passing through on one of my occupational breaks from my assignment in Kosovo. Ali had returned from England and joined the monthly Herald and was piecing his life together. I met this lean and quiet young man who had big, bright eyes and a unique smile. We did not talk much except for a small argument over something, perhaps about a book, but I could not help being thoroughly impressed with his viewpoint. Since then I have had a series of exchanges, verbal and electronic, in which Asim was always animated, off-beat and extremely gifted with words and ideas. No wonder his art work and many of his writings are a formidable legacy for us all.

Born into a regular upper middle class family, Asim Butt was always an exception. He was different, as he would tell me. Rejecting convention, tradition and the confines of societal expectations was therefore something that started way too early with Asim. To be fair, he did pursue a path chosen for him. He attended the Li Po Chun United World College where his gift for painting became polished, and at some level he had chartered his future course. There was some meandering: a degree in the first batch of B.Sc. in Social Sciences earned from the Lahore University of Management Sciences; and later an unfinished PhD in History from the University of California, Davis. He returned to Pakistan, wrote for the Herald and other publications, and finally enrolled himself at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.Not surprisingly, Butt graduated with distinction in 2006. (more…)

Rickshaw and truck poetry from Pakistan

19 February 2010
My old friend Raza Bokhari sent me these golden lines used by our rickshaw & truck drivers to express their angst, emotion and sense of humour in a hostile environment. Before I post them, a little on the image on the right (borrowed from paklinks.com).
The rickshaw on the right has street poetry on love, trust, doubt, prayer and jealousy. There is a sale/discount incentive on the left. As a mark of respect, the Ustads (mentors who must have coached the driver or helped him procure the rickshaw are also mentioned on the bottom left and bottom right). (more…)

Madam Nur Jahan

4 January 2010

(Published in The Friday Times) – The twentieth century trajectory of Pakistani music and stardom are epitomised in the life and works of Madame Nur Jehan (1929 – 2000) also known as Malika-e-Tarranum. Had there been no partition of boundaries, musicians and composers in 1947, she would have been a subcontinental diva. A common Punjabi aphorism, loosely translated, states that there never was and never will be anyone like Nur Jehan. With her incredible talent, fiercely independent persona, flamboyance and ingrained humility, she surpasses even the best of global icons. The complexity of her life and times have yet to be appreciated: breaking with convention, she defined a new set of rules in the patriarchal entertainment industry, manipulating it where possible to ensure that she would not become the archetypal exploited South Asian singer. Her wit and lust for life remained till the end, and with the exception of not having died in her beloved Lahore, she died with no regrets.

When nine years ago, the Queen of Melody breathed her last breath in a Karachi hospital, the circumstances of her death were considered peculiar by Believers. Even in death she achieved what ritualistic Muslims seek all their lives – to die on the holiest day of the year. The twenty-seventh night of the holy month of fasting is widely believed as a night when all prayers are answered and the gates of forgiveness are let open. This is reportedly the reason that her Karachi-based daughters hastened her burial. (Other less spiritual accounts explain it as a consequence of conflict among her children by different husbands, and the struggle to control family assets). (more…)

Reclaiming melody

5 March 2009

Labourers of love: Mushtaq Soofi, Izzat Majeed & Christoph Bracher

Mian Yusaf Salahuddin’s Haveli, where Tarang was launched

Christoph Bracher testing equipment at Sachal Studios

Revival of the orchestra by Sachal Studios is a landmark in Pakistan’s music industry

Izzat Majeed: patron of music

Singers and musicians showcasing their skills at Sachal Studios

Humaira Channa

Izzat Majeed was raised in a household where good music was an object of reverence. His late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age his son was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. Mian Abdul Majeed was a student of Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and introduced Izzat to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to guide him in his tastes and sensibilities

It was a mellow, moonlit evening of Lahore’s glorious spring when Sachal Studios released their album ‘Tarang’. It could not have been at a more fitting venue. Amid the decaying environs of Old Lahore stands the Haveli of Mian Yusaf Salahuddin, refurbished into a little planet of conservation as a courageous effort to protect and rejuvenate Lahore’s cultural soul. Mian Yusuf is the one denizen who has done this good deed for posterity, along with Syed Babar Ali who has conserved his ancestral Mubarak Begum Haveli in Bhaati Gate. Of course, the state has been abject in its failure to conserve Lahore’s majestic heritage.Sachal Studios is the brainchild of international businessman Izzat Majeed and man of letters Mushtaq Soofi, an exceptionally motivated duo. Sachal has infused the local music scene with innovation and energy. It is promoting a hybrid orchestra – once an integral part of the subcontinent’s film music tradition. Since 2003, Majeed, an activist and radical intellectual in a previous avatar, has devoted his time and money to this passion – to create Pakistani melodies in sync with the imperatives of contemporary musical sensibilities.

Started as a labour of love, Sachal Studios has released ‘Tarang,’ a collection of music that brings together the best musicians from all over Pakistan, and Humaira Channa’s competent voice. Of late, Channa has been a victim of commercial success and the quality compromises that define Pakistan’s derelict film music. Sachal’s production is a relief; a fresh departure from the usual, and the melodic results are impressive.

At the Old Lahore Haveli, Channa with her family and associates were accorded the respect they deserve. In a similar vein, immensely talented artists, such as the tabla maestro Billoo Khan and Pakistan’s leading sitar player, Ustad Nafees Ahmed Khan also attracted the attention of the star-studded guest list and Lahore’s usual chatterati. It was on a dimly lit terrace of the Haveli that I was introduced to Izzat Majeed, who looked pleased with himself and his Sachal partners as notes from the latest album mixed with the spring air.

Inspired by the Abbey Road Studios in London, Majeed and Soofi have been working for the last six years with Christoph Bracher, a scion of a German musicians’ family, to design and set up Sachal Studios. A state of the art music studio in Lahore is a landmark, for it heralds a new trend of post-production finesse that has hitherto been missing from the Pakistani music production process. A major contribution of Majeed is his introduction of the concept of ‘music-producers’. The norms of the industry have tragically reduced the role of a producer to an investor, from that of someone who drives the quality, provides technical inputs and steers the overall aesthetic of a musical experience.

Majeed related to me how he was raised in a household where good music was an object of reverence. His late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age his son was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. His father was a student of Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and introduced Majeed to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to guide him in his tastes and sensibilities.

As he reminisced about the lost eras, Majeed told me how Jazz captured his imagination in his youth. “Believe it or not, great performers such as Louis Armstrong visited Lahore, and played fabulous music at the United States Information Services office on Queen’s Road,” he recalled. But he laments the fact that the vacuum that the local music scene is trapped in is gigantic. Ustad Mehdi Hasan does not sing any more, Madame Noor Jehan is dead and the great golden voices are getting lost in the onslaught of new trends in the music industry. He conceded that the pop scene is vibrant, but a bulk of those productions are “pure electronic noise”. Majeed is right, because the Pakistani state has demolished, brick by brick, the secular, composite culture of the Indus Valley and replaced it with a crippling “ideology” where no flowers bloom, where no bulbul sings.

This is why Sachal Studios is such an important intervention. It flies in the face of the state’s enforced desertification of culture; it seeks to encourage younger singers like Feriha Pervaiz, Ali Raza and Zaheer Abbas amongst others, to become heirs of the traditions that have historically defined musical consciousness in the popular domain. Izzat Majeed is also a poet in Punjabi and English, and so is Mushtaq Soofi. The two music aficionados have lent their verse to the myriad compositions of Sachal Studios.

Sachal’s efforts to build an orchestra have been rewarding. There is joy and unabashed triumph in Majeed’s tone when he says that in 2003 only 10 violinists were available in Lahore; the number has now increased to 30, providing extraordinary ground to the Sachal orchestra on which it can expand and deepen its range. The glorious sub-continental tradition of employing grand orchestras to enhance melodies, used by legends such as Naushad Ali, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, Shankar Jaikishen and Salil Chaudhry has become extinct except perhaps in the works of the genius, A R Rehman. In Pakistan, Majeed has picked up the tradition of serious film music of yesteryear, and has revitalised it; one hears the endangered violin instead of the plain electronic synthesiser in works produced by Sachal Studios.

But Majeed makes no grand claims. “I am not a crusader; I create music for the pleasure of music itself,” he says. This is an unusual statement in a country where bragging is a national pastime. It is easy to understand why Majeed’s partnership with Mushtaq Soofi has been fruitful. Soofi, a notable Punjabi poet, with vast experience in music production at Pakistan Television (PTV), is as self-effacing as Majeed. I met Soofi at the Sachal Studios premises, where he talked to me about his passion for music, sitting at his desk, chain-smoking, books with subjects ranging from pre-Islamic Persia to sources of the English language lying on his lacquered table. Like Majeed, he has also been immersed in music for the better part of his life. And after a long stint at PTV he has devoted his energies to Sachal. The prospect of pursuing music unencumbered by bureaucratic obstacles has set Soofi free.

Earlier, my visit to Sachal was quite an experience. Amid the ramshackle automobile workshops and Warris Road limits, which are constantly shrinking due to encroachments, stood the refurbished building, not too high yet modern in character. Like its vision, the environs and facilities of the studios were also ground-breaking. The state-of-the-art arrangements and impeccable acoustics have led to high quality results. I recalled (more…)

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