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Music / 10.01.2017

By Anjum Altaf Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana died on January 4. Classical music in Pakistan died earlier. Nothing epitomizes that more than the headline in a leading newspaper: “Renowned Qawwal Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passes away.” It is just as well one can’t read one’s own obituary - that would have been the unkindest cut of all for the doyen of the khayal tradition of North Indian classical music. Another leading newspaper had referred to Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum a while back. Mercifully the Malika-e Mausiqi was no longer alive to realize how quickly she had been forgotten. These kinds of gross oversights in leading newspapers are indicative of the fact that many now have no familiarity with the tradition or the achievements of its leading exponents. One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because the art...

Music / 25.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf The seeming disconnect between the aural and visual dimensions of popular Indian culture has left me in shock and struggling for an explanation. There are many things I don’t fathom but most of the time I can advance plausible hypotheses to work towards an understanding. Not so in this particular case. I have come upon this puzzle late and in a peculiar manner. Being aurally-oriented to an extreme, I have had very limited exposure to the visual medium. I have watched some classical dance live, attended the occasional play, and consumed some sports on TV. But as far as visual expressions of popular art forms are concerned, I am largely ignorant. Movies, in particular, I haven’t watched for decades. This changed recently when I found myself responsible for managing senior citizens whose daily routine included a number of hours before the television. Hoping to wean...

Music / 14.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest. The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents.
Music / 01.06.2011

By Anjum Altaf One often gets the sense that classical music is breathing its last in Pakistan, the death throes so painful that one prays against one’s will for its quick demise. The thought of efforts aimed at its revival evoke dread rather than hope. Why not let it rest in peace? After all, the death of classical music in Pakistan will not be the death of classical music. It is alive and well in India and flourishing in the West. Even if it were not, there is now a storehouse of exquisite recordings that are infinitely more pleasurable compared to the indignities music has to endure at live performances in Pakistan. No doubt this is an extreme reaction colored by distress inflicted at a recent concert billed as a milestone on the road to resurrection. At the very least, it forces one to question one’s own deep desires and wonder if they are based on something more tangible than wishful thinking.
Music / 25.01.2011

By Anjum Altaf For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the pleasures they offer the listener.
Music / 16.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf In the last installment we introduced the classification scheme in which the ragas of Hindustani classical music are grouped into ten parent families called thaats. Little is to be gained by my describing these thaats and listing the ragas that belong to each; this information is now readily available on scores of websites (one relevant to this topic is here). I prefer to share my own explorations of this schema in the hope that some readers would come up with insights that have eluded me thus far. Personally, and this is surely a function of my ignorance, I haven’t found the schema to be of much use (because of its many exceptions) asides from the help it provides in identifying closely related ragas.
Music / 06.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf If you read the last installment you would have picked up a clue to what a raga is about. Keep five swaras (S g M d n) in the air and you are beginning to work with the raga Malkauns. Ergo, it seems reasonable to infer that if you picked a different set of swaras, you would be working with a different raga. Of course, sculpting a fine raga out of these building blocks requires a few more details that we will discuss later but this is a good enough point to start. However, if we proceed in this ad hoc way, we would be able to list lot of ragas but we would miss out on the schema that organizes the large number of ragas into more manageable sets. In particular, we would miss out entirely on identifying ragas that are related closely to each other.
Music / 04.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words. Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement.
Music / 29.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed. Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together.
Music / 26.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf I hope by now readers have fully internalized the most essential characteristic of music. It is not the frequency of a swara that is important; rather, it is the interval between swaras or the ‘musical distance’ between them that is critical. One can start from any frequency; as long as the subsequent swaras are at the right distance, one would be in the realm of music. We had started this series with the claim that while all music is sound, not all sound is music. In doing so we had made the distinction between music and noise. We are now in a position to elaborate on this distinction. Think of construction in which the building block is a brick. If we dump a load of bricks on a plot of land we would have an untidy sight to behold.