South Asian Art

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
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…)

Noor Jehan & Khurshid Anwar

3 March 2009

I loved Fawad’s post “A Divine Musical Collaboration – Noor Jehan & Khurshid Anwar” and here it is:

In the wake of Khalid Hasan’s death, the great Pakistani songstress Noor Jehan (Wikipedia) has been much on my mind. Khalid Hasan was a great admirer of the late Madam and wrote a much quoted tribute essay on Noor Jehan. Perhaps more importantly he translated Saadat Hasan Manto’s great portrait of Noor Jehan’s early years as a rising diva in pre-partition Bombay under the title “Nur Jehan: One in a Million” (unfortunately this link is to a scan of the essay and hard to read but the essay is included in the collection “Stars from Another Sky”). “Stars from Another Sky” includes other translations of Manto’s brilliant Urdu sketches published in “Ganjay Farishtay” and “Loudspeaker” on film industry icons like Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Naseem Bano (Dilip Kumar’s wife, Saira Bano’s mother) and Shyam. (more…)

Saving Kahoo Jo Daro

24 February 2009

Read this impassioned appeal in the press – it also alerted me to the situation that haunts this ancient relic.

The city is built beside an old Buddhist metropolis of 4th century. There are remnants of the Stupa in ancient city known as Kahoo Jo Daro.

The Stupa on Moen Jo Daro , Kahoo Jo Daro and some other un-excavated Stupas can be classified as the lower Indus basin sites. They are different in art & material. Mud & terracotta is widely used instead of stone. (more…)

Sufi Art Festival in Ajmer

17 February 2009

My friend Syed Salman Chishty,from Dargah Ajmer Sharif sent me this message. I would have loved to be there but such are the divides and challenges that I simply cannot pack up and go without dealing with the layers of officialdom.

Chishty Foundation is based on the blessed vision ,principle and message of “Love towards all, Malice towards none” which is the blessed message of Hz.Khawaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishty (r.a) popularly known as Khawaja Gharib Nawaz (r.a). (more…)

Rediscovering Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999)

3 February 2009
Raza Rumi asks if Pakistani state and society are ready to reclaim the great artist on his tenth death anniversary

Zahoor ul Akhlaq: “the most significant influence on contemporary art”

Akhlaq with his daughter, Jahanara

Sheherezade, and a guest lighting a lamp on the tenth death anniversary

Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Sheherezade: reflections of times past

Jinnah from Akhlaq’s Triptych

Friends at Akhlaq and Jahanara’s tenth anniversary: Naazish Ata-Ullah, Naeem Haq and Salima Hashmi (inset) the dancing lamps

Ten years ago, on a grey, brutal January day, the great artist, Akhlaq, and his gifted daughter, Jahanara were shot dead … the innate humanism of Akhlaq and his family was shattered to bits, much like the splintered state of Pakistan, where art and life are either marginalised, silenced or blown to pieces

We as a society excel at tottering on the shores of forgetfulness; and as a state we are constantly in denial, quick in erasing history lest it haunt us and ask unsettling questions. The National Art Gallery in Islamabad, built after decades of inaction, needs to reclaim Akhlaq’s work and bring it back to Pakistan

It is not easy to write about Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999), an artist whose life and work in so many ways encapsulates the troubled soul of Pakistan. Ten years ago, on a grey, brutal January day, the great artist Akhlaq and his gifted daughter, Jahanara, were shot dead. This was not a run-of-the-mill incident. The innate humanism of Akhlaq and his family was shattered to bits, much like the splintered state of Pakistan, where art and life are either marginalised, silenced or blown to pieces.On this January afternoon, Shahbaz Butt, an acquaintance of Pappu Sain, shot Jahanara and her fiancé, Al-Noor. Jahanara, 24 years old at the time, fell on the ground, to die. The noise, alarming Akhlaq and his fellow artist Anwar Saeed, sent them rushing in to see what had happened. Anwar Saeed was injured by Shahbaz, who shot Akhlaq. He died on the spot..Shahbaz now languishes in jail, while Pakistan is deprived of two inimitable souls. It is unclear what prompted Shahbaz to wreak this senseless violence: drugs, inability to cope with life or an extreme sense of inadequacy that could only be corrected through violence.

A decade later, Akhlaq’s immense legacy is all but invisible, thus marking a post-death demise. How and when did we come to such a pass? This is what the conspiracy of circumstance and the context of Pakistan have done. “The single most important influence on contemporary Pakistani art,” in the words of Salima Hashmi, renowned artist and Akhlaq’s close associate, is absent from art discourse. It is this apathy that I wish to remember on his tenth death anniversary, along with the infinite spaces that his art nurtured and created for generations to come.

As an avid student of Pakistan’s avante garde modernist, Shakir Ali, Akhlaq was destined to radicalise the sensibilities of art movements and pedagogy at Lahore’s famous National College of the Arts (NCA). The young artist, Akhlaq, had the good fortune to live in Shakir Ali’s home in Lahore’s Garden Town suburb for quite some time, and this is where he imbibed the iconoclasm and poetry of Ali’s work and continued the experimentation right into the mainstream of art education. Akhlaq’s early work bears testimony to the influences of the newly emerging school of modernism shaped by the visions of Shamza, Ali Imam, Ahmad Pervaiz, Moyene Najmi and others.

For this writer it was a gargantuan challenge to recount his legacy and re-discover him. Walking into the room where Akhlaq and Jahanara were ruthlessly murdered gave rise to mixed feelings. Akhlaq’s wife, the eclectic potter-artist Sheherezade has been struggling to deal with a life permanently altered on that fateful day of January 1999. The house, painted in bright colours, displays the vibrant world that Sheherezade has created; memory mixed with longing, recreating Jahanara’s dance, using colours from Zahoor’s palette for embellishment.

As we commenced our conversation, we soon found ourselves lost. The little corners of silence between sentences were filled with the mysteries of Akhlaq that still remain undiscovered, at least in large measure. Sheherezade told me about his journeys from Delhi to Karachi in the forties and eventually to the NCA in the sixties, where he found his voice. In 1966, Zahoor was awarded a British Council Scholarship and joined the Hornsey College of Art, to be followed by a stint at the Royal College of Art. This is where the interaction with the British Museum and its priceless, tragic collection of Mughal miniatures opened new vistas for Akhlaq. Once back in Pakistan, he started to imbibe the miniature forms, spaces and poetries into his style, as well as setting up the miniature department at the NCA.

As an exuberant and bohemian student, this was the time when Sheherezade met Akhlaq, found herself under his spell and defied her family to marry him at the Karachi flat of Shahid Sajjad, the eminent sculptor. Jamil Naqsh was also there and the group of friends had a long, fun-filled day on the shores of the salty Arabian Sea. Sheherezade had a glint in her eye as she narrated the event before she remarked: “Zahoor was the first and perhaps the last interesting, ah the most interesting, person I have ever met. I have never found anyone as enchanting as him.”

Akhlaq was a man of few words, another trait he might have inherited from Shakir Ali. Space, silences and reflection defined much of his time. This is not to say that he was not sociable. His closest friends were at the NCA, with whom he spent a fun-filled time when he was not delving into philosophy, or creating his masterpieces in states of frenzy, intoxication or exceptional lucidity.

Sheherezade further mused how the NCA and Zahoor developed a symbiotic relationship that was mutually transformational. Akhlaq was a “peculiar and an unusual husband, but he enabled me to develop a parallel life and thus expanded my life-experience”. Like his other relationships, the marital partnership was also intense yet parallel to his inner life. Zahoor needed a lot of space, “the space of night” in the words of his biographer, and sometimes he did not get it. It was one of those extraordinary experiences that entail a life of one’s own.
Added to this was Zahoor’s immense knowledge, spanning subjects as varied as art, history, philosophy and calligraphy, a discipline in which received training from an early age from the renowned calligrapher, Yousaf Dehlavi. His appreciation of the skill and intimacy with discipline therefore were passed on to him in his childhood. Behind the screen of tradition, and going back to the roots, was also the classic scar of migration and uprooting. Akhlaq’s family left their beloved Delhi for Karachi at the gruesome moment of Partition in 1947. The nostalgia and the sense of separation which underlies Akhlaq’s work were pervasive. Later, his various travels to different parts of the world intensified both the rootedness and the contemporaneousness in his work.

Such profound influences – of heritage, training, travel and intense relationships – enabled Akhlaq’s work to straddle both the traditional and the contemporary, encompassing visual traditions that represented as well as defied the geographical and political boundaries of Pakistan. Akhlaq could concurrently weave the discipline of Islamic geometry, the iconography of the Mughal manuscript, the well-worn genres of European painting and Pakistan’s colonial heritage all into one space, and yet there was space left over to express the contemporary artist of today. There is not a single moment when his work is bound by the constraints of the past or the woes of the present; there was synthesis, a fluid one, merging the thousand years of Pakistan’s heritage onto speaking canvases. Rashid Rana, the young artist of global recognition and an avid student of Akhlaq narrated how the latter helped his generation liberate itself from the onerous baggage of tradition by reinventing ‘tradition’ itself.

Along the fascinating journey of Akhlaq’s creativity, the two daughters of the couple, Jahanara and Nur Jehan, help deepen that quest for equilibrium, the synthesis of the old and the new; of creativity and the institution of marriage. Concurrently, Akhlaq’s genius flourished as an outstanding sculptor, printmaker and painter, and he received multiple awards within Pakistan and abroad. By the 1980s, he was criss-crossing disciplines and art forms, thus delving deeper into Islamic art, painting, printmaking and sculpture.  In 1989, Akhlaq joined Yale University, USA, to pursue post-doctoral research at its Institute of Sacred Music, Religion and the Arts. After retiring from NCA as the head of the Fine Arts Department in 1991, Akhlaq proceeded to Bilkent University, Ankara, as a visiting professor, and by the mid nineties, the family had landed in Canada. Here, Akhlaq received an appointment at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. The return to Pakistan in the late 1990s was the finest of hours, when he (more…)

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