Classical Music in Pakistan: A Requiem?

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.And, it draws attention to the question of where the way out, if there is one, might be found.

This particular performance was by an artist with a richly deserved international reputation and one whom I have heard outside Pakistan with great pleasure. No one can take away from such a reputation resting as it does on a lifelong demonstration of mastery over the art. But every individual performance is unique and can range quite conceivably from the sublime to the ridiculous.

This particular performance bordered, for me, on the bizarre. I can’t quite ascertain what propelled it in that direction. A number of possible reasons come to mind. The introductory remarks, by hosts distraught over the fate of classical music and the treatment meted out to its practitioners, could have gone to the artist’s head. The conduct of the proceedings in English to accommodate expatriates, who, to their credit, are doing what they can to preserve the local heritage, could have triggered the explain-as-you-go style of the presentation. The request to educate listeners on the merit of gharanas before the commencement of the performance could have aroused the impulse to turn the performance into a demonstration of parochial superiority. Or, it could just have been the artist’s measure of what was needed to hold the attention of the audience that motivated the incessant commentary and banter during the performance.

The performance-cum-lecture included demonstrations of how not to perform music, illustrations of the flawed techniques of others, flourishes of the technical intricacies mastered by the artist himself, and examples of feats never before performed on an instrument. The accompanying artist was commanded to repeat each of these to drive home the point. By the end, all that remained was proof that a performance of the first order was quite possible while standing on one’s head.

I was not sure if it was music, magic, jugglery, sport, theater, or circus. I was not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry, to wring my hands or my neck or someone else’s neck.

What had gone wrong? What had brought things to such a pass? Given the unquestionable stature of the artist, my best guess, leaving aside the possibility of senility, is it was the artist’s perception of the audience and what it needed to stay engaged. At one of the breaks between items, the artist asked the audience what it wished to hear next. Sure enough, the loudest voice was for a popular song which called forth a diatribe from the artist. And, just as predictably, the following morning’s newspaper reviews all raved about the sublime performance that transported the listeners to another world.

The artist-audience relationship feeds on itself. This kind of performance would be impossible if an artist presumed the majority of the audience to be familiar with the art form. The sense of awareness would keep him from indulging himself. If he did, the audience would politely suffer the performance but the artist would never be invited back to the forum and his reputation would be dented by the reviews of the critics.

So, if it is indeed the absence of a large enough discerning audience that can be entertained by serious music and keep artists honest, what is to be done? The solution is clearly not a supply-side one where the focus is on the better training of musicians. Who would the better artist’s perform for, how would they engage the audience, and how would they establish a reputation? The problem is on the demand side: there has to be an audience that understands and demands quality which would force artists to improve in order to survive in a competitive market. And there is virtually nothing that is being done in Pakistan to address the gap on the demand side.

Given the severe handicaps, very little can be done. With the ostracism of classical music even Lahore, once a leading cultural center of the subcontinent, has seen its extremely knowledgeable audience dwindle into extinction. Since classical music is no longer taught in schools or propagated through radio and television, there is no way to build a large enough audience equipped with the essential knowledge of the art form. Even if these prohibitions were relaxed, unlikely in an increasingly religious society unable to resolve its doubts about the legitimacy of music, there are not enough teachers endowed with modern pedagogical skills to meet the need.  Even the ustads, who used to train a limited number of performers by the old-fashioned rote method never worrying about the audience because it was provided by the patronage of the elites, are fading out.

Add to this the fact that there have been precious few innovations in classical music in terms of presentation. The old artists are not telegenic and the format quite out of sync with the visual medium. As a result, there are no role models for the new generation. The absence of young artists and youthful audiences feeds back on itself perpetuating the feeling that the art is destined to die despite the best efforts to save it.

There appears just one way out of this blind alley and that involves opening the musical door, both physical and virtual, between India and Pakistan. There is a high enough likelihood that young, successful, dynamic and innovative artists from India would be able to excite audiences in Pakistan. This, in turn, could lead aspiring artists in Pakistan, challenged to match the best, to enroll in music schools and academies across the border. The euphoria of the renewal of ties could fuel the initial interest on both sides and the power of good classical music could begin to work its magic again in Pakistan.

Classical music cannot be revived in Pakistan in a vacuum. The rot has set in too deep for it to be saved without assistance. Those who value classical music in Pakistan have to think beyond borders and those in India who value finding common grounds have to help push the door open.

For more posts on music, see here.


  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:53h, 04 June Reply

    Music concerts were different earlier. Not that I am complaining; now the artists are getting compensation in full measure but the spontaneity has gone. The loss is equal for both, the artists and the listeners. Back in late seventies, as a student I went to Begum Akhtar’s concert. Not that I wanted to go, but it was the thing to do, I hated Begum Akhtar, just as I hated K L Saigal and his ilk. Music grew on me, I needed to hear a song several times to categorize it good bad or ugly. At about 10.30 PM the hoi polloi began to leave, I got up too, my friend who had forced me to this concert, hissed, ‘abe chup baith, abhi to mehfil kaa aaghaaz huaa hai!’

    We moved over to front rows now occupied by some hundred odd hard core aficionados. Like my friend said, ‘mehfil’ took off from there, Begum reeling off one item after another while the crowd going crazy. The effect of atmosphere infected me too and I began to enjoy the concert. Only at the crack of dawn Begum got up to the dismay of still hungry fans and left. The point is, not just we enjoyed the concert but artist enjoyed it as much.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:30h, 05 June

      Anil: Thanks for sharing that memory about Begum Akhtar. All interactions are getting increasingly professionalized and commercialized over time. The loss of spontaneity is the price. But the important point in your comment is the confirmation that artists respond to the audience. There is really no choice for artists who earn their living from performing. If they lose their audience, they would starve. So, it is not the artist who is to be blamed. In the days of the patronage of the courts, this was not the headache of artists. The failure in the new democratic set up has been the lack of attention paid to producing a discerning audience. All the focus has been of producing artists.

  • Arpita Chatterjee
    Posted at 11:37h, 05 June Reply

    Regarding your observation about audiences – there’s a major debate on among musicians I know about whether one should perform ‘for the audience’, meaning tweak the content around to suit the audience. I am a bit hesitant about using the term ‘professional’ as I’m not sure any more what that really means, but the traditionalists here will tell you that the reason why standards have deteriorated is because performers are ‘playing to the gallery’. There are those who will argue that if you are a professional, you will have to compromise (here professional means ‘make your living through music’) Others will say that ‘we have to educate the audience & the reason why there is a fall in standards is because we haven’t been doing that’ – most of those who say the latter are people for whom music is not the chief means of livelihood. In fact one of them made a statement on national television that implied that if music was to be preserved in its authenticity, then that would only be because of the well-trained amateurs, since the professionals all ended up playing to the gallery – which means compromising! In my personal experience, I believe it has to do with your training and how passionate you are about music – if it’s really been very traditional training and if music is your life, I don’t think you can get yourself to compromise. I never could.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:03h, 06 June

      Arpita: I feel there will be a significant difference depending on whether music is one’s life or one’s living. Of course, it could be both but let us focus on those for whom music is the primary source of living regardless of whether it is their life or not. I don’t think they have a choice because without an audience they would not have a living. Whether one is a professional or an amateur, the need for a discerning audience remains. The amateur may have the luxury of not performing for an uninitiated audience or not compromising for it but that in no way argues away the need for a good audience. A good audience does not emerge on its own accord. It was just an illusion when music was an integral part of elite culture. Now that it is no longer so, the creation of an audience has to be institutionalized and needs attention. Without it, classical music would continue to lose ground.

  • Meesha
    Posted at 18:46h, 19 June Reply

    Could anyone please guide me as to where can one go learn classical singing except NAPA? ANYONE?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 21:10h, 20 June

      Meesha: Sheema Kirmani has volunteered to find you an Ustad. Contact her at Thehrik-e-Niswan – The address is GF-3, Block 78, Sea View Apartments, DHA 5, Karachi – Pakistan. Phone numbers are on the website but add a 3 before those given. Give my reference to Sheema. Good luck and keep us posted.

  • Vitasta
    Posted at 23:37h, 26 June Reply

    Forgive me as I am a bit late to this thread. I think I know who you are talking about as my mind goes back to the early 1980s to one concert in Berkeley, California when I heard for the first time, live, two Ustads from Pakistan. I was abashed when one of them started demonstrating his prowess in what he called a ‘3-second taan’ – it so completely destroyed the continuity of the exposition. I will also
    hasten to add that I subsequently heard them in other concerts and most memorably at the Ali Akbar College of Music here, conversed with them, etc. and the initial dismay was more than offset. The memory, of course, lingers.

    A friend brought me a CD series from Pakistan titled, Gharanon ki Gaiki and the sleeve notes gave an idea of where things were headed. I was also disheartened that none of the friends from Pakistan I know here seem to have been exposed to this musical tradition growing up there. I hope it revives from its current moribund state; to let such a rich heritage wither and die would be a shame indeed.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:38h, 10 July

      Vitasta: Thanks for the comment. Gharanon ki Gaiki and Ragmala were the contributions of the late Khurshid Anwar. Since then, there has indeed been a steep decline as almost all the pre-Partition greats have passed away without replacements of equal stature. The Ragmala is now available online thanks to the efforts of some lovers of music. Among nostalgic pieces are those by Ustad Asad Ali Khan of the Agra gharana, now extinct in Pakistan:

      The subsequent comment on this post will give you some idea of attempts to revive the tradition in Pakistan. Your feedback would be very welcome.

  • Hassan Azad
    Posted at 09:18h, 10 July Reply

    Here is some evidence in support of Arpitas comments. When artists are singing “for themselves” , their music rises to a different level altogether:

    It seems that almost all the recorded music of the masters was fine because they were conscious that they were leaving something for posterity. In most cases , interaction with audiences who did not have extensive exposure to music led to a gradual detriment of their art.

    For example, listen to this :

    and compare it with

    What led to this degeneration?

    This is not to say that the audience is not important. Music is, of course ,meant to be shared and a knowledgeable audience can raise the level of music immeasurably .

    Classical music – or literature – is not for everyone- because to begin to appreciate the exceptional from the ordinary, one has to have extensive exposure to a given genre. There is just not enough time for most of us to know more than a couple of art forms in any great depth.

    As far as being telegenic is concerned, how many opera singers are telegenic? There gestures are quite grotesque and perhaps the requirements of vocal music make this inevitable. In contrast to this, I have never found any instrumentalist making unpleasant faces.

    In view of the lack of patronage from the government , music lovers have to take the initiative to promote what they value in their lives. Such an initiative has recently been undertaken in the name of the Lahore Music Forum. And I like to think that the results speak for themselves:

  • Aakar
    Posted at 14:57h, 10 July Reply

    Growing up in Surat, my sisters and I were forced to learn dance (them) and play Hindustani music (us). This is because the middle class thought of it then, and perhaps does to an extent now, as being high culture.
    Knowing this music made one special, and others saw you that way.
    I don’t think it is that different in Pakistan from my visits there. That makes me wonder why the music is not healthy there, given that the ground appears fertile.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:32h, 12 July

      Aakar: My perception is not the same. It is very different in Pakistan and the ground is not all fertile. There is much that can be said on this so let me try and elaborate on my perceptions separately.

  • Ajeet Kumar
    Posted at 05:59h, 18 May Reply

    I am bit naive in this area, in fact not really equipped with as much insight in the topic as all of your people..Thank you so must for bringing this into the discussion..that’s teh most beautiful thread I have ever come acrss..I was always convinced that traditional music should be provided with oxygen mask to breathe in peace..but after following comments I am certain that the world is not yet ready to burry it..It gives me immense pleasure to notice the happenings and developments in this area at least at one corner of society….Carry on I am just loving every bit of it…

  • Pingback:Danka - Pakistan's Cultural Guide
    Posted at 04:27h, 15 June Reply

    […] Finally a short entry on the SouthAsianIdea site, dealing with Classical Music in Pakistan. […]

Post A Comment