I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Thursday, January 1, 2015

...Of The Agony And The Ecstacy : Baba Bulleh Shah (RA)

Previous entries in this series :

1. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)

2. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA)

3. Hz Bedam Shah Warsi (RA)

4. Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami (RA)

5. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

I've written in the past, both in light and sombre tones, about my lifelong love affair with asthma. It is a disease from whose clutches I have more or less managed to disentangle myself. This disentanglement has had less to do with my efforts and more with the fact that asthma tends to lose interest in its sufferers as they grow into adulthood. The first decade of my life was punctuated by an unhealthy amount of hospital admissions, the second decade with a gradual decrease in their frequency, and the last seven years have been more or less hospital-free. Like Ghalib's occasional digressions from temperance, my asthma returns in "cloudy days and moonlit nights", especially if said days and nights happen to coincide with heavy physical exertion. I now keep an inhaler with me whenever I exercise (or am forced to exercise, for I have an unholy enmity with anything involving physical exertion), and it more or less manages to tide me over for the duration of said exertion. My short and rather cryptic previous post was written as I was about to embark on an extended and rather difficult tour of duty, one where I would have had little chance of updating my blog. However, at the last minute, my old friend Asthma has come rushing to the forefront and instead of inconveniencing me, has proven to be something of a Godsend. Long story short, I have been deemed unable to proceed on the abovementioned e. and r. d. tour of duty because my asthma renders me physically incapable of handling the twice abovementioned e. and r. d. t. of d. As a result, the blog has been prematurely awakened from its cryo-sleep. Now, to business.

My series of "poet-centered-posts-featuring-Qawwali-recordings-where-there's-one-recording-per-kalam-and-one-recording-per-artist"  has entered the home stretch. I had decided to leave the most important contributors to the Qawwali canon till the end, and this post marks the penultimate step in the journey. Hz Syed Abdullah Shah Qadri (RA), commonly known and revered as Hz Baba Bulleh Shah (RA) (1680-1757) is arguably the most important poet in the Punjabi language. A contemporary of Waris Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Sachal Sarmast and Mir Taqi Mir; his poetry, like his illustrious contemporaries, has lost none of its power. The story of his life has become the stuff of legend, with so many apocryphal incidents attributed to him that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Illuminated print by Fatima Zahra Hassan
What is more or less certain is that Bulleh Shah, a member of a respectable Punjabi Syed family, had his life suddenly and violently convulsed by his meeting with Hz Inayat Shah Qaadri (RA), a lower caste mystic of the Qadiriyya sufi order. This led Bulleh Shah to renounce his entire way of life, from the city of Qasur to his 'Syed' heritage to his position of wealth and respectability, as he became a Sufi and a mystic himself. Following his "Pir" to Lahore, Bulleh Shah embarked on a voyage of self discovery that resulted in his being shunned by the conservative elements of his time, so much so, that on his death, the Mullahs refused to grant him the traditional Muslim funeral and burial rites. His poetry reflects his rebellion from traditional conservative mores and displays his emphasis on self-discovery as a means to achieving spiritual excellence. Borrowing from the rich idiom of the Punjabi language, as well as its inexhaustible store of simile, metaphor and folklore, Bulleh Shah's managed to leave behind a body of work that is startlingly modern and enlightened, yet at the same time displays a natural, organic evolution from the work of his predecessors like Baba Fareed (RA) and Shah Hussain (RA). Because of its rebellious modernity and an iconoclastic renounciation of orthodoxy and established power, Bulleh Shah's poetry has grown in popularity in the centuries following his death. Each new generation has appropriated his work to express their hopes, dreams and desires. So much so that Bulleh Shah remains the most popularly sung poet of the subcontinent, his words resonating with both Punjabi and non-Punjabi artists and listeners.

The Qawwals of the subcontinent have long performed Bulleh Shah's kalam as part of their repertoires. What follows is a selection of some of my favorite pieces, selected keeping in view the arbitary rules laid down above ; one recording per artist and one recording per kalam.

1. Avo Saiyyo Ral Deyo Ni Vadhaai - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

Even though Waris Shah was a contemporary of Bulleh Shah (RA)'s and completed his version of Heer Ranjha several years after Bulleh Shah's death, the immortal romantic tragedy had been a part of Punjab's folklore for several centuries preceding Waris Shah's version. This 'Kaafi' of Bulleh Shah's describes Heer's joy on meeting Ranjha and her acceptance of Ranjha as her soulmate. It is a moment of celebration, and the joyous mood is perfectly captured by Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal's exuberant performance. From the 'gharra' and 'ghunghroo' that provide the percussion to the flute and clarinet that start off the piece, Heer's exultant declaration to her confidantes of her newfound love positively glows with delight. The taans by Bakhshi Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan, and Saddo Khan's sargams express Heer's unbridled joy, while Salamat Ali Khan's Punjabi girah-bandi hints, very obliquely, at the tragedy that awaits Heer and Ranjha at the end of their journey. But the tragedy can still linger in the shadows, this is a moment for celebration, and Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal perfectly capture the moment in this performance.

2. Bhavain Tu Jaan Na Jaan Ve - Abdur Rehman Fareedi Qawwal & Party

Abdur Rehman Fareedi, afflicted since childhood with the deforming condition known as micrognathia, was a Qawwal who never really managed to escape the shadow of his illustrious father Muhammad Ali Fareedi. Till the late seventies he performed in his father's party, and after his father's death his first few years as the leader of his own party were inauspicious. This all changed in 1986 when the death of his cousin Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi caused the disintegration of the latter Qawwal's party. This led to Abdur Rehman recruiting two of his late cousin's most talented party-members, Agha Majeed Fareedi and Mubarak Ali "Makha" Lahori Qawwal. For the next 8-10 years, Abdur Rehman Fareedi's party performed across the globe, earning plaudits from listeners in both Pakistan and abroad.

This wonderful performance begins with a lengthy Punjabi 'doha' or preamble, with the Qawwals singing verses from Ali Haider Shah's superb 'Abyaat' before they launch into the main kalam. It isn't long before the beautifully distinct voices of Makha Lahori and Majeed Fareedi start weaving their magic. This recording lacks most of the peculiar affectations that would later plague Punjabi Qawwals, especially those who refused to escape Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's shadow. There is no shouting, vocal acrobatics, overloud percussion or clapping. Abdur Rehman Fareedi's world-weary voice is perfectly suited to the plaintive nature of the kalaam, and when the plaint morphs into an exhortation, Makha Lahori and Co. admirably come to the fore. In short, this is a perfect half-hour sample of traditional Punjabi Qawwali.

3. Ghunghat Chhak Ve Sajna - Mubarak Ali - Nusrat Fateh Ali Qawwal

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's first public performance was in Spring 1965, a year after his father's death. For the next 6 years, he shared the leadership of his father's Party with his phenomenally talented uncle and Ustad, Mubarak Ali Khan. After Mubarak Ali Khan's death in 1971, Nusrat assumed sole leadership of the party and the rest is history. The few recordings that Nusrat made with his uncle are unique and extremely interesting. The traditional, Khayal based, languid andaaz of Mubarak Ali Khan and his younger brother Nazakat Ali Khan provides an obvious contrast to the youthful, powerful voice of Nusrat. It is a lovely amalgam of old and new, with the elder Ustads' takraars and sargams providing a steady backdrop to Nusrat's girahbandi. Nusrat is, even at this young age, a consummate performer and a natural leader of the Party. His style, which he would continue to perfect over the next two decades, is already established, and the calming influence of his uncles keeps him from resorting to the high octave histrionics that would sometimes mar his later performances.

4. Ilmon Bus Kareen O Yar - Fateh Ali - Mubarak Ali Qawwal

This recording precedes the previous one by almost a decade, and the difference in style between the succeeding generations is immediately apparent. Ustad Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali's performance displays a beautiful languor, an unhurried pace that lends the peace a stately dignity. Brief bursts of urgency propel the takraars forward, as the sarangi and shehnai follow the vocalists' soaring taans. Fateh Ali Khan's voice remains unmatched in its earthy gravity, and his choice of girahs is absolutely word-perfect while Mubarak Ali Khan's short, sharp vocal flourishes reveal a voice still unravaged by age. As the performance progresses, the tempo picks up and the taans become more and more forceful, before terminating in a short decrescendo. It is a slow burn powerhouse of a performance, encapsulating a wealth of musical craftsmanship in just under ten minutes.

5. Main Ho Gaya Kujh Hor - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

This recording is the latter half of a one hour tour-de-force. The first thirty minutes of this performance (which I've chosen to omit) consist of a series of "Haal" inducing verses, serving as a preamble to the main kalaam. As is evident from the audio, several members of the audience are in a state of "Haal", and Haji Mahboob Sb maintains this state by building a staggering takraar that sustains the listeners until their trance-like state gradually subsides. In a pure 'Khanqahi' setting, where the "Shaikh" presides and the Qawwals serve as spiritual instructors, the maintanance and gradual resolution of the trance-like state of 'Haal' is a tricky proposition at best, but Haji Sb carries  his performance with consummate skill. The deep spiritual meanings of Bulleh Shah's kaafi - the annihilation of self and the doctrine of 'Fanaa-fil-Sheikh' - are explored with the help of a series of apt girahs, with sources ranging from traditional Farsi poetry to the dohas of Kabir Das, all the while maintaining the five word takraar. The instrumentation is rudimentary at best, but Haji Sb, ably accompanied by his younger brother Haji Mushtaq Ali, conveys the full power of Bulleh Shah's kaafi to the audience. This is an especially moving kaafi, one not sung regularly, and Haji Sb does full justice to what would've been a lukewarm performance in anyone else's hands. The performance ends on a series of electrified takraars on the verses of Kabir Das before sugueing back into the main kalam, as the thundering locomotive of a performance comes to a halt.

6. Mera Aih Charkha Naulakha - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwal & Party

The "In Concert At Paris" recordings that Nusrat made in 1988-89 represent him at the absolute peak of his powers, with the iconic line-up of his backing Party behind him. I could have chosen more than a dozen Nusrat performances for this post, as among his peers Nusrat was arguably the finest Qawwali interpreter of Bulleh Shah. I don't think I need to go into long descriptions for this performance. Nusrat sings Bulleh Shah, period.

7. Mainoo Nit Udeekan Teriyaan - Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Bheranwale Qawwal

I must express my one doubt about this recording right at the start, I don't think this is Bulleh Shah's kalaam ; I haven't been able to find it in his collected works and the style is very unlike Bulleh Shah's other kaafis. That being said, Bulleh Shah's name in the last verse merits its inclusion in this post. Doubts aside, this is a stupendous performance. A short clarinet intro and a heartbreaking Punjabi 'doha' preface this recording. As Maulvi Ahmed Hassan's beautifully gravelly voice intones notes of longing and separation, his father and other members of the party contribute their own girahs. The performance is drenched in the beautiful East-Punjab / Doab style, with girah following melancholy girah. A full 10 minutes are spent on the first verse, as they use girahs to extract each and every drop of feeling from the opening phrase. The last 3 minutes go by in a whirl as the kalaam and the performance winds down, but the urgency doesn't prevent the Qawwals from inserting one final series of beautiful girahs.

8. Mera Piya Ghar Aya - The Sabri Brothers Qawwal Ensemble

Every Qawwal on God's earth has probably sung their version of this Qawwali but The Sabri Brothers take the mood of celebration and joyous union pervading this kalaam, and take it to the next level. Their North-Indian origins and Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri's years of performing at the Kaliar Sharif shrine meant that the Sabris had a substantial command over Punjabi, and didn't sound (endearingly) awkward when performing Punjabi kalaams, unlike most of the other non-Punjabi Qawwals who migrated to Pakistan after partition. In this live concert recording, the brothers and their party are in a mood of exuberant celebration. There's a simple, thumping, pulsating dholak beat propelling them forward as the brothers launch into one takraar after another. Haji Maqbool Sabri's malleable and supremely melodious voice offers glimpses of the Rajasthani 'Maand', as Haji Ghulam Fareed dives into his trademark lower register whisper-chant intonation. The percussion takes center stage in the latter half of the performance, as the vociferous takraars are interrupted temporarily by the Sabris singing the successive verses of the kaafi. The wonderful sazeena at the 9 minute mark is an added treat, staccato harmoniums dueling before Haji Maqbool Sabri takes over with his wonderful murkis and taans. The joyous performance concludes with the brothers engaging in a taan/sargam duel, that makes Haji Ghulam Fareed and the listeners offer "Wah-wahs", before a beautifully constructed crescendo.

9. Ranjha Ranjha Kardi - Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

After recordings from Ustad Fateh Ali and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there is room for one another cross-generational selection. The father of Abdur Rehman Fareedi, and one of the seminal Ustads in Qawwali history, Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi was fairly advanced in years when this recording was made, but his voice remains strong and potent. In this recording he is accompanied by (among others), his son Abdur Rehman Fareedi, a young Mubarak Ali "Makha" Lahori, and the future powerhouse taan-kaar of Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi's party, Inayat Ali Khan. Like most of the recordings in this post, this is a simple, unadorned Punjabi Qawwali performance, containing no histrionics, no calisthenics and no 'shor-sharaaba'. The Qawwals instead perform the entirety of the kalaam, using only brief murkis and taans along the way, maintaining a steady, lively tempo throughout.

10. Tere Ishq Nachaya - Inayat Hussain Bhatti, Saieen Akhter, Munir Hussain and Party

Choosing the artists for this final selection left me stumped. Its ubiquity in Qawwali repertoires is borne out by the fact that I devoted an entire post to it, with each performance worthy of inclusion here. In the end I decided to pick *horror of horrors* a Filmi Qawwali to end this post. The reasons are very simple. This four-and-a-half minute performance contains everything a Qawwali performance demands; an emotionally charged 'doha', a series of brilliant, forceful taans and murkis, takraars and girah-dar-takraars, and a perfect 'ihteraam' for the kalaam. It doesn't hurt that three of the most distinctively beautiful voices in Pakistani musical history are leading the performance. Inayat Hussein Bhatti offers vocal dexterity, Saieen Akhter lends gravity and heft, while Munir Hussain's achingly beautiful voice delivers girahs of startling beauty. The flavor of Punjab; the unique mix of temporal and divine love and of monastic tradition and popular culture, pervades all the recordings in this selection, and can be tasted most tantalizingly in this final recording.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

...Of Plans Deferred And Schemes Postponed

Rabbie Burns said, and I quote :
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley

He should've added 'blogs' to the first verse, for a twist of fate has ganged it's future as 'agley' as aft-ing possible. Without going into too many details, there shall be little or no activity on the blog for the next 3-6 months. A number of posts that were in preparation (yes, despite their slipshod nature, the posts are indeed "prepared") will have to be put on hold as I attend the call of duty. Till then, paraphrasing the Dude, "The blog abides !"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

....Of A Broke Down Engine

This is an updated version of a post originally published in January 2009. I haven't altered the text, only added some recently found recordings.

Blind Willie McTell sang,
"Feel like a broke-down engine, ain't got no drivin' wheel,
Feel like a broke-down engine, ain't got no drivin' wheel.
You all been down and lonesome, you know just how a poor man feels."

I don't know how many have been down and lonesome, but I'm pretty sure everyone's had the winter blues. There's sleet, fog, rain and ovaltine....perfect ingredients for perfect winter days, but somehow or the other the ennui and the gosh-awful lethargy take complete control and the cocooning starts again. A week and a half of indifferent academic mash-ups has brought forth the second long-weekend in a span of four days. Usually, a flurry of study, movie watching, downloading or a hastily hiccupped blog-post mark each one of these increasingly rarer moments of freedom.

As this time it was the Ashura holiday, naturally no extravagances can be planned, which greatly limits my options. So I've been forced to restrict myself to downloading things for later and trying (unsuccessfully) to study. On any normal day, being home alone would mean a binge of colossal proportions, but this time, despite my folks (and the domestic help) being away, there being no loadshedding ( ???) for the past 36 hours and perfect weather, I'm wrapped up in my cocoon and sipping away at ovaltine....

To get to the point of this post, here's a bunch of absolute gems I found at Youtube. The proverb "It never rains, it pours" could also apply here. After listening to it once or twice on radio (Cloud 89 on CityFM89 to be exact) I was madly in search of this.....

And when I finally found it, there was a whole treasure trove to go along with it.
There's this...

And this ....

And finally, this piece of utter brilliance ...

I'd rather not label these - if anyone's curious enough, they can be sure of a treat...

This is where the original post ended. Here are the two missing pieces of the puzzle. Once again, no labels on any of the videos.

Missing piece number five ...
The final and most wonderful missing piece ...

Monday, November 10, 2014

...Of The Reluctant Sufi - Asadullah Khan Ghalib

4. Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami (RA)

یہ مسائلِ تصوف ، یہ تیرا بیان غالبؔ
تجھے ہم ولی سمجھتے جو نہ بادہ خوار ہوتا

“Ghalib, you write so well upon these mystic themes of Love Divine,
We would have counted you a saint, were it not for your love of wine.”

Professors Ralph Russell and Khurshid ul Islam narrate from Altaf Hussain Hali’s Yadgar-e-Ghalib (Memoir of Ghalib) that when King Bahadur Shah Zafar heard Ghalib recite the above verse, he commented, “No,my friend, even so we should never have counted you a Saint.” Ghalib retorted, “Your Majesty counts me one even now, and only speaks like this lest my Sainthood should go to my head."

The only surviving photograph of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

Just as there is no doubting the stature that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (27 December 1797-15 February 1869) holds in the annals of Urdu and Farsi poetry, there is also no doubting the fact that amongst all the major Urdu poets of the Classical period (barring possibly Khwaja Meer Dard), Ghalib's poetry is arguably the richest wellspring of mystical thought and metaphysical idiom.While this thought is more perfectly elaborated in his Farsi poetry, Ghalib's Urdu verse also displays flashes of preternatural insight and understanding of the mystical aspect of Love. Ghalib's kalaam contains numerous examples of disdain towards organized religion and the trappings of religiosity and self-righteousness, while at the same time utilizing uncanny simile and metaphor to offer glimpses of his deeply held "Wahdat-ul-Wujoodi" beliefs. As an example, one of my favorite Farsi poems of Ghalib's, which would not look out of place in the Divans of Khusrau, Saadi, Hafez or any of the other overtly mystical Farsi poets...

چون عکسِ پُل بہ سیل، بذوقِ بلا برقص
جارا نگاہ داروہم از خود جدا برقص

نبُوَد وفائ عہد، دمی خوش غنیمت است
از شاہداں بنازشِ عہدِ وفا برقص

ذوقی است جستجو چہ زنی دم زِ قطعِ راہ
رفتار گم کن و بَصدائے درا برقص

سر سبز بودہ و بہ چمنہا چمیدہ ایم
اے شعلہ، درگدازِ خس و خاکِ ما برقص

ہم بر نوائے چغد طریقِ سماع گیر
ہم در ہوائے جنبشِ بالِ ہما برقص

در عشق انساط بپایان نمی رسد
چوں گردباد خاک شو و در ہوا برقص

فرسودہ رسمہائے عزیزان فرو گذار
در سور نوحہ خوان و بہ بزمِ عزا برقص

چون خشمِ صالحان و ولاے منافقان
در نفسِ خود مباش ولے برملا برقص

از سوختن الم، زِ شگفتن طرب مَجو
بے ہودہ درکنار سموم و صبا، برقص

غالبؔ بدیں نشاط کہ وابسطہ ای، کہ ای
بر خویشتن ببال و بہ بندِ بلا برقص

The selections of recordings for this post took a long time to assemble, for the simple reason that Ghalib isn't a part of many Qawwals' repertoires. But the few recordings that I have heard, especially by the senior Qawwals of the 20th century, manage to do justice to his kalaam and ensure that whatever this selection lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.

1. Dil Hi To Hai, Na Sang-o-Khisht - Aziz Ahmed Warsi Qawwal
Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi traced his lineage to one Muhammad Siddique Khan, a nephew of Tanras Khan and a singer in the court of the last Mughal. He is therefore perfectly suited to singing this lament, considering Ghalib himself was a poet attached to the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal. Warsi Sb's staccato harmonium and his perfect talaffuz have always enchanted me, especially in his performances of ghazals by the "Asaateza". He sings this ghazal with an effortless ease, opting not to intrude on its simplicity with unnecessary girahs and takraars and letting the verses speak for themselves.

2. Har Ek Baat Pe Kehte Ho Tum Ke Tu Kya Hai - Muhammad Ahmed Warsi Qawwal
Muhammad Ahmed Warsi belongs to Rampur and is probably my favorite Qawwal from India currently performing. He imbues his performances with a subtle languor and restraint, preferring to linger on bol's and notes and letting the kalaam flow at a meandering, mellifluous pace. An almost old-world "Purbi" charm pervades this recording, as Warsi Sb prefaces the ghazal with choice romantic couplets. He shares his semi-namesake Aziz Ahmed Warsi's unique harmonium playing technique, punctuating key phrases in the kalam with short, sharp jabs at the keys, propelling both the melody and the rhythm forward. In a simple, unassuming performance, even the flubs in the girahbandi become endearing, while the short taankari suits the mood of the kalaam perfectly.

3. Dil Se Teri Nigah Jigar Tak Utar Gyi - Rahat Fateh Ali Khan
This recording is taken from a selection of Ghalib's kalam that Rahat Fateh Ali Khan performed on Pakistan Television. The performances were later released commercially and form an interesting album to say the least. I am ambivalent about the performances which, although a commendable effort in terms of presenting Ghalib's kalaam in a newer context, didn't quite provide the kalaam with musical arrangements that suited the mood of the verses. This performance however stands out in my opinion. The melody is beautiful, Rahat employs excellent girah-bandi and his bol-baant is  wonderful. The ghazal is a wonderful amalgam of Ghalib's romantic idiom and his penchant for describing the passage of time and the ravages of age in deceptively simple terms. Rahat is allowed ample opportunity for takraars and his by now trademark frenetic sargams, occasionally providing echoes of his late Uncle. This is a refreshing, lively performance that reminds listeners that underneath Rahat's pop-heavy Bollywood performances hides an excellent Qawwal capable of crafting superb performances.

4. Mazze Jahan Ke Apni Nazar Main Khaak Nahi - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal & Party
I shall not endeavor to describe this recording, suffice to say that it is one of the most perfect Qawwali performances I have ever heard or ever expect to hear and holds a very very special place in my heart.

5. Jahan Tera Naqshe Qadam Dekhte Hain - Ustad Fateh Ali - Mubarak Ali Qawwal
Segueing from Rahat to his grandfather and grand-uncles, and from Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal to their Ustads, the next selection is from Ustad Fateh Ali Khan - Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwal's triumphant 1958 public performance in Bombay (Mumbai). The entire performance is phenomenal, but this short performance of Ghalib's wonderful ghazal is wonderful in itself. Fateh Ali Khan's voice is imbued with a unique electricity and elasticity and he declaims the kalaam rather than singing it. Salamat Ali Khan's harmonium takes centre stage, Mubarak Ali Khan's taans are short but crisp and the takraars are lively and energetic. The recording is slightly high-pitched, probably owing to an incorrect transfer from tape-reels, and this recording error lends a wonderful punch to the performance. The last minute-and-a-half is especially brilliant as the Ustads build a takraar on the final verse of the ghazal and then embellish the takraar as only they could.

6. Dehr Main Naqshe Vafaa, Waj'he Tasalli Na Hua - Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa
Zaheer Alam Kidvai Sb has been quietly unveiling an absolute audiovisual treasure over the last three years. Comprising of recordings from his personal archive, these releases - under his Ragni Recordings label - are phenomenal to say the least, comprising poetry and prose, ghazal, folk, classical and Qawwali of the highest order. In this recording that Kidvai Sb has kindly allowed me to post, the original "Barri" Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal party - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, Bahauddin Khan and Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami - sing one of Ghalib's lesser known Urdu ghazals. As is obvious from the start, only Delhi-walas can properly do justice to Ghalib's Dehlavi Urdu. Each member of this amazing Qawwal party lends his own unique richness to the performance. Munshi Raziuddin's wonderful delivery - complete with his emotive "hae- hae" compliments the kalaam's innate sense of plaintive sorrow, with Manzoor Ahmed Niazi's unique voice perfectly conveying the poet's resignation and surrender. The taankaari is provided by Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami and Bahauddin Khan, with a couple of young voices - probably belonging to the current leaders of the Qawwal Bacchay troupes - in the chorus. This is a ghazal with a unique rhyme scheme, with the 'radeef' rhyming in the written text but alternating between the sounds of the " ی " and the " یٰ " when sung. The Qawwals take this rhythmic incongruity in stride, effortlessly disguising the changes in the radeef. As with the Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali piece, the delivery of the last verse - the 'maqta' - of this ghazal is wonderful, with Munshi Raziuddin turning the first words of the verse into an almost strangled last gasp. Beautiful !

Sunday, October 26, 2014

...Of The Great Discoverer

My pop culture obsessions tend to ebb and flow. For weeks upon weeks I will become totally consumed by single season cult British comedies , binge watching them to distraction, poring over their minutiae and interacting with other fans. A week or two later you'll find me engrossed in the diaries of people I admire, leading me down further rabbit-holes of discovery. Other times, I will spend dozens upon dozens of days playing a game that is as demandingly difficult as it is amazingly engrossing. Or perhaps watching and rewatching films that would drive the average viewer to distraction. Paraphrasing Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes (of interests) and lack the ordinary person's ability to divide time amongst each, alternating instead between devotion of unholy amounts of time and attention to completely neglecting said interests for months on end. Each phase of obsession is usually accompanied by an urge to write, but more often than not, I don't follow through. This time however, in a bid to return my blog to its early days of fevered activity, I plan to follow through.

A long while ago, I wrote about (re)discovering Noor Jehan. Listening to selections from Madam's pre-partition career not only gave me an increased appreciation of her talents, it also introduced me to the wonderful history of Cinema in the subcontinent. Over time, with the help of wonderful resources like Dances on the Footpath and Memsaab Story, I learned more about the heady days of the '30s and '40s when Cinema was in its infancy. Unfortunately, most of the pre-partition films, including both talkies and silents, are either lost or unavailable for public viewing, but whatever survives is fascinating to say the least. What really interested me though, was the film music of the '30s and '40s. I wouldn't go so far as some purists who consider the 1940-1960 era the Golden era of Bollywood music (I would put it more at 1949-1969) because I think most of the classical based film music from that era hasn't dated well. The music that stands out in my opinion, is by a handful of music directors who broke away from the pure classical tradition, introduced folk/western influenced music in their films and managed to create the template for the film music of the next two decades.

This post is about one such genius, who I unequivocally consider amongst the very finest music composers in the history of the subcontinent, Master Ghulam Haider. Even though an early death robbed him of a lengthy career, during his eighteen year association with the film industry, he almost single-handedly revolutionized film music. The effects of his innovations are still being felt and he was recognized as a pioneer and a "master", both in his lifetime and after his death, by the great music directors and singers of the subcontinent. The dust of time has settled on his accomplishments and his name is not as well known as most of his successors, but if I were to select only one reason to consider Master Sb one of the giants of music, it would be this; he discovered and nurtured four of the greatest and most iconic voices of the subcontinent.

A brief biographical sketch of Master Ghulam Haider's life would be; Born in Hyderabad (Sind) 1908, Died Lahore (Pakistan) 1953. First film as music director - "Swarg Ki Seerhi" (1935) , Final film as music director - "Gulnaar" (1953). Married famous radio/Gramophone singer Umrao Zia Begum (1935). A single post on Master Sb's career highlights would be too vast an undertaking. I will limit myself to the four artists who started their film careers under Master Ghulam Haider's baton.

In 1939, "Pancholi Art Pictures" Lahore released a low budget Punjabi film, "Gul Bakaavli". The star was thirteen year old child star "Baby Noor Jehan". Under Master Ghulam Haider's direction, Noor Jehan recorded her very first songs, achieving instant fame amongst the Punjabi audiences. Noor Jehan's first song, and the film's enduring hit was "Shaala Jawaaniyan Maan'en".

This was both Master Ghulam Haider and Noor Jehan's big break, and it is a testament to both that the song retains its freshness to this day. In stark contrast to the prevalent music of the day, this song had a prominent 'dholak' beat, a wonderfully free-flowing instrumentation with liberal use of western instruments, including a wonderful clarinet. This was to set the tone for further Noor Jehan-Ghulam Haider collaborations, including 1941's superhit Pancholi Art Pictures' Punjabi film "Chaudhry", which included this wonderful duet featuring Noor Jehan and Master Ghulam Haider himself, "Bus Bus Ve Dholna"

By 1942, Noor Jehan was an established singing star of the Punjabi cinema, but was relatively unknown in the rest of India. She was still known as "Baby Noor Jehan" and had not started playing adult roles. All this changed with a truly landmark film, one of the most important and most successful films in the history of the subcontinent; 1942's Pancholi Art Pictures' film "Khandan". It introduced Noor Jehan in her first adult role, which was also her first Hindustani speaking role. It also introduced the rest of India to Master Ghulam Haider's groundbreaking music. A phenomenal hit even by today's standards, it propelled both the singer and the music director to unprecedented fame. Each song of this film is brilliant (I'm planning a future post on the Khandan soundtrack), but my most favorite is that haunting, almost otherworldly melody that displayed Noor Jehan's precocious maturity as a singer, "Tu Kaun Si Badli Main"

After Khandan, Noor Jehan's career continued on an ever-upward trajectory, lasting the next six decades. Master Ghulam Haider's music meanwhile, was allowing the low-budget films from Lahore to compete with the releases of the major studios of Calcutta, Pune and Mumbai. In 1941, Pancholi Art Pictures released another super-hit Hindustani film with music by Master Ghulam Haider. In this film, he used another of his discoveries for playback. the film was "Khazanchi" and the discovery was Shamshad Begum. Master Ghulam Haider's use of the dholak as the primary driving force of a film song came to full prominence in this film, as he set the foundation for taal-based music in film, superseding the earlier laya-based compositions. One of the film's biggest hits was the Shamshad Beegum-Ghulam Haider duet "Nainon Ke Baan Ki Reet Anokhi".

Just as an aside, isn't Ramola Devi gorgeous ?

Another hit song from this film, and one of my personal favorites, again sung by Shamshad Begum, was the melancholy song "Mann Dheere Dheere Rona". It is propelled along at a wonderful tempo by a tabla/dholak accompaniment, which had by now become a trademark of Master Ghulam Haider.

Master Ghulam Haider had introduced the two pre-eminent film singers of the '40s, Noor Jehan and Shamshad Begum. Shamshad Begum said in an interview "Master Ghulam Haider was like her Guru. He was the one who guided her early career and helpedher develop her style of singing. According to her, She learnt two lessons from him. First, to be a good person and the second, just like water takes the shape of the vessel, the same way, one should adjust with the circumstances". According to some estimates, Shamshad Begum alsorecorded nearly 200 non-film songs with Ghulam Haider for his "Jain-ophone" label. Unfortunately, very few of them survive. One of my favorite Shamshad Begum songs from the forties composed by Master Ghulam Haider comes from Mehboob Khan's epic "Humayun", "Naina Bhar Aaye Neer"

With 1947 came the trauma of partition. Like Mohammad Rafi, Naushad and Shamshad Begum, Master Ghulam Haider decided to stay in Bombay but most of his Punjabi musicians migrated to Lahore. He had heard two Punjabi sisters who sang together in Lahore, and after partition, arranged for the younger sister to come to Bombay. She had previously achieved some fame for singing Punjabi folksongs on the radio, but Master Ghulam Haider introduced her as a playback singer in the 1948 film 'Shaheed". Her name was Surinder Kaur and she was his third great discovery. Shaheed was a superhit, and one of Surinder Kaur's songs is a personal favorite of mine, "Badnaam Na Ho Jaaye"

One of the versions of the story of Master Ghulam Haider's final great discovery sounds like it could've come straight from a Bollywood film, and it's apocryphal at best, but here goes. Master Ghulam Haider was traveling from one recording studio to another in a local train in Bombay when he noticed an anaemic looking girl in her teens singing something. Her voice was very shrill but very sweet. Ghulam Haider asked her to come close to his seat and asked, “Would you sing if I made a tune for you right now ?”. He used a plate and a stick to create the ”Taal”, improvised a tune and sang it.As the girl followed along, Ghulam Haider was impressed. He asked her to come on a certain date to a studio for audition in front of a mike and orchestra. The girl agreed and reached the studio well before the appointed time. Ghulam Haider conducted the audition. Her voice was feeble, but closer to the mike it sounded very impressive. She passed the audition and Master Ghulam Haider decided to use her in the film he was currently working on. When the producer heard the recordings, he rejected her by saying that the voice was too shrill. Master Ghulam Haider told the producer, "You might be rejecting her today, but tomorrow you shall come begging to her to sing for you". The shrill voiced young singer, if you haven't guessed already, was Lata Mangeshkar.

Lata Mangeshkar sang her very first film songs under the direction of Master Ghulam Haider in the 1948 film 'Majboor", in a recording session that was attended by Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishen, Anil Biswas and Husnlal-Bhagatram, all eager to listen to the latest discovery of Master Ghulam Haider's. My favorite song from this film, and Lata's very first solo film song, is "Dil Mera Toda, Mujhe Kaheen Ka Na Chora"

Another interesting incident involving Lata and Master Ghulam Haider goes like this, One day in a recording studio Lata was rehearsing a Ghulam Haider tune. Being raw she kept making one crucial mistake again and again. The perfectionist in Ghulam Haider got so infuriated that he gave her a slap on her face. Every member of the orchestra was stunned. One of Ghulam Haider’s most trusted harmonium players was Kartar Singh. Kartar Singh remarked ”Khan Sahib,why did you slap this frail little girl?. Look at her face, she can’t even cry, she is totally dumbfounded”. Ghulam Haider retorted, “Kartar Singh, I used to slap Noorjehan when she made mistakes and see how high a pedestal she has reached, she is on top the top of her profession. This slap is going to catapult Lata  into a great singer, who will rule the world of music”. This incident took place during the recordings for 1948's "Padmini, which features my favorite Lata Mangeshkar-Master Ghulam Haider collaboration, "Bedard Tere Dard Ko Seene Se Lagaa Ke". Master Ghulam Haider gives Lata a classical based composition and she sings it with aplomb, perfectly justifying his confidence and pride in her.

Soon after this, and despite a flourishing career in the Bombay film industry, Master Ghulam Haider moved back to Lahore. In Lahore, he gave music for a number of films, The films did not prove to be great hits at the box office, and the music wasn't very well received. He founded the film production company "Filmsaaz" in 1953 with  a view to producing music based films. During the production of his maiden film as  a producer, 1953's "Gulnaar", Master Ghulam Haider started suffering from symptoms of Throat cancer, and despite entreaties from Lata Mangeshkar to come to Bombay for treatment, decided to spend his final days in Lahore. The film was released in the first week of November 1953, a few days before his death at the relatively young age of 45. His funeral was held on 10th November 1953 in Lahore, and a special meeting of the Cine Musicians Association was called in Bombay to mourn his death.

Master Ghulam Haider gave music for barely two dozen films in his lifetime, eschewing quantity over quality. He paved the way for singers, poets and musicians from the Punjab, who breathed new life into the music of the subcontinent. This is bourne out by the fact that his success was soon followed by the arrivals of Punjabi music directors like Shyam Sunder, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Madan Mohan and OP Nayyar (the last two had worked as assistants with Master Ghulam Haider), singers like Muhammad Rafi and GM Durrani and poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Rajinder Krishen, Dinanath Madhok and Qamar Jalalabadi. His genius was universally recognized by his peers, and by the artists he'd discovered, who continued to give him credit for the formative influence he had had on their careers. Master Ghulam Haider's name isn't as well known today as many of his contemporaries, but his music still retains the freshness, the vitality and the beauty that had made him so famous in his lifetime.

The music of Gulnaar gained extra poignancy after Master Ghulam Haider's death, and his melancholy compositions for the film were constantly played by Radio Pakistan, Radio Ceylon and All India Radio in the days and weeks following his death. They were sung by his phenomenal protege, the girl he had introduced almost two decades earlier, and whose meteoric rise he'd been partly responsible for. I think it's fitting to end this post with two songs from the film, songs which are my personal favorites. The first is the haunting "Bachpan Ki Yaadgaro" ...

... and the second, an absolute masterpiece, is the song that introduced me to Master Ghulam Haider's genius,one of Noor Jehan's greatest songs, "Lo Chal Diye Woh Hum Ko Tasalli Diye Baghair". This song was reportedly played almost a dozen times on Radio Pakistan on the day of Master Ghulam Haider's death, and serves as a fitting bookend to this post.