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 .

Friday, December 24, 2010

...Of The Potter And The Prince

Siddhu Kumhaar lived a prosperous and contented life. As "Master Bricklayer And Potter By Special Appointment" to Emperor Shahjehan, Siddhu held a very special place in Mughal Lahore. He had supplied bricks for the construction of some of the Emperor's finest creations-from the Shalamar Gardens to the tomb of Dai Anga. Always the first to be considered when some Amir of the court planned the construction of any building, be it a residence, a garden or a mausoleum, Siddhu and his son, Buddhu were well respected artisans who made a very reasonable living from the produce of their kiln. The kiln was situated close to the Shalimar Gardens in the suburb of Begumpura and it churned out bricks and pottery on an almost daily basis to satisfy the needs of the Emperor's many ambitious building projects.

The kiln was lit on one chilly,windy and wet night. It was freezing cold outside but the kiln itself was warm, with the workers huddling close to the fire as they fed it unbaked bricks. In the middle of the night, there was a rap on the door. One of the workers answered and found an old Faqir standing outside. Shivering and drenched, the Faqir requested the worker to let him inside, into the warmth of the kiln. Rather than taking pity on the old man soaking in the freezing rain, the worker slammed the door in his face and returned to the company of his fellows. The worker didn't know that the Faqir he had refused entry was no ordinary mendicant, but Sheikh Abdul Haq, a favorite disciple of the Sufi saint Hazrat Mian Mir.

Abdul Haq left the kiln, cursing under his breath, praying that the fire that hadn't provided warmth to him on this, the coldest of nights would be extinguished forever. That was the last time that kiln was ever lit. Siddhu's business floundered and he was never able to regain the position he once held. When he died, his son Buddhu took over the struggling family business but was unable to turn his fortunes around and ultimately died almost penniless. When Shahjehan heard of the death of his royal potter, he ordered that a beautiful mausoleum be built next to the kiln and Buddhu be laid to rest there. Thus Buddhu the bricklayer was buried close to the kiln that had been both his livelihood and his undoing. 

 Bhai Buddhu, a Sikh devotee of Guru Arjun Dev had started a brick kiln, but the bricks of his kiln could not be fully baked due to a curse placed on him by a fellow Sikh, Bhai Kamlia. Bhai Buddhu prayed to Guru Arjun Dev so that the curse could be lifted. Guru Dev Ji told him that the curse of a Sikh is final but added that his unbaked bricks would fetch the same price as that of baked bricks. It so happened that that year the demand for bricks soared so high that all the bricks of Bhai Buddhu's kiln were sold and he made a handsome profit. Bhai Buddhu built a Gurdwara as an offering of thanks to the Guru. For a long time this Gurdwara remained under the control of Mahant of Satlani. Under the Gurdwara act of 1927 AD this came under the control of Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. In 1938 when the building of Sikh National College near the Gulabi Darwaza was constructed, a splendid building for Gurdwara was also built. The building of Gurdwara has collapsed but the tomb of Bhai Buddhu still remains.


Yamin-ud-Daula Khan-e-Dauran Khan Bahadur Nusrat Jang was one of Shahjehan's ablest generals. He had helped crush a rebellion at Ahmedabad and was instrumental in defeating the armies of Raja Jhajjhar Singh in Deccan and Noor Singh Dev in Gujrat. His wife died in Lahore while he was away on one of his military expeditions. Overcome with sorrow when he was informed of his wife's death, he chose to do what so many other Mughal noblemen did to express their grief. He had a beautiful mausoleum built for his deceased wife near their residence in Begumpura. A few years later, when he too passed away, his son decided to let his father be buried next to his mother. And so, like his Emperor, Khan-e-Dauran was laid to rest in a beautiful mausoleum originally constructed for his beloved wife


These are just three of the contrasting stories that purport to reveal the identity of the unknown occupant of the remarkable tomb on GT Road just opposite the University Of Engineering And Technology. Known colloquially as "Buddhu Ka Aawa" ,the tomb is strategically placed so that it's the first Pit-Stop on what can be considered the scenic route through Begumpura and Baghbanpura ; the last being the Shalamar Bagh.

This beautiful and rather dilapidated building stands tucked away between a market and a gas station, just opposite UET on the main GT Road. A square building constructed on a raised platform, it has four "Peshtaaq"openings, one each side, with a sunken arched panel on the walls to either side. The platform is raised above the ground and remnants of pillars at it's corners indicate that this tomb may have been part of a much larger building that has since disappeared. Like most other tombs of the Mughal era, this one must have stood in a walled garden, the only remnant of which is a tiny lawn surrounding the building.

The square burial chamber is topped with an octagonal drum shaped structure with four arched openings. On top of this octagon rests the dome. The long-necked dome and rather imposingwas decorated with beautiful glazed tilework and mosaics, of which only remnants remain. The margins of the dome are lined by beautiful, brightly coloured floral mosaic designs that run the circumference of the dome. The hemisphere itself carries what remains of exquisite blue and white tiles arranged in chevrons. The rest of the exposed masonwork has been blackened by the ravages of time. 

Most of the beautiful glazed tilework and other decorations were torn off during the Sikh Era, a fate suffered by most of the other Mughal era buildings of Lahore. Time hasn't been kind to whatever was left behind by the marauders but the little that remains speaks eloquently of the history, the stories and the lives that are permanently woven into the fabric of Lahore's culture. Irrespective of who it is that rests in eternal repose inside 'Buddhu Ka Aawa', the building is a beautiful relic of that remarkable time and place, Lahore under the Mughals.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

...Of The Shalamar

Shah Abdul Hakeem had seen the young Bulleh Shah wandering the streets of Qasur several times. He knew the young ascetic was searching for spiritual enlightenment in the form of a guide or "murshid". One day, he called Bulleh Shah and said to him, 'The one you seek is in Lahore. Go to him, present yourself to him and pray that he accepts you as his own".

Bulleh Shah left Qasur and reached Lahore. He roamed the streets day and night,his unkempt locks flowing and his clothes in tatters, searching for his Murshid. One day, he wandered into the Shalamar Bagh; the famed vision of paradise that the Mughal emperor Shahjehan had constructed in Lahore,. After roaming the walkways, he chanced upon one of the Baghbaans - gardeners who oversaw the royal gardens - tilling a field in the gardens. Something came over Bulleh Shah and he stopped in his tracks, filled with a mixture of attraction and awe.Something seemed to tell him that he'd reached the end of his quest, that he'd found the Murshid he was looking for.

Anxious to approach the Baghbaan but reluctant to express his feelings openly, the young Sufi closed his eyes and started performing "Zikr"- the silent remembrance of the Lord. Suddenly one of the mango trees - of which there were dozens upon dozens in the Bagh - dislodged all it's fruit. As the shower of mangoes descended close to the gardener, he turned around and on spotting Bulleh Shah standing at a distance, said, "Thief! How dare you steal mangoes from this garden".

 Bulleh Shah replied, "I'm standing in front of you. away from the tree. How could I have brought down all these mangoes without even touching the tree?"

At this the gardener smiled, closed his eyes and started performing "Zikr". Suddenly, in front of young Bulleh Shah's eyes, all the mango trees in the Bagh started swaying and in an instant, the ground was covered with mangoes. While Bulleh Shah was staring open mouthed, the mangoes lying heaped on the ground jumped up and re-settled on the branches of the trees.

At this, Bulleh Shah ran forward ,fell at the feet of the gardener and offered himself into submission.


So goes one of the versions of the story of how Bulleh Shah met his spiritual master, Shah Inayat. The Shalamar Gardens were the site of that fabled encounter, and although the mango trees - just one variety among the dozens of types of fruit bearing trees that grew in Shalamar Bagh- are gone, the Gardens and their adjoining regions of Begumpura and Baghbanpura are still at the centre of the cultural, historical and spiritual heritage of Lahore.

Constructed by Shahjehan, the most artistically inclined of the Mughal emperors, at a place "so delightfully adapted to the purpose that it was universally commended", the Shalamar Gardens were designed primarily for the enjoyment of the Emperor on his frequent trips to Lahore. The gifted engineer Ali Mardan Khan -who is buried close to his favorite creation - designed the garden along the pattern of the Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar, with fountained waterways fed by a specially constructed canal from the Ravi called the Shahi Neher. A series of aqueducts and tanks, carrying water transported uphill with the aid of oxen-powered water pumps fed the fountains in a remarkable feat of engineering.

The gardens itself were divided into three tiers. The topmost tier named "Bagh-e Farah Bakhsh" was reserved for the royal family. Along with the Bagh's characteristic fountain-lined intersecting waterways, it has two remarkable structures, the rectangular Diwaane Khaas-o-Aam with the unusual spiculated roof, and the central Barah-dari that overlooks the marvelous cascade that transmits water down to the second level.

Another attraction is the Moorcroft Building, a pavillion costructed during Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's reign for the explorer William Moorcroft. It is equipped with an ingenious ventilation system. The main component of the pavilion is the basement, which has two ventilation openings on each wall that open to the outside just above ground level. It's northern wall opens into a well equipped with a water pump that when powered by oxen, would result in a sheet of water cascading in front of the opening in the wall. Air entering through the well would be cooled after passing through this artificial waterfall and would exit through the eight ventilation windows.

The second level - "Bagh-e Faiz Bakhsh" houses the giant water tank - the Talaab - with its 152 fountains. Water enters it via the Great Cascade, a beautiful scalloped white marble waterway that brings water into the Talaab in a shimmering stream from whence it flows into the pool ,passing underneath the Emperor's marble throne. In the centre of the Talaab is the Mehtaabi, a central platform that oversees the third level of the Bagh, the "Bagh-e-Hayat Bakhsh". The second level houses four beautiful Barah-daris and it's four corners are overlooked by magnificently imposing towers atop the red brick boundary walls.

The "Hayat Bakhsh" houses the exceptional pavilion known as "Saawan Bhaadon" in which water used to cascade down three vertical walls with niches carved into them for placement of oil lamps. At night, water cascading over white marble, with hundreds of oil lamps glowing behind it must've been quite a sight. The rest of the level consists of spacious lawns where once there grew rows upon rows of fruit trees. Sadly, only a few of these are still in fruit.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Shalimar Gardens have undergone several renovations and one can see evidence of conservation work still going on in some parts of the Bagh. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking but I hope the conservation process is completed soon and visitors are able to experience the gardens as they were meant to be experienced - a vision of paradise on earth, with lush gardens filled with flowering plants and fruit trees, dancing fountains sending water cascading down waterways that flow in rivulets down the great cascade, with lamps illuminating the Saawan Bhaadon pavilion as visitors marvel at the dance of oil lamps behind a sheet of water and feel what the emperor Shahjehan must have felt when he first visited the Shalamar, as the court historian Inayat Khan wrote :

"His Majesty made a pleasure excursion to those paradise-like terraces. And the gardens and the agreeable pavilions which had been erected about the grounds, which all vied with the heavens in grandeur, were now found suitable to the royal taste. In fact, never before had a garden of such a magnificent description been seen or heard of on earth."


P.S All photos taken by yours truly. Watch this space for a few more come January, as I can't upload any more in December due to Flickr's obscene 100 photos per month policy.
P.P.S If you're in Lahore and haven't been to Shalamar yet, I can't help but feel pity for you.
P.P.P.S Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb has provided the perfect soundtrack to a walk in the Shalamar Gardens.

Found at: FilesTube

....Of A Novel Approach

Stop me if you've heard it before, but I think I've finally worked out a way to cure my (now chronic) case of Bloggers' block. As a friend pointed out recently, this inability to write mightn't be because I'm starved for things to write about but because the opposite seems to be the case.I find myself with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to stories, photos, anecdotes and videos collected from all over Punjab over the past three months. It's the sheer size of the stash and the effort required in sorting, organizing and writing that has intimidated me into hibernation.

After having thought out a number of approaches, I've decided to take an obverse approach. Instead of starting from the beginning, detailing my adventures in DG Khan, running over the Great South Punjab Roadtrip, recounting the trips to Pakpattan and Qasur before finally ending on my recent photographing expeditions across Lahore, I'll take the opposite route. Starting from the most recent explorations, I'll work my way back to the day three months ago when i landed in Dera Ghazi Khan for flood relief duties. Interspersed with these photo-travelogue-rants will be the usual doses of randomness that populate my blog.

I've been known to lose commitment in a half-completed post several times in the past because finishing it would involve straying from what I consider (in my pretentiousness) the mot juste, or would require the extra cup of tea (yes, I'm a tea-drinker now. Yes,I'm ashamed of myself) or the extra hour of headache-filled wakefulness that is the crucial difference between the draft and the finished product. This time however, I'm trying to put some more mechanicality into the writing process. I plan to make a habit of writing regularly, with an aim to churn out one or two posts per week. If the quality(yeah, right) of the posts suffers as a result, I won't be greatly concerned. I don't mind a few sputters and stalls before the engine starts chugging again.

So, here's to a new, more methodical and more disciplined approach. Hopefully it'll cure me of the doldrums. If not, then at least I'll have the consolation of knowing that I tried. If my rag-tag bunch of readers decides to bear with me, I can promise an enjoyable ride, albeit a bumpy one.

Books Of The Week, "The Coffee House Of Lahore",KK Aziz, Rumi's Mathnavi in the Qazi Sajjad translation.
Movies Of The Week,"The Social Network", "Easy A", "Anna Karenina"
Music Of The Week,"Khwaja Khurshid Anwar's monumental "Raag Mala"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

...Of An Unnaturally Long Hiatus

When I returned from my flood relief duty-cum-South Punjab exploration trip, I was raring at the bit. I had spent an extraordinary month working in the field as well as another phenomenal 5 days exploring every nook and cranny of South Punjab. I had returned to Lahore tanned and tired, but loaded with photos and stories from my month-long adventure. While I was there, I had even plotted out how I was going to go about writing down the various highlights of my trip; which subjects were gonna get a stream-of-consciousness Jack Kerouac treatment and which would be delivered in a more verite manner (not that I'm adept at either of these).

The stories were accompanied by photos, literally tons of them, taken with my trusty cellphone camera. I was justifiably proud of them and desperately wanted to share them with whoever wanted to see them. These I tagged, edited and sorted in anticipation of publishing them on my blog. Everything was set for a marathon blogging session when suddenly my brain stopped working. I sat in front of the PC for hours upon hours, trying to write but failing to do so. Sometimes it was due to tiredness after a long day's work, sometimes the failure to find the mot juste and sometimes just plain godawful ennui.

The photos I managed to upload on my Facebook, so it hasn't been a total exercise in sloth, but this inability to write has puzzled,disappointed and ultimately depressed me. I've hit writer's (bloggers') block before but this has been a month of absolute, utter barrenness. If what Thomas Mann said is correct and "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people., then I'm the Tolstoy of my age, because I've sweated hours and still not managed to write a single coherent sentence.

I hope to force myself to write from today onwards, even if it's at the rate of one paragraph a day. Here's to success in a grim struggle.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

...Of Fareedi Sahab

There's a word in Urdu that doesn't have an exact substitute in English, one of many I presume. The word is ہیجان - 'Haijaan' It can roughly be translated as a feeling of unease or restlessness. I've always looked upon music as something that soothes,calms or in certain cases, provides emotional release. I'd never thought that music could produce 'Haijaan'. That was until I heard Fareedi sahab.

My last year of Med School was when I really discovered Qawwali, and it was all thanks to this one friend of mine-who shall remain nameless by his request. Every six to seven days, I would trudge over to his hostels and park myself in his dorm room. The conversation would always start with, 'Musab bhai aap ne yeh suna hai?' to which  I'd obviously reply in the negative, resulting in the now legendary remark, 'Chorain Musab bhai, aap ne to kuch suna hi nahi'. It started with Munshi Raziuddin sahab, then Haji Mehboob Qawwal and then to the rest of the stellar recordings in his immense collection. Collectors are miserly folk by nature, and my friend is no exception. It'd take beggings and pleadings to allow me to copy some of the stuff into my iPod, but eventually I built up a fair collection of my own.

One day,while sitting in his room and listening to something by Haji Mehboob, he said, 'Musab bhai, aap ne Fareedi sahab ko suna hai?' There were the customary replies, a negative from me and a 'Chorain Musab bhai' from him .... and then he played me something. I listened in silence as the instrumental prelude -the sazeena- ended. Then came the first verse and I was stunned. I listened in complete silence and I could sense my friend observing the expressions on my face change as the music sunk in. The voice of the performer was so remarkable, the arrangement was so unusual and the accompaniment was so superb that I was immediately floored. I listened to the whole piece in silence and then requested him to play it again. Another listen and I couldn't get my mind off the composition. I asked him if he would give it to me and he declined; which was his usual practice. I went back to my dorm to sleep as it was pretty late at night.

All the way back to my dorm I couldn't get my mind off the Qawwali I'd just heard. It was not that it was beautiful; which it was beyond doubt; it was almost disturbingly beautiful. I couldn't understand why I was suddenly restless, my heart palpitating, butterflies in my stomach. I tried to sleep but couldn't. All night I stayed up,pacing the room and thinking about what I'd heard. I was extremely agitated and more than that, I was surprised at my condition because this sort of trepidation was usually reserved for the last five minutes before a viva voce examination when I knew it was my turn to meet the examiner. Finally around 6am in the morning I phoned my friend, woke him up and told him I was coming over to get the recording from him one way or the other. Something in my tone of voice must've given him an idea of my mental state and he acquiesced. I got the recording and played it continously for weeks and weeks. That was how I was introduced to probably the greatest Qawwal nobody has heard of - Agha Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal.

At the time of my first listen , I had no idea who Fareedi sahab was.When I got much more immersed in the world of Qawwali, I found out some of the rather sketchy biographical details that are available. Fareedi sahab was a favorite pupil of the legendary Fateh Ali Khan (Nusrat's father); a fact that is forcefully borne out by the similarities between the two Qawwal's performance styles. He preferred the more traditional style of hius Ustad over the innovative approach taken by Nusrat, once saying 'Main Nusrat nu aakhya si ke apne baap di raah te aaja, parr uss meri gal nahi manni.' ( I had told Nusrat to follow the path of his father but he didn't listen to me' Fareedi sahab, like his great contemporay Haji Mehboob Qawwal, was exclusively a 'darbaari qawwal', that is he only performed at Sufi shrines and didn't release anything commercially. All his surviving recordings are bootlegs from his performances at various shrines-chiefly Baba Sahab Fariduddin Ganj Shakar's shrine at Pak Pattan and Kalyam Ayan near Gujjar Khan.

Fareedi sahab had a deep, gravelly and distinctive voice and he was accompanied by arguably one of the most talented group of 'hamnavaas' any Qawwal has possessed. His party contained the phenomenal 'baja' players and co-singers Majeed Fareedi and Mubarak Ali Lahori who were the perfect foil for Rasheed's voice. Majeed in particular had this startlingly distinctive voice and lent an unmistakably 'Potohari' flavor to the party's performances. Fareedi sahab was known as a very meticulous performer and was not averse to physically hitting or loudly swearing at his hamnavaas in the choicest punjabi in the middle of performances if he thought they weren't delivering. It's little wonder that his party was considered the most 'disciplined' party of their time.

His performance style was unique, very spirited and -at the tail end of a performance - almost electric. He always tried to achieve the maximum emotional impact, once remarking 'Je mera vass challay te main ainhaan saaryaan de kapray paar ke ghar wapas ghallaan' (If it were upto me, all the listeners would go home with their clothes in tatters). He would always sit to one side of his party. keeping his hands on the harmonium to dictate the notes as he sang. He had a distinctive way of performing, accentuating his singing with his hands, face and sometimes his whole body. In moments of musical excitement, he was known to stand up and sing with his arms outstretched, his face upturned. A couple of people who attended some of his performances tell me that they are unlikely to ever forget the sight of Fareedi sahab singing at the peak of his powers. His longer pieces slowly built up to a series of thundering takraars and alaaps while the shorter pieces were tours de force of blisteringly electric delivery.

Although Rasheed Fareedi was the darbaari qawwal at Pakpattan, he was also a follower of Pir Mehr Ali Shah (R.A) and 'ba'it' at the hands of Pir sahab's son, Hazrat Babuji (R.A). This meant that Fareedi sahab would occasionally visit the Golra Sharif shrine to pay his respects and to perform with his illustrious contemporary and personal friend Haji Mehboob Qawwal. These rare occasions would draw huge crowds and the two Qawwal parties with their leaders sitting at front would be a site to behold. Fareedi sahab's loud, powerful style meant that Haji Mehboob would more often than not have to play catch-up with Fareedi sahab's tempo and notes. Sadly, very few recordings of these mehfils survive, but they are a phenominal glimpse into how two giants of their field collaborated to produce something magical.

Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi passed away around 1987 from complications resulting from Throat Cancer; a disease  many of his fans blamed it on his years of vigorous high octave singing that had taken its toll on his throat. After his demise, most of the members of his Qawwali party joined Abdul Raheem Fareedi Qawwal to form another powerhouse troupe who enjoyed a fair amount of success in the late 80's and early '90s. After Fareedi sahab's death, the attendances at Qawwali mehfils gradually thinned out at Kalyam Awan.

Although audio recordings, especially good quality recordings of Fareedi sahab are rare, video records of his performances are rarer still. Barely half a dozen video recordings are present, most in the hands of collectors a thousand times more miserly than the friend I mentioned above. Below is one of the two videos that are available online. It shows Fareedi sahab and his party performing at his son's wedding at Lahore. This was recorded a few months before his demise. His spellbinding performance style is here for all to see, the takraars are amazing, his histrionics enliven the performance to the nth degree and the 'Pa Ni Sa..Re SA Sa' sargam', one of his trademarks, is employed to great effects. Also on display is the awesome strength of his 'hamnavaas', each one of them a singular artist in his own right.

At Fareedi sahab's 'Chaleesvaan' (the 40th day after his death), Haji Mehboob Qawwal sang a wonderful version of Pir Mehr Ali Shah's kalaam as a lament for his deceased friend. It was a fitting tribute from one great Qawwal of his age to another, and it will serve as a fitting end to this short series of posts on some of my favorite artists and performances from Qawwali. I will certainly revisit this subject which is obviously a favorite of mine, but now ,"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things".

Thursday, September 16, 2010

...Of Haji Ghulam Fareed

 YouTube is the greatest thing since bread came sliced. The ideal fodder for procrastination as well as a treasure trove of rarities, nostalgia trips and all-round awesomeness. The following videos were the start of one of such nostalgia trips and I thought I'd share them here.

 Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri, the elder of the Sabri Brothers, was one of the greatest Qawwals of the last century and with his younger brother Haji Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, was instrumental in gaining a mainstream audience for Qawwali. With a repertoire at par with his other great contemporary, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Haji Ghulam Fareed and the Sabri Brothers were THE face of Qawwali for well over 30 years. Maintaining a classical andaaz while at the same time innovating over the years, the Sabri Brothers were consummate performers. Like Nusrat, they were woefully over-recorded with a lot of amateurishly produced material available easily. However their recordings over the years for EMI Pakistan are exemplary for their wonderful instrumentation and exceptional adaaigi.

Haji Ghulam Fareed was more than just a performer, being a scholar, and in the last days of his life, a Sufi himself. He was the epitome of what we can call - for want of a better word - 'presence'. His flowing locks, his under-the-breath intonations and the trademark calls of 'Allah' that punctuated the Sabri Brothers performances were charming flourishes that lent his work a more mystical tone. But Haji sahab's greatest asset was his voice. He had a distinctive booming, barrel-organ voice that never sounded out of key and could hit notes as high as the sky one momentwhile navigating intricate alaaps the very next.

Haji Sahab passed away on the 5th of April 1940 in Karachi of a massive heart attack. The following program was aired on PTV a few days after his demise.

 A relic of a time when the passing of a culturally significant artist was a national event, this program is touching because of the genuine displays of grief by Haji Sahab's family. Haji Maqbool's tearful recollection of Haji sahab's last moments is a tragic yet beautiful reminder that although they had their fair share of brotherly squabbles, the two Sabri brothers shared a deep love for each other. This video is also significant as it contains interviews of all three stalwarts of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana-two of whom have since then sadly passed away. While all three brothers-Munshi Raziuddin, Ustad Bahauddin and Manzoor Niazi- offer their condolences and appraise the contribution of Haji sahab in the field of Qawwali, Munshi Raziuddin's comments are particularly interesting.

Maybe it's just me, but I sense a thinly veiled disdain in Munshi sahab's comments regarding the 'populist' nature of the Sabri Brothers repertoire. This would be understandable coming from Munshi sahab as he was the standard-bearer for the more traditional and classical Qawwali idiom, even if it meant significantly less commercial acclaim as compared to his more 'populist' compeers, apart from a rather limited discerning audience. Munshi sahab was known for his dislike of the various 'innovations' that the likes of Nusrat had introduced into Qawwali and maybe that dislike extended to the Sabris.

Haji Ghulam Fareed started actively performing a short time before partition at the mazaar of Hazrat Ali Ahmed Sabir (R.A) with his uncle Kallan Khan Qawwal. Around seven years after partition he joined the Qawwal party his younger brother had started and the Sabri Brothers started. From some of the gramophone recordings of Kallan Qawwal and Party we can get a glimpse of the precocious talent that Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri possessed. His voice -although not as voluminous as in his later days- is distinctive and his vocal stylings offer a stunning peek into his future exploits with the Sabri Brothers. I'd like to end this piece with one of Kallan Qawwal and Party's gramophone recordings from the late 1940s in which Haji Ghulam Fareed's distinctive voice is unmissable. Following that are the Sabri Brothers at their - if I may use the term - grooviest. The beat is amazing, the baja is played with remarkable elan and Haji Ghulam Fareed looks dashing sans his locks.


P.S I'd give an arm and a leg for the the complete versions of the two Qawwalis shown in the above videos.

Monday, September 6, 2010

...Of The Qaul

The starting point to this series of posts on Qawwali was obvious to me as soon as I first thought about writing them. Any discussion on Qawwali naturally begins at the point from where Qawwali itself began; Amir Khusrau (R.A) and the Qaul.

The exact origins of Qawwali may be shrouded in the mists of time but one thing is certain, Qawwali as we know it today started with arguably the single most important cultural figure in the history of Muslims in the sub-continent; Amir Khusrau (R.A). The warrior-poet-trader-musician-mystic directly or indirectly influenced the written, spoken and musical expression of the North Indian sub-continent. Even a superficial discussion of Khusrau's divers contributions would take pages upon pages. I'll limit this post to just one of Khusrau (R.A)'s creations, one that serves as the cornerstone of the art of Qawwali. The Qaul is derived from a Hadees of the Prophet (S.A.W) that was coupled with a brief musical piece known as a Tarana. It was created and performed by Khusrau (R.A), who then taught it to his disciples. It is as follows.

Man kunto maula,

Fa Ali-un maula
Man kunto maula.
Dara dil-e dara dil-e dar-e daani.
Hum tum tanana nana, nana nana ray
Yalali yalali yala, yala ray
Man tunko maula......

With the first half comprising the actual 'Qaul' of the Prophet(S.A.W) and the second half comprising the tarana, it forms the foundation stone of Qawwali. There is slight variation among performers with respect to the first half of the Qaul, with some replacing "Fa Ali-un maula" with "Fa-haaza Ali-un Maula" .The linguistic significance of the phrases of the Tarana has long been debated, with some claiming they are meaningless words used only for their musicality while others claiming they are derived from ancient Persian and Hebrew words. What's beyond debate is the sheer musical power of the tarana when performed by the Qawwal.

I've always maintained that Qawwali is akin to Jazz in that it's a performer's rather than a composer's art. The basic melodic framework and standard mystical or poetic text exists for each piece but the Qawwal is free to improvise either musically or lyrically to enhance the effectiveness of the performance and help the listeners of the Sama'a in achieving the state of 'Haal' . A composition as universal as the Qaul offers an excellent example of the flexible nature of Qawwali, with each Qawwal able to mold the standard composition to his own individual style. There is hardly any Qawwal who doesn't contain the Qaul in his repertoire and each performer performs it in his own peculiar idiom.

In this post, I'd like to share some of the many recordings of the Qaul that I have had the pleasure of collecting. They are by some of the greatest Qawwals of the sub-continent; each infusing the Qaul with their own personal style which is transmitted generation to generation, with certain girahs and bandishes peculiar to that particular Qawwal or Gharana. These recordings provide fascinating insight into the styles,influences and overall performance idiom of the greatest Qawwals of our time.

The "Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana" lays rightful claim to being the oldest and most illustrious Qawwal lineage in the sub-continent. Directly descended from the 12 young disciples of Amir Khusrau (R.A) - the Qawwal Bacchay - , members of this Gharana have more or less resisted the more 'commercial' bent of most of their peers in favour of performing the more classical and raag based Qawwali. Even though the two great scions of the Gharaana - Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal and Ustad Bahauddin Khan Qawwal - have passed away, their descendants are vey ably carrying the tradition forward and along with the third great proponent of the Gharana in Pakistan -Manzoor Niazi Qawwal - and his sons, are the pre-eminent practitioners of the art of Qawwali in Pakistan.

In India, the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana is represented by the overall head of the Gharaana, Ustad Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal who is attached to the shrine of Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Aulia in Delhi and regularly performs despite being at an advanced age. In addition the sons and grandsons of the late Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi also perform a repertoire  containing both traditional arrangements as well as more recent compositions. The recordings that follow represent the Qaul as performed by the members of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana.

The first recording, form 1969, is remarkable in that all three leading Qawwals of the Gharana - Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Bahauddin Qawwal and Manzoor Niazi Qawwal - are heard on it. The recording, slightly edited form the sorce to improve the overall dynamics, captures an astounding performance in which the the taans and behlaavas of all three Qawwals and the accompanying tabla give it a stately elegance. Munshi Raziuddin's vocal virtuosity is at it's peak and the modulated alaaps are a joy to listen to. The recitation of another of Khusrau (R.A)'s Qauls at the end of the piece brings it to a brilliant close.

The second Qawwali is taken from a set of audio-cassettes released in India in 1975 to mark the seventh centenary of Amir Khusrau's birth. A number of spoken word introductions by Prof. Zoe Ansari punctuate this version of the Qaul sung by Bahauddin,Qutbuddin Qawwal and Party. Bahauddin performs this and the other qawwalis on the cassettes in the classical idiom with no girahs whatsoever, with a beautiful sitar and tambura accompaniment. This is a mellifluous piece which slowly gathers tempo as Bahauddin uses his phenominal voice to weave a number of modulated alaaps and variations on the tarana. The takraar and behlaavas at 'Ta na na na' are especially brilliant.

The third recording is a brief snippet from the end of a mehfil by the late Aziz Ahmed Warsi Qawwal from Hyderabad,India. The rather frenzied pace gives the performance an energy and urgency that, mixed with Aziz Warsi's rich voice, is very appealing. The arrangement is slightly different but the style is again the same as the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana. Even though the recording clocks in at only 45 odd seconds, the arrangement and Warsi's voice give it a special grace.

The first three versions of the Qaul represent the classical version with little if any use of girah or Paivandkaari. The next version is by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, taken from an early Nineties concert in Paris. Nusrat's version is significant for two reasons; first and foremost it gives insight into how a classical piece is molded and modified to suit the sargam and behlaava influenced style that Nusrat epitomised. The second reason is that Nusrat's arrangement  -and not the one favored by the Qawwal Baccha's - forms the basis of most other modern Qawwals' performance of the Qaul. The majority of the current Qawwals perform it in Nusrat's style, using most of the same girahs. A number of improvisations on the taraana are followed by the use of some well chosen girahs from both Farsi and Urdu before the Qawwals settle into a takraar of the "Maula Ali Maula" refrain. Nusrat then embellishes it with a few modulated alaaps and sargams - the sargam at 11 minutes is especially beautiful - fitting perfectly with the mood and tonal structure of the Qaul.

The influence of Nusrat's arrangement of the Qaul is apparent in the next recording by Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan Qawwal and Party. It is taken from the 'Flight Of The Soul-Qawwalis from Pakistan' album from the early Nineties and captures the last days of the original party. They were an exceptional group from Faisalabad who enjoyed their heyday in the late seventies and early eighties and this recording finds them past their peak with several important members having passed away. After leading it for around 25 years, Manzoor Hussain handed over the leadership of the party to his son soon after this recording and now sits with the party during performances only for 'tabarruk'. This recording is remarkable for many reasons; among them the fabulous clarinet accompaniment that was the hallmark of Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan's performances for 30 years. At places sounding like an alto saxophone, the clarinet weaves in and out of the arrangement very melodically. Another highlight is the delightful verse placed at the culmination of the main Qaul -at around 11:30 minutes into the performance- that is unique to this recording. The Nusrat inspired behlaavas of Manzoor's son, although slightly off-beat at certain points, are reassuring as to the future of the party in his hands.

Aziz Mian Qawwal was probably the most unique voice in Qawwali over the past 40 years. Known as "Fauji Qawwal" in his early days on account of his blustery delivery and electric performance style. More akin to Waiz Qawwal of Lucknow than anyone else, Aziz Mian was an acquired taste. However his performance of the Qaul, taken from a 1979 EMI release, is enjoyable because of the beautiful orchestral accompaniment as well as the slow, elegant preamble that allows Aziz Mian to use a number of verses in place of a single doha. The Tarana is similar in style to Nusrat, but Aziz Mian's stamp is clear in his recording.

Finally I'd like to share two of my favorite interpretations of the Qaul. The first is from a concert at Alibhai Auditorium performed by the  Sabri Brothers from 1980. The fact that it is a soundboard recording released by EMI accounts for it's exceptional fidelity and clarity. Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri and Haji Maqbool Sabri are in fine mettle and the 'hamnavaas' provide exceptional accompaniement, both during the choruses and the taraana as well as on the tablaa and dholak. The beautiful modulated alaap by Haji Maqbool at the start of the piece provides an excellent taste of the brilliance to come, with a number of alaaps punctuating the initial part of the Qaul before reaching the tarana. At the tarana, the dholak kicks in with a thumping beat before both the brothers recite a number of charming girahs including a charming spoken-word translation of one of them by Haji Ghulam Fareed. This girah is then used to virtuosic effect by Haji Maqbool who weaves a number of astounding alaaps around it before seguing seamlessly into the tarana. And what a tarana ! Alaaps and behlaavas tumble over each other as the tempo picks up and the two brothers are accompanied by the tabla to beautiful effect.

The tarana leads to a beautiful chorus of 'Maula Ali Maula' before Haji Maqbool and Haji Ghulam Farid's beautiful rendition of another series of girahs, once again returning to a breakneck rendition of the tarana building up to an astonishing crescendo.

Most of the recordings above -as well as performances of the Qaul by other Qawwals - are performed in Raag Shudh Kalyaan or Shyaam Kalyaan. The final recording I'd like to share is by one of the greatest Qawwals of the last century, the late Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal. I aim to write a detailed post on him as part of this series but for the time being, his version of the Qaul is an excellent introduction to his work. It is in Raag Bhopali, as Fareedi sahab explains at the beginning, lending it a more regal and ponderous air. The chorus at the initial half of the Qaul oscillates as various parts of the verse are used for a series of beautiful takraars. The second half of the Qaul -namely the tarana- is again split into two parts with an almost hypnotic takraar on the 'ta na na na' portion. A number of alaaps follow before another takraar, this time based on the 'Ali Maula' phrase.
This takraar serves as the framework for a number of beautiful girahs, culminating in the famous verse of Hazrat Bedam Shah Warsi(R.A)

             'بیدم  یہی  تو  پانچ  ہیں  مقصود  کائنات
        خیر النسا، حسین و حسن،مصطفیٰ ،علی
This verse is next incorporated into a breathtaking, 'Haal' inducing takraar that is maintained at breakneck tempo by the hamnavaas. the takraar abruptly ends in a raag shift that is truly beautiful. The final 10-12 minutes of the recording find Fareedi sahab and his hamnavaas exploring a number of alaaps in Raag Desh and Jaijaiwanti, gradually leading to a slow end to the piece.

These were some of the recordings of the Qaul that I have in my collection. In sharing them, I've sought to illustrate the various performance styles of the pre-eminent Qawwals of the last century and the evolution and modifications this seminal piece of qawwali has undergone in the hands of various performers. The centrality of the Qaul in the sufi music repertoire can further be illustrated by its thousands of versions, performed by artists as diverse as Atif Aslam and the Brooklyn Qawwali Party. Serving as a direct link to the roots of Sufism and Sufi music in the sub-continent, the Qaul is a living, breathing monument that continues to thrive and evolve in the hands of countless musicians and serves as a constant tribute to the genius of it's creator, Amir Khusrau(R.A).

A Preamble Of Sorts

Motivation - I daren't say inspiration - is often found in strange and unexpected places. It was after sitting in a hardback wooden chair doing absolutely, utterly nothing for 16 hours at a stretch everyday for three consecutive days that I finally decided that I needed to write something. Every three months or so, one of the house officers at my hospital is ordered to devote a weekend to a rather peculiar duty which , in essence , involves sitting in a 8x8 foot air-conditioned room in a chair for around 14-16 hours each day.

Boredom and backaches make for a rather morose weekend and it's up to the captive doctor to find means of distracting himself. My first day on duty was spent in the company of a pair of policemen who took my dazed and bored expression as an invitation to start recounting with obvious relish stories of the various murders they had investigated, taking special care to flesh out the rather graphic descriptions of the various crime scenes. Needless to say, I wasn't bored.

On the second day I'd gotten wise to the fact that I'd have to stop relying on long-winded coppers to keep me entertained. I had my iPod with me and spent 10 straight hours listening to the late Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal (more on him later) while reading David Mitchell's astoundingly brilliant new novel. It was during this reading-listening marathon that I suddenly felt the urge to write. My urge hit a snag at the outset due to the fact that I didn't have anything to write on, namely no paper. This gave me ample time to think over what I needed to write and thus I'm at a peculiar position of having a series of four or five posts pretty near mapped out in my mind.

So it is that on this, the third and sadly, penultimate day of my semi-incarceration that I've brought with me ample supplies of paper so I can finally transmit the thought-up posts to the written page. And what I've decided to write about - maybe devote this whole month to - is something that has rather rapidly gained huge importance in my life, namely Qawwali.

I think it would be safe to say that Qawwali now ranks with Dylan and Wodehouse as an all-consuming obsession of mine. Listening to, gathering and sharing Qawwali recordings has become an important part of my routine and has led to friendships and acquaintance with a number of wonderful and well nigh extraordinary people over the last year and a half. It has also opened doors of a huge treasure trove of poetic, musical and mystical knowledge and appreciation. Over the course of the next few posts, I'll write about the various artists and performances that have left me spellbound and that have made Qawwali such an important piece of my life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

...Of Friends In Need

 The fact that I'm posted at CMH Lahore makes it almost impossible for me to physically participate in the ongoing efforts towards the relief and rehabilitation of the millions of people affected by the recent floods, however I've been trying to do my bit in terms of donations, liaison and coordination with some of the exceptional projects being undertaken by friends of mine. I don't think any of us need to be reminded about the scale of destruction and displacement caused by the floods. What needs to be highlighted is the work of lots of motivated and hardworking people who are spending time, money and an enormous amount of effort in trying to lessen the suffering of their fellow countrymen.

I feel great pride in the fact that many of my friends and acquaintances are actively participating in flood relief efforts in individual or collective capacities. I feel their work needs to be highlighted for the purposes of due recognition as well as awareness, so that others can chip in with financial or moral support and initiate or accelerate their own efforts towards easing the burden of the victims of the floods.

CMH Multan has established a Flood Relief Cell and doctors and nursing staff from the hospital are in the field, going to unreachable areas by helicopter and establishing medical camps. Some of my batchmates are at the various medical camps while others are in Multan coordinating the efforts. The news that filters in from them is both worrying and encouraging. In the face of an enormous number of difficulties, they are spending days upon days doing their best to ensure the maximum number of affectees recieve adequate medical attention. Good job Ammad, Javed, Waseem and Yasir.

My college, Army Medical College Rawalpindi has taken the unprecedented step of sending Final Year MBBS cadets to the relief camps set up by Pakistan Army in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as well as Southern Punjab and Sindh. These cadets are assisting doctors in providing medical and surgical facilities for the many people in the relief camps. In addition, all of the male and female doctors undergoing BMT in PMA and AFPGMI respectively have also been sent to Sindh and South Punjab for organizing and participating in medical camps and other relief activities. I must express my immense pride in AM College and many of my batchmates who make up the more than 100 strong team of doctors and medical students participating in flood relief. Goodshabash everyone, and may your endeavors meet with great success.

Another bunch of my friends and batchmates have joined Kumak Flood Relief Project in taking medical supplies for distribution in Mianwali. Doctors Taha, Tauqeer, Mustafa and Murtaza are currently in Mianwali, having taken time out of their jobs to treat those requiring medical attention in South Punjab.
The folks at Beaconhouse National University have also organized a concerted flood response program, with teams carrying supplies and medicines already having made their first trips to Muzaffargarh. They are busy gathering donations in cash and kind for further trips to Muzaffargarh and other affected areas. One of the most urgently needed items is mosquito repellent - Mospel and the like- which can save countless people from diseases such as Malaria and Dengue transmitted by mosquitoes. Bottles of Mospel can be dropped off at the Main Gate,Beaconhouse National University; 3 Zafar Ali Road, Lahore. Information about what and how to contribute can be had from their Facebook and Google Groups pages.

  SEPLAA have started a number of initiatives for relief. One of them is trying to provide clean water for the flood victims. Its a project in which almost everyone living in Karachi and Lahore (and soon Islamabad/Rawalpindi) can participate. Used mineral water bottles, properly washed, cleaned and filled with filtered water can prove to be lifesavers in areas where contaminated water usage is leading to the spread of water-borne diseases like Gastroenteritis, Viral Hepatitis and most frighteningly, Cholera. Access to clean, safe water for drinking, cooking and cleaning can prove to be the difference between life and death for the millions of people in danger of becoming victims of water-borne epidemics. Washed and cleaned water bottles can be dropped off at the following places.


1- House No. 85A, JCHS, Off Tipu Sultan Road Karachi
2- The Second Floor (T2F); 10-C, Sunset Lane 5, Phase 2 Extension, DHA Karachi (3.30pm - midnight drop off timings at T2F)


  23- B  XX, Phase III, Commercial Area, Khayaban-e-Iqbal,
D.H.A., Lahore Cantt, Pakistan.

More information can be obtained from their Facebook page.

The British Council and FACES Pakistan have started a fundraising campaign for flood affectees and have figured out an ingenious way for citizens of Lahore to contribute. They've started a drive to collect "raddi"- old newspapers,books,paper,cardboard etc - that will later be sold to gather relief funds. Almost everyone has a stack of old newspapers,notebooks or books stacked away for throwing away or giving to the raddi-wala; in this case it can be used to save lives. Two relief trucks loaded with supplies have already been sent and more will be sent in the near future from the proceeds of this collection drive. Raddi and monetary contributions can be dropped off at:
   150 M Block
   Gulberg 3
                  Further information on the Facebook page.

These are just some of the many remarkable projects that some of my friends and acquaintances are taking part in. Each represents the participants' intense desire to help their fellow Pakistanis and decrease the suffering of our brothers and sisters who have fallen victim to this unfortunate calamity of nature. All of these are deserving projects that need your help and support. Please feel free to contact any one of the projects mentioned above and play your part.

Monday, August 23, 2010

...Of An Alarming Change

There are thought-out, worked-upon posts and then there is hack work to keep the juices flowing. This is probably the latter.

My weekends have changed.

In my five years in med-school, weekends were like pit-stops. We used to look forward to them, counting down the days and generally living a weekend-to-weekend existence. The whole work week was considered a tedious preamble to the really important stuff, namely the weekend.

Sunday was an almost hallowed day and I would go to great lengths to keep it that way. Saturday mornings at the college were spent dreaming up weekend escapades and any study or ward-duty was done grudgingly and with complete disinterestedness. Playing hookey (quite a dangerous exercise considering where I was studying) and trying to get home as early as possible was an accepted practice. Throughout my stay in med-school, I never stayed in the hostels for a weekend unless it was absolutely unavoidable, i.e there were exams or the weekend was -in official parlance- a closed weekend.

The fact that my family moved four times during the five years I was in hostel meant that going home on weekends was a rather tedious and,in hindsight, expensive task. Except for the two and a half years that the family was settled in Pindi , going home generally meant a taxi-cab from college to the bus station, a hundred kilometre bus ride, and another cab from the bus-station to home. This process was repeated in reverse less than 24 hours later for the return journey. This ensured that at least 8 of the possible 30 hours were spent traveling.

What I didn't realize or probably realized but didn't care about at the time was the obvious monetary cost of performing the same ritual week in week out in the face of rising fuel prices and bus fares. All in all, I may've spent in the neighborhood of 50-60000 rupees simply on traveling to and from home on weekends. But here's the thing; looking back I can safely say that the time spent away from the hostels was worth every penny.

Weekends at the hostel were usually mind-numbingly dull affairs with most of my dorm-mates either home or out about town and nothing but 8-10 hours of sleep to while away the time, waking from which I had to endure the hostel-food which descended to unthinkable levels of blandness on Saturdays and Sundays. An unhealthy gloom descended on me every time I knew I was going to have to spend a weekend in the hostels.

Weekends at home were a completely different story, with every hour utilized to its fullest. I wasn't (and still am not) a very sociable person in that I didn't make friends in whatever neighborhood we were living in at the time. Hence there weren't many social calls to pay. I usually stayed home, and if I went out at all it was probably to go to
a) a bookstore or,
b) the now deceased Sadaf CD Store

The lack of a social circle also meant that I could spend my time in catching up on my reading or writing, spending a few hours on earnest undisturbed study or painstakingly downloading the next week's supply of music (those were pre-broadband days). If there was nothing else to do, I'd spend hours upon hours in front of the telly, getting my money's worth out of the couch in the living room,oblivious to the world around me.

Sleep was strictly rationed to the bare minimum. I rarely slept more than 5 to 6 hours on weekends, preferring to sleep off all the fatigue on Sunday night when I was back in the hostel. Afternoon naps were eschewed even in the balmiest weather and it was usual for me to sleep at 4 in the morning and wake up 4 or 5 hours later.

That was then, this is now.

It's almost four months now since I started working on my house-job and there are precious few weekends left. Sundays are working days unless by a freak of nature my name is not on the weekend duty-roster. On the average, I get every sixth Sunday off, with a non-stop succession of workdays in between. Add to that thrice weekly night duties and I have my hands full most days of the month. I can't complain however. The workload isn't unbearable and the fact that I'm finally learning actively after years of passively imbibing knowledge means that I don't consider myself an overburdened drone.

I get around two to three evenings free every week, which is more than what I used to have in Med-school,especially during final year. It's the weekends that have dried up, and that's a tragedy of gargantuan levels. Still, things would be acceptable if the level of activity on those precious few weekends equaled if not exceeded the R&R of weekends past. If I could get a bit of reading, a bit of writing, a bit of listening and viewing done over the weekend, I'd be a happy man.

But the balance of R&R has swung from recreation to rest. Where once sleep was strictly rationed, it has now spread itself over the day to such an extent that I wake up on Sundays at the ungodly hour of twelve in the afternoon, most times only to grab a two to three hour nap in the afternoon. I've replaced Jeff 'The Dude' Lebowski the poster-boy for unshaven slacking. Downloaded music remains unlistened to, movies that were eagerly awaited and downloaded gather dust in the DVD rack and newest contents of my overburdened bookshelf go untouched for months. Most disturbingly, it's been almost three and a half months since I acquired a new car-my first car mind you- and I feel absolutely no urge to grab the keys and take it out for a spin and practice my driving on the only day I have time for it. The result is that even after 3 months of being a car-owner, my driving skills are cretinous at best.

This is an alarming situation and I'm worried over it. Strangely, worrying only makes me want to snooze even more. I can't put my finger on the cause of the blight that has descended on the holiest of days in my calendar. The only reason I can think of is that I unconsciously accumulate fatigue over the weeks and weeks of ceaseless work and the only time I have to unburden myself is a Sunday. Try as I might, I can't maintain the same levels of activity I used to produce in the preceding years. My friends and acquaintances ensure me that what I'm going through is actually a return to normalcy after years of what they consider fairly deviant behaviour. Weekends were meant for sleeping ,they say, congratulating me on the fact that I have finally seen the light.

The sad bit is that I slowly feel myself warming to their point of view.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

...Of Empathy

Do you know what I think? I think Pakistan is a "nazar-battu' for the rest of the world.

We're like a twisted international version of a voodoo doll that keeps getting pins and needles stuck into it in a (futile) attempt to ward the evil eye off of the rest of the world. Pin after pin after pin, Pakistan doesn't find its footing after one disaster before finding itself in the midst of another. I think it's time some other country took over this responsibility. We've had enough, thankyouverymuch.

I've always considered rains a blessing and I can't help but feel terribly guilty when I look back to all the ecstatic rain-related posts I've written.I think it was obvious from the outset that this year's monsoon was gonna be a big one. It wasn't hard to figure out that if it was raining solid sheets of water in Lahore, the monsoon up north would be a thousand times more intense.

I noticed something eerily interesting about the current situation. I remember that at the time of the October earthquake, the whole nation was shocked by the collapse of the Margalla Towers and the loss of life and property it caused. While the attention of the media and the rescue teams was focused on the tragedy in Islamabad, news slowly started trickling in from the north and everyone realized pretty soon that Margalla Towers were just the tip of the iceberg. In a few days it was clear that the scale of destruction was much larger than anybody had imagined.

Cue to 2010. The first inkling of the destructive power of this year's monsoon was the tragic AirBlue crash in Islamabad. Again, the nation was shocked and saddened at the worst aviation disaster in Pakistan's history. The rescue and relief efforts along with a (hysterical and immature) media focused on it while the monsoon continued to wreak havoc. Slowly but steadily, news started trickling in of incomprehensible destruction up North; flash foods that look like solid walls of water sweeping away completely unsuspecting victims, entire villages wiped out while the inhabitants slept and in some cases, people forced to abandon sleeping family members behind in emergency night-time evacuations.

There are a lot of similarities between this disaster and the earthquake but there is also one crucial difference. Remember how the morning after the October earthquake, when the scale of the tragedy had started becoming apparent, the general mood of the public suddenly changed. Encouraged by an exemplary media campaign, ordinary people sprang into action and started the greatest fund-raising and relief operation in Pakistan's history. Aid appeals went out to the general public and relief started pouring in. Granted we had scumbags and carpetbaggers and profiteers aplenty, this is Pakistan after all, but on the whole the national response to the disaster affectees was one of compassion and benevolence.

As I drive around Lahore this time around, I get a heart-sinking feeling on seeing all the relief collection camps by the roadside semi-deserted. The television channels that were once at the forefront of the disaster response are busy making surreal soap-operas of their personal vendettas with the government.All around, I can sense a general feeling of - I would be loth to call it indifference- apathy where once sympathy and empathy existed. The international response to our disaster has also been lackluster, especially when compared to the response to the earthquake or natural disasters elsewhere, but that's understandable. We've become an international example of the "Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf". We've begged and pleaded for so long that when the actual moment of need came, nobody's willing to spare a dime.

But it's an alarming change of mood at the national level, especially when we compare the scale of the current disaster with the previous one. The loss of life in the earthquake was on an almost biblical scale, but compared to the current floods, the area of destruction and the amount of direct and indirect devastation was relatively limited. As Kamila Shamsie wrote the other day, the fact that the floods have affected such a wide geographical swathe has acted as a (perverse) unifying factor for Pakistan. As this graphic shows, the trail of destruction cuts right through Pakistan, with no province escaping unscathed.

It's not hard to see the causes for what some observers are calling "Empathy Fatigue" in the Pakistani public. As Dylan says, Pakistan has seen ' a lotta water under the bridge, lotta other stuff too'. Apart from the obvious political and economic realities of the past five years (which I will not go into for obvious reasons), the nation has been through a lot. The cynical insensitivity and resignation that I wrote about has affected almost everyone to varying degrees. The constant stream of bad news has slowly eroded our ability to
approach anything with hope or optimism. For a while I've been thinking that we've slowly turned into a twisted south-Asian version of the post-apocalyptic dystopia in Masked And Anonymous .

There are signs of a public response to the disaster, but they're too slow and too few when compared to what's needed. Maybe there'll be a snow-ball effect but for now, it's too little. I only hope it doesn't prove to be too late.

P.S Want to help, here's some links.

Al-Khidmat Foundation
Edhi Foundation
Sungi Development Foundation
Pakistan Red Crescent Society
Pakistani Youth
Islamic Relief USA
Various other organizations

P.P.S , Two weeks ago, I attended TEDxLahore and one of the many brilliant ideas I came across was the use of Google Maps to help in aid and humanitarian efforts. Here's a brilliant example of an idea put to work. Missing person information entered through this app can be plotted in real time on Google Maps, helping NGOs and government agencies in rehabilitating missing people. All that's needed is awareness about it's potential.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

...Of A Pilgrimage

This Sunday I went here

From the outside, it may look like just another shop in a random Pakistani market but in terms of folk music in Punjab in general and Sufi music in particular, Rehmat Gramophone House in Faisalabad is Pakistan's answer to the Abbey Road studios. For me as for many other Pakistani music geeks, RGH is an almost mythical place.

Nusrat cut his first records here, his father recorded some of his last. Attaullah Khan Essakhelvi's journey from unknown performer to the darling of truck drivers all over Pakistan started here. Allahditta Loonaywala was a circus singer before he came to RGH to record. Alam Lohar, Inayat Hussain Bhatti, Zahida Parveen, Reshman, Pathanay Khan, Saeen Zahoor...everybody recorded at RGH. Their archives probably contain more Punjabi folk cultural artifacts than anywhere else in the world.

I had been planning to go to RGH for a while now but due to the unpredictable ward-duties timetable that's the bane of a House-Officer, most of my weekends were spent in the wards. This time though, I specifically requested the powers-that-be to give me a day off so I could go to Faisalabad and finally see the place. Thankully, I got the weekend and on Sunday, I left Lahore for Faisalabad at 9.30 in the morning.

------------------------------Unsolicited Product Testimonial-----------------------------
I consider my phone my Swiss Army knife, and the most potent and useful app in my phone is Google Maps. I can't count the number of times it has saved me from the consequences of my terrible sense of direction. Google Maps made Islamabad and Lahore navigable for me, it took me to my Powergliding trip and now it got me right to RGH Faisalabad from my place in Lahore without ONCE having to stop and ask for directions. In short, Google Maps gets the coveted Official Seal Of Awesomeness

I can say for a fact that I loved Faisalabad, especially the whole 'Ghanta-ghar and Gol Bazar' area. Anarkali in Lahore used to be an interesting place, with bookstores, music shops, people selling trinkets, herbal medicines and the like. But now it's just one huge clothes market. Thankfully, the Gol Bazar in Faisalabad has retained its diversity and you find phoolon ke haar sellers right next to multinational banks, and from what I saw, each doing a roaring trade.

I took a deep breath once I entered Rehmat Gramophone House and I was immediately floored; if old books smell an 8 on the awesomeness scale, old records smell an 11 !! Granted there aren't many vinyls at the shop, but they've still got enough to give me an odour-gasm. I had talked to one of the people at RGH a day earlier and they were expecting me. Before I started to give a look and listen to the qawwali recordings I wanted, I asked them to let me wander around the place a bit. RGH is like a museum and it was an experience just looking at the millions of cassettes on the shelves and imagining the treasures they contained. I thought the gentleman in the photograph in the store was the late supernaturally brilliant Agha Rasheed Fareedi Qawwal, but it turned out to be that of the founder of RGH, Chaudhry Rehmat Ali.

My already huge respect for the musical tastes of the people of Faisalabad increased as I noticed that RGH is almost always full of customers. People are regularly coming in with names of Qawwalis or folk-songs written on slips of paper that the staff take a look at and immediately find for them. I didn't see a single customer turned away because they didn't have the recording he wanted.

After my tour was done I requested them to let me see the tapes I had asked them for, the staff bustled off to underground vaults and returned bearing huge boxes filled with cassette tapes, (something that reminded me partly of Gringotts obviously, but also of a brilliant Bill Bailey spiel about the Argos stores). They had the stuff alright, and giving every cassette a whirl on their stereo cleared any doubts about the sound quality (something I'm very finicky about, knowing the hours that go into cleaning a muddy recording) Once I had expressed my satisfaction with the 10 odd cassettes that I'd ordered, I started looking around for other rarer artists that I didn't really expect them to have.

Suffice to say, they had 'em. They opened up their old recording ledgers and let me look at the various artists and recording dates and when I'd picked one, the store staff would go and retrieve the master-tapes to make me a copy. I spent 3 hours there, exploring, listening to and discussing music with possibly the most knowledgeable and accommodating people I've met. In the end, I left with 7 recordings and they promised to parcel me the rest after they'd made copies from the master-tapes. The rest of my stash arrived today and although I know it'll be a long hard slog digitizing and editing these recordings, I'm terribly, terribly happy.

(RGH photos courtesy Sohail Abid)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

...Of Rains And Raindances

The heavens have been merciful these past two days. After one or two false alarms, the monsoon is finally, officially here in Lahore. The terrible heatwave appeared to have ended 5 days ago when a shower of utterly biblical proportions descended on Lahore. I was reminded of the early monsoon showers we used to have in Pindi 7-8 years ago where the rain would fall in bucketloads and it would be hard to differentiate individual raindrops in what seemed like a solid wall of water.
5 days ago was my first monsoon shower in Lahore, and it was perfect,thankyouverymuch. I was in the operation theatre that day and when the rain started, all work stopped. One of our surgeons was so overwhelmed by the weather that he called it an early day and went home to, in his words, "Pakoras and the lady wife". In between operations, I kept sneaking outside to just stand and soak for 2 or 3 minutes, and I wasn't the only one. I was informed that this was the first 'pwopah' monsoon shower Lahore had had in a year and a half, hence the excitement. A healthy 4 hours it rained, after which the clouds took their time disappearing.

I had thought that here at last was the belated start of the rainy season and that there'd be similar showers every alternate day from now on. Having been spoiled by Pindi weather for 5 years, I expected monsoons to be week-long affairs without interruptions. But I should've known that Lahore prefers its rains scattered, with at least 3-4 days of mind-numbing humidity to calm the happy populace down. The three day humidity break more than dampened my enthusiasm for the weather.

But yesterday, awesomeness returned to Lahore. Slowly at first, the drizzle turned to a steady shower and then to a downpour. For 5 hours it constantly rained, and although I was stuck in the clinics seeing patients, I couldn't help but excuse myself every half an hour to stand outside and take in the weather. And it didn't stop there. I was grumbling over the fact that I had night duty in such perfect weather, but I needn't have worried. Just as my night shift was ending, lo and behold, it started raining again. It's been raining for the last 3 hours now, and the roads, parks and open spaces are utterly inundated.

I know there'll be a further bout of humidity when this rain passes, I'm hearing news of rain-related accidents and injuries and I know the water-borne bacteria will have a field-day for the next week or two, but I'd be unfair to myself if I didn't go out and enjoy this perfect perfect weather.

If there's anything that can make the rain even more awesome, it's this.

And if you think Gene Kelly looked happy in that one, take a look at this. The 3 Tenors take on Singin' In The Rain in one of their NYC concerts and the smile on Gene's face is utterly priceless.

Book Of The Week, "The Lost world Of Hindustani Classical Music"
Music Of The Week, The incredible treasure-trove I've found, which merits it's own post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

...Of Death

Long ago, when the number of people I held dear who had either died or been injured in the almost daily acts of terrorism all over Pakistan became one too many, a hard-edged,cynical resignation overcame me.

When I was very young, I had tried to make sense of why people would want to murder someone who was not only innocent but the very antithesis of violence. I had tried to get my head around the assassinations of Hakeem Muhammad Saeed sahab and Prof. Ghulam Murtaza Malik among countless others. But the five traumatic years that I spent in Rawalpindi finally made me give up the futile effort. Literally every other week, there was a blast within two miles of where I lived. Me and most of my hostel-mates gradually got so insensate that we'd be nonchalantly prepping for our exams amid sounds of gunshots and explosions, popping off to the TV room every 5 or 6 hours to "catch up on the carnage" as it were. The focus shifted from whether there was any loss of life in the most recent incident to whether our exams would be delayed or, even more inanely, would we be allowed to leave the hostel for a night on the town or would the hostel gates be closed because of security reasons and we'd have to take a more, ahem, circuitous route.

I think it's come naturally to me, this cold, indifferent attitude towards death. And it has been augmented, if anything, by my training as a medical student .I've been taught from the first day to think of death as a natural occurrence to be delayed as long as possible, anticipated, prepared for and then forgotten before getting on to the next delay-anticipate-prepare-forget cycle. This fits in perfectly with my attitude towards most of the things that I find troubling.

Lately I've begun to wonder if this strange apathy has been with me from the start, or have I gradually immured my senses. The first death that registers in my memory is that of a childhood friend. 'M' was a hockey player, which is saying something considering he was in 2nd grade. Our school was right next to the train tracks and he lived on the wrong side. I have many memories from back then and one of the most vivid is getting to school and just after the morning assembly, hearing the news that M had been run over by a train. Apparently a strap from his schoolbag had gotten struck in the tracks as he was crossing them and he couldn't disentangle himself in time.

Then there was 'A' in Sargodha who had a congenital renal disease that meant he couldn't come out to play very often and the only explanation his mum used to give us was,"Beta, 'A' beemaar hai." A year or two after we had moved to a new city,dad called up his father to ask how 'A' was doing, he got the shocking news that 'A' had passed away the previous month from complications of his condition.

Both these people had been more than mere acquaintances, being pretty central in my (even then) limited social circle, but I don't remember anything more than a passing sense of shock and a day or two of brooding before I'd relegated their passing to the very back of my mind.

Lots of my relatives have died over the years, from obscure distant relations to people very close to me, and apart from only one occasion,I don't remember myself shedding any tears or going into a phase of depressive remembrance. Such behaviour isn't completely strange because in the rural surroundings that I grew up in, a death and it's subsequent rituals are especially designed to distract (at least the male members of the family) from grief and the act of grieving.

In villages the paraphernalia of death serve as a great emotional buffer. The services aren't restricted to the funeral and the burial or even the 'Qul'. They may involve the 'Saata'(7th day), the 'Gyaarvanh'|(11th day), the 'Ikeevanh'(21st day) or the 'Chaleeyah'(40th day) depending on how long the local custom and the financial situation permit. These forty days aren't spent in ceaseless mourning, at least not by the deceased's next of kin. The formalities and rituals of death, from the thrice daily khaana peena with it's own peculiar rules about when to serve what to whom, to the management of the 'satthar' and the 'mukaan' where the men and women respectively are seated, to the 'bhaajis' and 'manjis' and what not, ultimately serve to help the bereaved family find closure gradually. They also provide the family's extremely reluctant youngsters ample opportunities to be trained in what my father calls 'the real life'.

Of course there is genuine expression of grief, with histrionics and screams and sobs and highly stylized 'baains' that may look very distressing to the casual observer but are essential in providing emotional release, especially to the female mourners. A quiet period of mourning just isn't consistent with our culture and these wails and cries are almost essential. As Munir Niazi sahab said,

رونقیں ہیں موت کی
یہ بین کرتی عورتیں

It's been two months since I've started my house-job, and almost every other day I see patients who are dying. Around half a dozen have died natural deaths on my watch. Death on the wards has it's rituals too. With each, there's a decision on whether to resuscitate or not, followed by the medical confirmation of death, the ahnding over of the dead body and the official paperwork. If I were to be a tad more emotionally affected by it, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do my job properly. I've seen plenty of new doctors overcome by the sheer emotional shock of a person dying in front of them. And in all these cases the judgement gets clouded, the reflexes get sluggish and professional integrity is compromised.

Maybe this clinical hardheartedness of mine isn't such a bad thing after all.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

...Of Diseases and Diphthongs

I remember discussing a disease with a friend the other day ( I'm afraid 80% of small talk between doctors is about diseases, don't let Grey's Anatomy fool you) when I mentioned in passing that I couldn't help but liking the name of an otherwise quite unwholesome illness. It was when I let my tongue roll around the word a few times as it were, that my friend slowly edged away, muttering under his breath and giving me the eye.

I have a special place in my heart for a few words because of the sheer vocal pleasure I get from pronouncing them. You can't exactly call them 'musical' words, but they have a nice 'ring' to them as Bertie Wooster would say. Growing up watching the BBC back when there weren't that many Lancashire, Yorkshire or *shudder* Glaswegian accents around, I couldn't help but appreciate the niceties of enunciation and the value of what the Pythons called a 'beautiful speaking voice'. I don't know what's the secret balance of vowels and consonants and diphthongs that makes a word especially pleasant to pronounce, but I love pronouncing the words I love and attempt to drag at least one or two into any given conversation . It's a bit like name-dropping, only more geekish.

Here then, are some of my favorite words in no particular order. I'll write as many as I can remember off the top of my head.

Schopenhauer (try dragging that into a conversation!)
Henri Bergson
Marble Cake

Books Of The Week,"The Life And Works Of Amir Khusrau","Young Men In Spats"
Music Of The Week,"Kaatskill Serenade"Bob Dylan, "Yaad Piya Ki Aaye"Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

Thursday, June 24, 2010

...Of Lahore

2 months.

That's how long it's taken before my folks have despaired of Lahore. The distances have gotten to them, and the traffic, and the higher cost of living, and the heat. Boy, the heat! For a family who've lived the most part of the last 6 years in the North, it wasn't a great idea to land in Lahore just when it had climbed to the top spot in Beelzebub's "Homes Away from Home for Vacationers From Hell" list. The past two weeks' steadily rising mercury has slowly eroded my folks' "new city,new home" excitement and even the thought of regular Persian lessons at the Farhang-e-Iran isn't succeeding in driving the thoughts of colder, calmer climes from my father's mind.

I must digress however. Granted it's swelteringly hot. Granted too, that the traffic in most parts means that a driver like me who isn't even qualified to call himself a novice can't take his new car out for a spin on most roads without bringing it back with at least a lac or two chopped off it's resale value. And granted that even though I've always been a bit of a miser, the last month or two have repeatedly left me asking for handouts because although I've been working for two and a half months now, my pay doesn't arrive till the 1st of July. The upside of which is that come 1st July, I'll be rolling in the stuff.

But what makes me less eager ,and possibly even averse to giving it up on Lahore is the fact that I've enjoyed it immensely ever since I came here. I'd been 'staking the joint' over the last 5 years and had a pretty good idea about these and many other killjoys that I might have to encounter If I ever moved to Lahore and I'm pretty much prepared to take the rough with the smooth. And it's been more smooth than rough so far.

For a start, I'm actually enjoying my job. The housejob year is probably the most important year in a doctor's career, where armed with the accumulated knowledge(?) of five years of Med School and filled with a mix of excitement and trouser-soiling nervousness, he finally starts seeing and treating patients. I've been at it for the last two months and it hasn't proven as hard as I was expecting it. The hours aren't as bad as in most other hospitals AND I'm learning stuff at a steady rate AND the senior doctors are more than helpful,most of them being alumnus of my college AND like I wrote earlier, I'm not as complete a cretin as I was expecting myself to be. Most of all, as my choice of medicine as a profession was more by default that by choice, it's gratifying to know that I actually have what's vaguely referred to as "aptitude" for it.

This being the food capital of Pakistan and me being me, I've let my taste buds lead me all over Lahore and I can safely vouch for their instincts. From hidden-away dhaabas to shishipoopoo coffee house,I've been there and eaten that. And if the pot belly that had completely vanished at PMA attempts a comeback, it'll be a well deserved one. And it's not just food, I've been able to indulge most of my maghaz tastes here, from attending Qawwali sessions to stand-up shows to getting in among the publishers at Urdu Bazar. I'd told my folks that once I'd gotten to Lahore, It'd be pretty hard for them to keep me housebound.

But most of all, the friends and relatives I used to make those cross-country visits for are now close by and I can arrange a meetup if not every week than at least every fortnight. That fact alone accounts for more than 85% of Lahore's awesomeness.

Books Of The Week,Alistair Cooke,The Biography. The Graveyard Book,Neil Gaiman
Movies Of The Week,Zombieland,Monty Python At The Hollywood Bowl