Beyond Borders – with Shubha Mudgal and Tina Sani

My article published in the Friday Times (Aug11-18)

Days after the recent skirmishes at the Line of Control, when the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan was threatened, an alternative reconciliation was underway in Lahore. Music became the metaphor of shared ground between the two countries, challenging divides between them that can become violent.

Lahore hosted the legendary vocalist Shubha Mudgal for a few days. The crusade launched by Beyond Borders Television, a production house and sister company of The Friday Times and Good Times, is a unique development in Pakistan’s media world. It is Beyond Borders’ mission statement to produce programming for regional channels that promotes understanding between peoples. Undaunted by visa restrictions and overcoming official barriers, Beyond Borders organised Mudgal’s visit to Lahore to record a tripartite discussion between Mudgal, Tina Sani and Jugnu Moshin, the compere.

The night before the recording, there was a get-together at the home of Jugnu Mohsin and Najam Sethi. It was a typical July evening, marked by the promising stillness of the monsoon. The fragrance of tuberoses, motia and lillies had made the atmosphere surreal and when the power breakdown happened, and candles were lit, it was like a slice out of some previous age.

This was also the day of my homecoming: I had returned to Lahore after a year. I recalled a fleeting meeting with Mudgal in Delhi that had left an indelible impression of her unassuming and cheerful personality. The possibility of meeting Mudgal again on the day the exile returned to his country was the best of surprises. In the bargain, spending time with Tina Sani was a great bonus.

Khalid Ahmed, executive director of Beyond Borders and a man who has won his spurs both as a theatre artist, director and screen actor, was in Lahore from Karachi to oversee the recording. When I entered Jugnu Mohsin’s living room, he was sitting there with his full head of silver hair all askance as in the famous Einstein look. There was also a sprinkling of Lahore’s literati and intelligentsia, the proliferation of which has lagged behind annual population growth rates. One of the tragedies of Lahore since the time of General Zia ul Haq has been the inwardness of the public intellect and its retreat into private spaces, that is until the 2007 lawyers’ movement that has hopefully changed the contours of public life for time to come.

The varied guest list was eclectic: Pakistan’s premier historian, Ayesha Jalal; the incisive writer Ahmed Rashid; and the famous British journalist Christina Lamb were present. Lamb, with her long association with Pakistan was as dismayed as the rest of us with the rise and rise of extremism in the once peaceful land of the Indus, at how those taking the name of Allah had decided to appoint themselves His representatives and had reached the precincts of Peshawar. These are bizarre times, full of cacophonous constructions of discourses, jihads and nationalisms.

Ghazala Rahman and Nuscie and Jeelo Jamil joined the gathering later, to be followed by the dynamic Principal of the National College of Arts, Naazish Ataullah. Also present were the exuberant young Mira Sethi and her friend Hira Nabi; and thus the reception of Shubha Mudgal was not restricted to the fast-fossilizing intelligentsia of the older generations.

The overdose of camera flashes amid the dim lighting indicated that Mudgal had arrived. Flanked by Tina Sani and accompanied by a music devotee from Karachi, Dr Ghazala Aziz, Shubhaji made a graceful entrance. Dressed in an understated sari, she sported a mangal sutara as her only piece of jewelry, a stark contrast to the ostentatious display popular on this side of the border. Smiling effusively and doing her namastes and handshakes with a personal touch, here was a legend of our times, a voice that is already in conversation with immortality.

Shubha Mudgal is a diva of Hindustani classical music and its myriad genres such as Khayal, Thumri, and Dadra among others. Of late she has also espoused modernity and dabbled in popular Indian pop music; this has not pleased all the puritans of music but has provided the youth of the Subcontinent with access to her majestic voice.

Shubha Mudgal was born in 1959 in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Her parents, professors of English literature, were ensconced deeply in the classical Hindustani music tradition as well as in Kathak. Mudgal was made to learn Kathak initially, though later she devoted herself to learning classical music. It was her first guru, Pandit Ram Ashreya Jha in Allahabad, who chiseled her talent and instilled rigour and patience into Mudgal. Later she also learnt with the maestros Pandit Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya and Pandit Vasant Thakar in Delhi, Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, Naina Devi, and Pundit Kumar Gandharva. Thus she has had the best musical training and developed her unique style perfecting various musical forms. Mudgal recounted these stages of her training when she addressed her Lahori admirers, who listened to her with respect and a fondness that is usually expressed for long lost friends.

In Lahore, Mudgal appeared comfortably at home. Perhaps this is because of the Delhi mood that Lahore shares, for reasons of history and a shared culture that refuses to dissipate despite the partition of 1947. The home-cooked dinner, sensitive to Mudgal’s vegetarianism, was a chance for a breather before this little gathering picked up. Tina Sani is the other star who attracted the attention of the guests at the mehfil. Tina’s is also an unassuming persona, charming in manner; her large, intelligent eyes support her conversation.

Within minutes, the dining room was converted into a small arena of interaction, of spontaneous musical renditions and of fascinating discussions. Some were seated on sofa chairs while others sat on the floor continuing the exchange on India, Pakistan, music and all that is common to the two countries. Indeed, Pakistanis and Indians can be most gracious as hosts and guests, and the camaraderie expressed could not be ignored by the visitors from the West, Christina Lamb and her colleague Justin.

Mugdal was requested by Khalid Ahmed to sing; and this began an endless series of lilting melodies, a collage of the best of her thumris and geets including the famous line, “laga chunri mein daagh,” from the film with the same title. She sang from her soul and left everyone spellbound. Tina Sani sang her hallmark Faiz’s poem “Bahaar ayee (spring arrives), but her most captivating rendition was a wistful ghazal by Bahadur Shah Zafar where he laments the beloved streets and forgotten faces of pre-1857 Delhi. Sani was superb as she sang this, and the reaction she elicited had everything to do with the precariousness of genteel life in today’s Pakistan.

And then she sang “Bahaar aye” which lifted everyone’s spirits. Hope, as they say, sprang eternal. Conversation then veered towards the modernist interpretation of Faiz’s poetry by Tina Sani as she brought a new sensibility to her renditions with the outstanding compositions of Arshad Mahmood. Sani recalled how she had never known Faiz as a person but her interaction with him had started through his poetry and her own readings of the great poet.

I asked Shubha Mudgal to sing a few lines from the Sufi ghazals that she had rendered at the famous Jashn-i-Khusrau concerts in Delhi. The fulsome nature of Mudgal’s voice is well suited to the soulfulness of Sufi poetry. We were told how Mudgal had been taught by her Guruji to consider music and devotion inseparable realities. Small wonder that she turned to mystical compositions across religious divides.

Shubha Mudgal has over time proven her versatility and eagerness to experiment. This is why Sufi chants have relevance for her. In fact the roots of Hindustani classical music are located in the shrines of India, especially in the bold new phase initiated by Amir Khausrau and his patronage of Qawwali. The melodies and innovations of Amir Khusrau were to shape the future of classical music, especially the ascendancy of the Khayal style in the Mughal era.

Mudgal had sung Ghoom tana with Salman Ahmed of Junoon; the central motif of the spinning wheel represents divine motion. Her solo album The Awakening also contains a few Sufi melodies, testifying to Mudgal’s belief that there is an intrinsic link between all forms of music. Ali Moray Angana and Kar Sajda are therefore melodies that are not only relevant to Muslims and their belief systems but central to the ethos of Hindustani classical music as well.

This was a splendid evening that became more memorable when Jugnu Mohsin spoke of her own adulation for Farida Khanum and all the stories of her personal musical evolution. Naazish Ataullah also shared her childhood memories of the centrality of music in her daily life, narrating tales of eccentric Ustads; of migrant relatives from India who came with nothing except their highly developed musical tastes and talents; and of how an age intertwined with music and musical training crumbled after 1947.

But music, the great uniter, is eternal. It has acquired newer dimensions and forms; though this centuries old classical music requires patronage as well as a renewed interest from all walks of life. This is why Beyond Borders has undertaken the momentous task of bridging divides, reclaiming shared heritages, and contributing to the transformation of the Subcontinent into a region where musical notes may eventually subdue martial tunes.

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