My piece published in The Friday Times

This is the magic of Lahore and its deep-rooted cultural mores. No other city can boast of such individuals, movements and trends. Hopefully, the music will live on. The interest of younger generations and their experiments with various forms of music hold great promise

Last week the breezy environs of the majestic Lawrence Gardens once again swayed to the tunes of Hindustani classical music. A week long music festival organised by the All Pakistan Music Conference attracted musicians, vocalists and enthusiasts from all parts the country, as well as from the imagined “enemy” India. How could it not be the case when musical traditions emerged out of a cultural synthesis of 700 years or more?

The leading light of APMC was Hayat Ahmad Khan, whose sad demise in 2005 was interpreted as an end to the glorious tradition of subcontinental streams of music in Pakistan. However, 83 years of hard work and philanthropic contributions was not in vain. He left behind a powerful institution and a network of committed individuals and aesthetes who have kept the torch ablaze. Not a small feat in the troubled waters of a Pakistani cultural landscape constantly under attack by nation-state ideology and extremism that consider music to be too “Indian” or, even worse, un-Islamic.

This is the greatest irony of our existence: the Muslims in India contributed to what is known today as Indian classical music and innovations such as the sitar and the tabla. The Qawwal bache trained at the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi under the tutelage of Amir Khusrau became the founders of what was to later evolve as the sophisticated Khayal style of music. In dire times of the Sultanate and Mughal periods, these musicians had to take refuge in the princely states, and this is how the various gharanas, or schools of music, originated. This loose network of musicians organised along the lines of kinship or teacher-pupil bonds, sustained by court patronage and eclectic and secular in appeal, led to some fine moments. Tansen at Akbar’s court, Mohammad Shah Rangeela’s patronage and later the Kingdom of Oudh defined the high-points of this fused and seamless culture beyond religion, communal and sectarian divides.

To keep this tradition alive in post-independence Pakistan was a Herculean task. Pakistan was a moth-eaten and truncated country in the words of its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The psychological trauma and barbarity of the Partition had jolted everyone and the traditional patronage of the state was missing. It was under these circumstances that on September 15 1959, music-inspired citizens met at the famous Coffee House of Lahore and launched a voluntary organization called The All Pakistan Music Conference. Eminent personas such as Roshan Ara Begum were among the illustrious list of its founders.

It should be noted that this was also the age when the maestro Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan migrated to India and Roshan Ara Begum was almost about to give up the passion of her life. Thus
this civic action and reclaiming of cultural space was impressive, to say the least.

Since 1960, APMC has organised festivals and concerts, with Lahore’s annual music conference assuming the climactic apex of year-long music and its interaction with the public. For days, all night long musical performances and singing was to become the standard format and the chilly, larger than life nights at the Lawrence Gardens provided a befittingly tender venue for these soirees.

Great masters performed and interacted with the citizenry through the language of music, thus reminding that borders could change and politics become messy, yet the shared traditions of music were not forgotten. Ustaads like Qadir Bukhsh Pakhawaji, Nazakat Ali Khan, Salamat Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Sharif Khan Poonchwalay, Zahida Parveen, Sain Akhter Hussain, Latafat Hussain Khan and Roshan Ara Begum performed for years to keep music flowing into the blood-drained veins of Pakistani society.

After half a century, it was therefore a pleasure to have listened to the melodies, old and new. The older gurus were there but the refreshing part was the new and emerging talents from various schools and locations in Pakistan who testified to the fact that music was anything but dead in the land of the pure.

During the conference several genres of subcontinental music, such a Geet, Ghazal, Kafi, Kajri, Dadra, Thumri, Tarana, Dhurpad and Khayal, were presented. Dozens of students performed classical, semi-classical and instrumental numbers. The majority of those performing were from the National College of Arts, Government College University, Punjab University, Kinnaird College, MAO College, FC College and other private institutions.

It was most heartening to see that the majority of the audience were younger people and many seemed interested and engaged with the performances. This also belies the common myth that the youth are only interested in pop music and that demand for classical or semi-classical music has dwindled. How easily we fall into the traps of unsubstantiated claims.

We returned home quite late, but well before the dawn, and left hundreds of people at the music conference venue. Spellbound by the sitar and musical tunes, I wondered how exciting it was to be a part of historical cycles – that are not just composed of war and violence but of music and undying bonds of humanity.

It would be appropriate to mention the services of the late Syed Wajid Ali, who died this year. He had been the chairman of the APMC since 1960, with Hayat Khan as the general secretary. Ali’s death was also mourned during the proceedings of the conference but as one of the stage managers appropriately commented: individuals fade away but institutions continue.

This is the magic of Lahore and its deep-rooted cultural mores. No other city can boast of such individuals, movements and trends. Hopefully, the music will live on. The interest of younger generations and their experiments with various forms of music hold great promise.

Let the cynics fume and froth. Melodies shall play on in Lahore.