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 .

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

...Winter Has Come

The year that started with so much promise is ending on the worst possible note. The untimely death of my Mamoo, followed in the next few days by two more untimely and violent deaths in the family has left everyone close to me in a state of profound shock and grief. We've all gone through our grieving rituals - the women by that exceedingly cathartic process that had caused Munir Niazi to observe 'Raunaqain hain maut ki/Yeh ba'in karti auratain', the youngsters by quickly and quietly changing their caller-tunes to Na'ats and Qirats, the men by surreptitiously putting aside family feuds for a few days and the small flock of the bereaved by slowly beginning to come to terms with the vacuum in their lives. Many lives have been irrevocably changed, including mine and my immediate family's. One of the effects has been the family's decision to shift from Lahore -temporarily or permanently - to the hometown, Sargodha, in order to help my grandmother and the bereaved family in trying to adjust to the uncertain future facing them.

For a person with my weird emotional circuitry - an unusual combination of empathy and the inability to display it, topped with a propensity for bottling up and retreating into a coccoon while at the same time longing for someone to communicate with - this has proved an especially trying time. The initial shock of the tragedy was of almost cataclysmic proportions - the way the news was broken to me will probably live as the single worst moment of my life and will haunt me for years to come - and trying to find closure has been hard. I cried - for only the second time in my adult life-, busied myself with the complex set of chores and tasks that surprisingly make up the bulk of the two seemingly disparate but eerily similar major events in Punjabi culture -'marna' te 'parna', and having returned to my place of duty after the completion of my emergency leave, actively remained in touch with most of my family back home via twice or thrice-daily phonecalls. Still, the black dog that has decided to camp outside my door refuses to go away, and frankly I don't blame it. Ultimately, Time will work its twisted magic and something resembling normalcy - or a cheap substitute for it - will return to everyone's lives, before the next seismic upheaval starts the circle once again.

Of the many things I'd planned for the conclusion of this year, one of the important ones was a series of posts on Qawwali, something which'll have to wait for a couple of reasons. First because along with everything else, my laptop -virtually the only thing keeping me sane in the jungle- went kaput three weeks ago and writing on a borrowed laptop (like I'm doing now) doesn't appeal to me. Second, I think I've temporarily lost my taste for music. In fact, the only thing faintly resonating with me and the only thing that I listen to, and I listen to it almost every day, is this ....

Maze Jahaan Ke Apni Nazar Main Khaak Nahi - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

...An (Updated) Charity Appeal Of Sorts

One of the few things that Lahore used to lag behind Pindi in was that you could find Wodehouses in Pindi. In my half a dozen trips to Lahore during my five years in Med School,I'd searched every bookstore I'd gone to for Plums. They either didn't stock him, or had only his school stories, or rarely, a novel that I already had. Pindi on the other hand, took the cake because every old-book shop had at least one Wodehouse. I'll grant that 98.5% of the time, they were the ones I already have, but still....

On my penultimate Lahore trip however, the pattern changed. Not only did I find two new Wodehouses, but also a book I was looking for for a long while (Is two 'for's correct?), namely Richard Usbourne's "Wodehouse At Work To The End". This temporarily stopped me from losing all faith in humanity. When I finally shifted from Pindi to Lahore, things took a turn for the better and Readings (the greatest bookstore ever) decided to stock a truckload of Plums. Out of that truckload, I managed to find another half-dozen that were missing from my bookshelf.

At last count, I have 56 Wodehouse books, along with 25 more in e-book format, which leaves me (according to David Jasen's brilliant "P.G. Wodehouse,A Portrait of The Master") with 16 more before I break even. Judging from the time it took me to get to 56, factoring in the decreasing odds of finding one I don't already have, I figure it'll take me 15 odd years to get to a complete set. And even if I count the 25 odd ones I can find online,that's too long a wait. Drastic measures are needed if I'm to get anywhere near my goal of reading all of the Master's work, and I've thought of one drastic measure that might go some way in helping me ...
This is a Wodehouse appeal. I'll list all the Wodehouse books that I haven't got or I can't find online, and if anyone has any of these books, printed, as part of an omnibus, in e-book form or otherwise I'd be ultra-indebted if they could share it with me. A photocopy, a scan, an e-book, a book-in-the-mail which I'll solemnly promise to return, or an old fashioned sale (at an extra 10% commission), anywhichway it may be, it'll be immensely appreciated.
  • Bill The Conqueror
  • If I Were You
  • Louder And Funnier
  • Doctor Sally
  • Nothing Serious
  • The Old Reliable
  • Bring On The Girls
  • Performing Flea
  • French Leave
  • America,I Like You
  • Something Fishy
  • A Few Quick Ones
  • Plum Pie
  • Do Butlers Burgle Banks?
  • The Girl In Blue
  • Pearls,Girls And Monty Bodkin
  • Bachelors Anonymous
            Here's to a successful experiment...

P.S Thanks to the generosity of friends and readers, I am now in a position to cross a few books off the list. At this rate, I'll be able to cross off quite a few pretty darn soon.
P.P.S I'm down to the final 10, it's the home stretch folks !!

...Wean Yourself !!

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes from blood,
Grow into an infant drinking milk,
To a child who eats solid food,
To a searcher after wisdom,
To a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it would be to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
And orchards in bloom.
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in the sunlight,
The beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”
You might ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.
There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating. 

Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (RA)

Reproduced from a post on Stray Reflections

Friday, November 18, 2011

...Of A Rather Ambitious Project

Forty Five recordings.

Six Poets.
Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
Allama Muhammad Iqbal
Bedam Shah Warsi
Baba Bulleh Shah
Hazrat Amir Khusro

Nineteen Artists.
Ameer Rafeeq Murkianwale Qawwal
Asif Hussain Santoo, Manzoor Hussain Santoo Qawwal
Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi Qawwal
Bahauddin,Qutbuddin Qawwal
Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal
Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal
Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal
Ghaws Muhammad Nasir Qawwal
Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal (RA)
Inayat Hussain Bhatti, Saeen Akhtar And Party
Jafar Husayn Khan Badayuni Qawwal
Manzoor Ahmed Niazi,Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal
Manzoor Niazi, Bahauddin Khan, Munshi Raziuddin, Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami Qawwals
Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal
Mubarak Ali – Nusrat Fateh Ali Qawwal
Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Qawwal
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwal
Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal
The Sabri Brothers And Ensemble
The Warsi Brothers

Four simple rules.
One post for each poet.
Only Qawwali recordings to be included.
One version per kalam.
One recording per artist.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

...Of The Shattered Soul And The Lifeless Heart

Five of my favorite versions of one of my favorite Na'ats by one of my favorite Farsi poets, performed by some of my favorite Qawwals.....

Tanam Farsooda Jaanpara
Ze Hijraan Ya Rasul Allah

Dilam Paz Murda Aawara
Ze Isyaan, Ya Rasul Allah

My body is fragmenting, disintegrating in your separation
My soul lies shattered. Ya Rasul Allah!
Due to my sins, My heart has become lifeless and inconsolable. Ya Rasul Allah!

Choon Soo'e Mun Guzar Aari
Manne Miskeen Ze Nadaari.

Kunam Jaan. Ya Rasul Allah!

If you pass in my direction, In my wretched poverty,
I shall sacrifice my soul on your blessed sandals. Ya Rasul Allah!

Ze Jaame Hubbe To Mustam
Ba Zanjeere To Dil Bustam

Nu'mi Goyam Ke Mun Hustam
Sukhandaan. Ya Rasul Allah

I am intoxicated by the nectar of your love
And the chain of your love binds my heart.
Yet I cannot put my feelings into words. Ya Rasul Allah

Ze Kardaan Khaish Hairaanam
Siyah Shud Roo Ze Isyaanam

Pashemaanam, Pashemaanam, Pashemaanam. 
Ya Rasul Allah

I've tormented myself, my sinfulness frightens me;
And my sins have darkened my countenance.

I am in distress! I am in distress! I am in distress! Ya Rasul Allah!

Choon Baazoo'e Shafaa'at Raa
Kushaa'i Bar Gunehgaaran

Makun Mahruume Jaami Raa
Daraa Aan. Ya Rasul Allah

When you spread your benevolent arms to intercede for the sinners,
Do not deprive Jaami of your exalted intercession.

(Maulana Abdurrehman Jami )


Manzoor Ahmed Niazi - Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal perform 'Tanam Farsooda Jaanpara' at Baba Saheb, Pakpattan. Recorded in the late eighties, this performance is taken from a rather worn-down cassette tape, hence the shaky audio.


The second recording of this kalam is taken from one of my favorite Qawwali albums, "Jami" by Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri, released by Piranha records. (a must-have album if ever there was one). Of special note is the spirited Sazeena that precedes the kalaam.


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performs the kalaam in Raag Mishra Kafi from the wonderful album titled "Sufi Qawwalis. With a prolonged, beautiful sazeena and preceded by the choicest of Farsi verses, this is one version to be enjoyed for it's mellow, slowly building mood.



Ustads Fateh Ali Khan-Mubarak Ali Khan sang many versions of this kalaam - I have versions ranging from 6 minutes to 76 minutes - but this one is my favorite. Beginning madhyalay (mid-tempo), with Sarangi and Shehnai in the background, the two Ustads (a title they deserved in every sense of the word) explore and embellish the nuances of the kalaam as the tempo slowly builds to a crescendo.


The wistful melancholy and intense love expressed in Jami's Kalam is most perfectly conveyed in this version by Haji Mehboob Ali Qawwal, the final one in this series of recordings. In an arrangement different from all other Qawwals, Haji Sahab's Sitar and voice express the longing, the pain of separation and the desire for 'benevolent intercession' so brilliantly that this is probably my favorite version of the kalaam. The slight lilt in the Ya Rasool Allah's  and the second metre of each couplet's first verse completely slay me.


(Note To Self : Quit using the word 'favorite' so often.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

...In Memory Of Jagjit Singh

Jagjit Singh passed away earlier today. I had known of his unfortunate stroke from the news and was hoping against hope for a recovery but it was not to be. This time, it did not take the news days to filter through to me in my remote location. It was my father who texted me, 'Sad news, Jagjit Singh has passed away'. Which I thought was rather apt, considering it was my father who had first introduced me to the man whose music would play such an important role in what were the formative years of my life. 

A lot of who I am today, what I watch/read/listen to/like goes back to the long drives in the family car and especially the car stereo. Faiz and Iqbal Bano, Nasir Kazmi and Noorjehan, Faraz and Fareeda Khanum, Rafi and Lata, Nusrat and Pathanay khan, all were first introduced to me on one roadtrip or another, always with me straining my ears to catch the music and then piping up from the backseat, 'Abbu, please volume ooncha kar dain.'

For as long as I can remember, we have always, ALWAYS had a Jagjit Singh tape in the car. I think we still have one of his earliest tapes somewhere in the house, the one with the desert backdrop and a smiling photo. That was the first tape I know that remained on constant rotation in the tape deck, and for good reason. The ghazals were good, the arrangements were good and the voices of Jagjit and Chitra singh were perfectly complimentary. I still remember one of my favorite ghazals which went ...

Uss morr se shuru karain phir ab yeh zindagi
Har shae jahan haseen thi, hum tum the ajnabi

...and another of his very famous ghazals,

Tum itna jo muskura rahi ho
Kya ghum hai jis ko chupa rahi ho

I instantly fell in love with those ghazals. There was something in Jagjit's style that waas immensely appealing to me at an early age. Or perhaps it was his style, with the smooth, light baritone voice, the unhurried, unencumbered adayegi, the simple and melodious arrangements and the choice of ghazals - ghazals in small to medium 'beher' with a natural 'naghmagi' - that were so universally appealing that they even caught the ears of a small child like me. We listened to those tapes over and over and as was my habit, I memorized them all and began belting them out to whoever would listen, which reminds me of a rather embarrassing incident from my childhood.

Apart from the usual music tapes that were scattered about our house, there was one rather odd specimen. When I was very little, around 5 or 6, I had a tooth extracted and as a reward, my parents bought me a tape with dramatized readings of two children's stories. 'Cassette Kahani' it was called, with 'Bahadur Raju' on Side A and 'Jinnon ki Basti' on Side B. Me and my kid brother would listen to them non-stop, memorizing the dialogues, mimicking the sound effects and laughing our heads off at the silliness of it all, riffing on them in a childhood version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. One day we decided to immortalize these adlibbed riffs on a tape of our own. We found one, didn't bother rewinding or forwarding it to see if it was blank or not, and started off. We'd start with a story, stop after 5 minutes when we were both tired from all the laughing, then I'd sing a Jagjit Singh ghazal and we'd start again. After we'd recorded 40 minutes of this, we flipped the cassette over and it was then that we discovered that it was a Jagjit-Chitra tape we'd been recording over, and one of mum and dad's favorites. Scared and embarrassed, we immediately hid it in the tape cabinet and bolted. Some weeks later while on one of our innumerable roadtrips, Jagit was playing on the stereo as usual and us kids were snoozing in the backseat when suddenly, the car was rocked by sounds of the loudest, shriekiest laughter ever heard. Me and my brother woke up, bolt upright as we realized that our magnum opus had somehow found it's way into the car stereo. Our parents were initially too stunned to realize that their favorite tape had been desecrated beyond repair, but they soon got over it, pulled the car over and proceeded to give me and my brother one of the Gawdalmightiest tonguelashings we've ever recieved, the gist of which was "You never mess with a Jagjit Singh tape, NEVER!!"

By the time I'd gotten a few years older, we got Jagjit and Chitra's famous 'Ghalib' album - the one they'd done to soundtrack Gulzar's landmark TV series about the famous poet. To say that that album was a watershed is an understatement. Jagjit and Chitra Singh made Ghalib - arguably the most important Urdu poet of all time - at once accessible, enjoyable and eminently understandable. The kalam was rendered with modern sensibilities, melodiously, with perfect talaffuz and complete 'ehteraam' in a manner that made it universally appealing. We used to listen to it constantly, discuss the meanings of various verses, comparing and contrasting with other poets and in the process being introduced to one of the wellsprings of Urdu literature. It was a service to the Urdu speaking world that will long be remembered and appreciated. Sometime later another favorite of mine, Jagjit Singh's collaboration with Gulzar, 'Marasim' came out. Again, the kalam was perfectly complimented with the arrangements and the singing. Ghazals like 'Shaam se aankh main nami si hai' (which Gulzar poignantly quoted as his Facebook status this morning) and 'Woh khat ke purzay uraa raha tha' were instant classics.

Apart from his impressive artistic credentials, Jagjit Singh was also important as an ambassador of the Urdu language an especially the ghazal. He spread the magic of the ghazal far and wide and kept the tradition of ghazal-gayeki alive in India, appealing to both the mainstream listening public and the more finicky conoisseurs. A worthy successor of the genration that included Mehdi Hassan, Talat Mehmood and Barkat Ali Khan, Jagjit with his contemporary Ghulam Ali was the leading light of Ghazal-gayeki in the late 20th and early 21st century. To me personally he was a gateway to the exploration and enjoyment of Urdu poetry, a melodious guide to the nuances of Ghalib, a fond childhood memory that formed the basis of who I am today and a constant reminder of the immense power of art to mould and enrich lives.

While writing this in his memory (it's sad how I've had to document the passings of two of my favorite personalities in a month) I thought it'd be a good idea to listen to some of Jagjit saheb's ghazals, so I cued up the playlist on iTunes and started listening as I wrote. But it didn't turn out to be such a good idea because one minute into his rendition of 'Baat Nikle Gi To Phir Duur Talak Jayegi' I had to stop writing and unsuccessfully fight back tears. It was then that the comprehension of this loss sank in and I realized the important place Jagjit Singh's music held in my life. The man who introduced me to ghazal,Ghalib and Gulzar is no more. In his memory I will carry on what I now realize is an important tradition, there will always be a Jagjit Singh tape near me, in my car, in my iPod or on my PC.

When I can actually feel strong enough to listen to it without tearing up is a whole different story.....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

...Of The Qawwalis That Carried Me Through

Each day for the last three months, when the sun was about to set and the heat had abated to non-lethal levels, I would take my laptop to the roof of my tiny hospital in the middle of the jungle, sit cross-legged on the floor of the terrace and listen to music in an attempt to preserve my sanity. This experiment wouldnt've been possible without smearing myself with gallons of Mospel and ignoring the attentions of bats, spiders, moths and on one occasion, a herd of goats who were exceptionally adept at climbing stairs. But failure wasn't an option. A day spent in isolation, electricity-less heat and unbearable humidity had to end in at least an hour of peaceful and contented enjoyment otherwise I'd go mad.

Qawwali constituted the bulk of what I listened to, and if I say that Qawwali recordings got me through these difficult three months, I wouldn't be wrong. I listened to literally hundreds of recordings, each of which was brilliant in it's own way, but I chose the following to share because they all fulfilled one simple criteria; they all struck a deep emotional chord. Dusk has many different moods, from sombre and foreboding to peaceful and reassuring; and a combination of the isolation, the environment and these recordings proved to be a bewitching brew. I must admit that on more than a few occasions while listening to one or the other of these recordings, I found myself with tears in my eyes, moved unlike I've ever been before. I share these recordings in the hope that some day, somewhere, when the sunset's just right and the milieu of the heart is just right, someone will play one of these and feel like I used to do sitting in the dark on that lonely rooftop.

The first recording I'd like to share is by Haji Mehboob Qawwal and the kalam and the adayegi perfectly encapsualted the state of my heart and mind in those days. A kalaam of Pir Mehr Ali Shah's (RA) son Hazrat Babuji (RA), this beautiful ghazal is sung in a meandering and wonderfully slow and mellow arrangement. In an exception to his performance style, Haji Sahab doesn't adorn this Kalam with 'girahs', preferring to let the words and the melody convey their meaning. My feelings of distance and separation from loved ones, along with the few pleasures of this sometimes 'splendid isolation' found perfect expression in this wonderful performance.

Majboor Hoon, Lachaar Hoon Aye Jaane Tamanna

The one group that I listened to almost incessantly was "Fateh Ali Khan-Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwals and Party'. Nusrat's legendary father and uncle are without a doubt two of the very very greatest Qawwals of the last century and I've never heard anyone, not even Nusrat, who comes close to their exquisite, inventive, forceful and wonderfully fluid andaz. The talaffuz, adayegi, use of behlawas and pure technical brilliance these two brothers possessed willl remain unmatched. Of all the recordings I listened to, the one I returned to the most was the one I am sharing below. Recorded in India in the late fifties, with Fateh Ali Khan contributing most of the vocals, this short piece is filled with wonderful little treasures. From the Aye Lo's and the Aye Ji's to the beautiful phrasing to the vacillating taans, this is one brilliant recording.

Khud Daari-e-Ehsaas Ko Thukra Nahi Sakte 


 Another favorite of mine is the magnificent "Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal" group, one of Fateh Ali and Mubarak Ali's most talented disciples. They were exceptional proponents of Iqbaliyat, creating some of the most stirring Qawwali interpretations of Iqbal's kalaam. The recording that I am sharing below was an instant favorite the moment I first heard it. The beauty of the kalam is coupled with the Qawwal party's unique style to form a brilliant combination. You can easily hear echoes of the Ustads' style in that of the Shagird. With the shehnai flitting around in the background, Bakhshi Khan's emphatic and almost aggressively forceful style delivering each verse like a hammer-blow to the heart and then exclaiming 'Zara Dekho Ji!' and 'Aaheva' in an almost defiant manner and Salamat Khan and Saddo Khan delivering their trademark vacillating taans, this is undoubtedly one of the best and most moving interpretations of Iqbal ever recorded. I used to put this Qawwali on repeat and literally stomp around on the roof to the beat of the handclaps till I was exhausted. It still remains one of my favorite Qawwali performances.

Mataa-e-Be Bahaa Hai Dard-o-Soz-e-Arzoo Mandi 


 Abdul Hamid,Ghulam Kibriya Vehranwale Qawwals aren't a name that would be familiar to many, being one of the many Qawwali groups that regularly performed in and around Faisalabad in the '80s and early '90s. Their style was very similar to another Faisalabad group, their relatives, Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Hassan Qawwal And Party. They performed in what we can call the 'thaitth' Punjabi style, with forceful taali and liberal girahs from the Punjabi Sufi canon. What they lacked in knowledge of the intricacies of Classical music, they more than made up for with their almost rustic simplicity and earthy delivery. The following recording features one of the best 'Dohas' I've ever heard, a simple yet appealing melody and wonderful and emotive girahs taken from Hashim Shah's version of Sassi Punnu. Occasional use of the Potohari 'tappa' style brings out the pathos of the text and make it an unadorned yet beautiful performance.

Layi Jindri Main Tere Naa Ve Yaar 


Manzoor Niazi Qawwal And Party has been blessed with two of the most wonderful voices in recent Qawwali history. Manzoor Niazi sahab's unmistakeable soft, mellow and emotive voice is perfectly complemented by his son Abdullah Manzoor Niazi's strong, rich, flexible and extremely melodious one. One of the three pillars of the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana, and the only surviving member of the legendary trio of Manzoor Niazi, Bahauddin Khan, Raziuddin Ahmed Qawwals, Niazi sahab's party is one of the top two or three Qawwal parties of Pakistan. The ravages of age have taken their toll on his voice but this recording from 1984 perfectly captures the voices of both father and son at their best. The familiar Khusrau kalam is performed very melodiously, with emphasis on melodic improvisation and both father and son show their melodic abilities, especially on 'Naina Mila Ke'. The spoken word and sung girah-bandi in the latter half of the recording is some of the best and most apt I've heard. I wouldn't be wrong in saying that of all the dozens of versions of this kalaam, this is my favorite.

Chaap Tilak Sab Cheen Li 


 I'd like to end this post with another Haji Mehboob Qawwal recording. The mehfil from which this recording is taken is one of my most favorite mehfils, and this recording is the gem of the session. The sound quality is utterly pristine, Haji sahab's sitar and Haji Mushtaq's harmonium are accompanied by a brilliant violin (something that I've heard only in this mehfil). One of the characteristics of Haji sahab was that he was usually accompanied by only one or two hamnavaas, who didn't contribute to the vocals and only took part in the taali, hence the performance was carried totally by the two brothers themselves. Here too, there's only two voices, yet the fullness and richness of the performance is unmatched. Haji sahab's trademark and extremely apt girahs adorn the kalaam at regular intervals, and this kalaam also contains one of my very favorite ones, which Haji sahab emphasizes with a rare 'Shear mulahiza ho'. As a friend had said to me, 'Musab bhai, yeh kalaam jhoom jhoom ke sunne wala hai.' And I can attest that I've done a lot of jhooming to it on my lonely rooftop.

Dil Burd Ze Man Chashme Siyaahe Ba Nigaahe 

My instinctive reaction on listening to/reading/watching something that I instantly love is to instantly share it with others who I know would appreciate it as much as I did. This irresistible urge to share was completely and utterly stifled these last three months, and now when I'm finally re-connected with the rest of the world, I felt I shouldn't waste any time in sharing these beautiful pieces of music in the hope that they may provide the same solace, enjoyment and comfort to someone else that they provided to me these past three month. Happy listening !!

The Great Roadtrip - Of Patron Saints And Ghost Towns

It is now almost a year since I undertook what turned out to be the greatest road-trip of my life. The term 'voyage of discovery' might be a cliche but that's certainly how I will describe the week or so of traveling that I did in South and Central Punjab last September. What with one thing or the other, I've never gotten around to properly writing about it and sharing some of the experiences, sights and sounds of those six or seven days. But the leisure afforded me by my current location has trumped my innate laziness and I've decided it's about time I got around to it. My memory might be clouded over by the year gone by, but I still remember enough to get the writing juices flowing, and armed with the hundreds of photos I took with my crummy cellphone camera, I think I can finally shape the account of my great roadtrip into something resembling a coherent narrative.

Like every good story, this one begins with a prelude. I had been in Dera Ghazi Khan working in the flood relief efforts for over three weeks and was itching for a break. The workload, though heavy, wasn't the reason I was raring at the bit. I had planned a great deal of sightseeing in and around Dera Ghazi Khan and wasn't getting any chance of going about it. Although the evenings were usually free but travel restrictions meant that I wasn't able to see anything more than the one odd place of interest that happened to be in one of the villages where I'd set up a medical camp. An abortive attempt was made to visit the Sakhi Sarwar shrine; an attempt that turned into something resembling a farce on wheels starring a car that could only go one kilometer at a time before stopping to pant and wheeze, a tape deck that insisted on playing lewd Naseebo Lal songs and a driver that could only understand Pushto, which neither of the passengers could speak.

It was with great relief and a fair bit of excitement that I greeted the announcement that the entire party of around a dozen people would be taking a day off and going on a roadtrip to the nearby hilltop town of Fort Munro, with a stopover at the Sakhi Sarwar shrine. My sightseeing plans were finally starting to see fruition as the traveling party rode out on the Dera Ghazi Khan-Quetta highway. As an aside i would like to mention that I have seen around two dozen cities and innumerable towns all over Pakistan and I have never seen a place that depressed me more than Dera Ghazi Khan. A district headquarter, DG Khan looked more like, I hate to admit it, a pigsty. All the main roads were muddy ditches, the traffic was horrible, the city was skirted by a huge and foul smelling sewerage nullah and the whole place had a weirdly oppressive air. The immense relief I felt at being out on the open highway, away from the mud and congestion of DG Khan cannot be described in words. The road ran through wide plains that slowly rolled up into rocky hills where the road got a little treacherous.

The first stop was the town of Sakhi Sarwar around twenty miles down the road from DG Khan, housing the shrine of Hazrat Sakhi Sarwar (R.A), the patron saint of all travelers, which was rather fitting now that I look back on it. The shrine was located deep inside the town so we parked the cars at a distance and walked through the narrow alleyways towards the shrine. As we got closer, I was greeted by the sight that I would become familiar with in the course of trips to dozens of other shrines; a shrine bazaar. On either side of the path leading upto the shrine entrance were shops selling flowers, multicolored chadars, semiprecious gemstones and 'makhaanas'; the tiny white sweetmeat that is traditionally distributed as tabarruk. The entrance to the shrine comprised a large two-story facade with a central entryway flanked with two yellow-painted panels. The upper story had three beautifully decorated overhanging balconies. The courtyard had a neem tree in the centre and was flanked on one side with a centuries old mosque and on the other by a row of 'hujras'. Facing the entrance was the main shrine complex, with a long covered enclave and a single door leading to the tombs of the saints. The entire courtyard was bordered by an underhanging ledge adorned by beautiful painted tile that is South Punjab's speciality.

 The enclave was covered by a wooden roof that had beautiful geometric patterns adorning it in a design that I was later to see at shrines in Ucch Shareef, Multan and Lahore.Inside the tombs there was relative darkness and the unmistakeable scent of incense and rosewater. There were a number of small graves of some of the Saint's disciples and followers, and in the eastern corner of the tomb, the graves of the Saint himself and his sons. We paid our respects and then wandered around into a small room that adjoined the main tomb. Here sat an old man wearing tattered robes who would swat us each with what looked like a bouquet of peacock feathers and demand a rather hefty sum for the priviledge. It was an insight into the rather unusual system of commerce that thrives in and around shrines. After a further bit of wandering, including a futile search for the spot where Guru Nanak Saheb was supposed to have stayed when he made a pilgrimage to the Sakhi Sarwar shrine, we left for our second and final destination for the day, the town of Fort Munro.

Fort Munro is an historically important town. The seat of the government agent in the colonial times, it marked the eastern boundary of the Baloch lands and was the site of a small fort that housed a military garrison. After Balochistan's accession with Pakistan , Fort Munro served as the residence of the political agent. It was supposed to be South Punjab's answer to Murree, a temperate hill-station in the middle of the plains that offered a respite from the weather for the wealthy and the well-to-do. what it turned out to be was something quite the opposite. I'd seen ghost-towns in films and on TV, now was my chance to see one for myself. As we wound up the surprisingly tricky climb, we couldn't see a single inhabitant. There were houses, shops, motels, roadside dhaabas and pan-shops. There just wasn't anyone in them. In a town whose population should've been at least five or ten thousand, we couldn't find a single person.

This inexplicable lack of inhabitants wasn't the only eerie thing about Fort Munro. As we reached the crest of the hill, we saw to our right a body of water too large to be a pond and too small to be a lake. It had a small pier on one of the banks and had a dark, murky and somewhat sinister look. Coming to the top of the main hill, there was a fair-sized plateau that housed a park, remnants of an old fort, deserted government offices and to complete the ghost-town decor, an old colonial era graveyard. Naturally, we made a beeline for the graveyard. There were around a dozen graves, great and small, belonging to the military personnel and their families who inhabited the fort nearly a century ago. This graveyard proved to be the most interesting place we visited in Fort Munro for a number of reasons.

The first grave that caught my eye was that of a brother in arms, quite literally. Horace Allenby Smith was a military surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal Society in the days when it really meant something. The thought of that poor army doctor lying buried thousands of miles from his home in a godforsaken piece of rocky ground on top of a desolate mountain put a lot of things in perspective. There were graves of two or three little children who had drowned in the lake we'd seen earlier. And there was another grave which clearly showed signs of having been opened recently. All in all, the perfect setting for an episode of the Twilight Zone or one of those cheap TV movies they make based on Stephen King stories.

Needless to say, the entire traveling party was thoroughly spooked at that point, so much in fact that when we saw the first living thing we'd seen the entire trip; a goat on a mountain ledge, we half expected it to sprout some wings and come swooping down on us Nazgul style. Thankfully it didn't and even more thankfully we managed to catch the thing. And having caught it we did the civilized thing,  namely slaughtered, barbecued and feasted on Herr Goat. After a pwopah meal, the kind that dispels the spookies and puts courage into the hearts of men, we set about exploring again. Not that it did us any good, a deserted colonial era cricket pitch-cum-tennis court being the only thing we saw. It was then that we decided to call it a day on the trip and head back. The highlight of the return trip was a sing along. Trust me, you haven't lived till you've heard a fifty year old Pashtun gentleman belt out 'Bailamos' in a pushto accent.

The trip to sakhi Sarwar and Fort Munro wasn't entirely what I'd envisioned it to be, but it was very important to me in that it proved to be the starting point for all my subsequent explorations and photographing excursions. Three days later I left Dera Ghazi Khan for Multan which was the first stop on my Great Road Trip and when I returned home ten days later, I had traveled nearly 2000 miles and a discovered a new facet to my life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

...On Shammi Kapoor's Passing

Shammi Kapoor passed away yesterday, and as is usual in this remote location that I currently call home, I only found out today. I was saddened, extremely saddened and more than a little shocked. I mean I know he was in his 70s and a longtime sufferer of renal failure, but he had seemed so hale and hearty until very recently that his death comes as a major shock, at least to me. I hadn't planned to write anything this month but I feel I must express my feelings and thoughts in one way or the other otherwise I might spiral into another one of my black dogs. And since my location precludes what would've been a more fitting tribute to the great actor, namely getting together with some friends and watching his movies and songs, remembering and re-enjoying the hours and hours of pleasure he brought to milllions of his fans, I can try to use my words to somehow pay my respects to one of my favorite actors, and one of my favorite people, the late Shammi Kapoor.

I can remember being a Shammi Kapoor fan for most of my life. I wasn't exposed to Bollywood films very much, especially in my childhoood, but I still remember watching a fair number of Shammi Kapoor films, and more than a fair bit of Shammi Kapoor songs. What had appealed to me even as a child, was the spontaneity, the freshness and the overpowering sense of joy in his performances. As I got older and properly started watching classic Bollywood films, my admiration for his work grew. There is a sizeable number of my friends and possibly a fair chunk of the movie watching public who didn't consider him a serious 'actor' in the Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand mould, thinking of him more as a lightweight (not literally) who was suited for just comedy and a bit of song and dance. I had had the same opinion before I started watching him in earnest, but my opinion didn't last long. There was a vivacity, a natural exuberance, and in films like Brahmachari and Vidhaata, a sense of the melodramatic that was at par with the other 'greats' of that time. That's why I consider him not only a fine performer, but one of the great all-round actors of the Golden Age of Bollywood.

And as for the songs, now they're a whole other story. The Shammi Kapoor-Muhammad Rafi partnership was a match made in heaven. The sheer number of evergreen and immortal songs picturised on Shammi Kapoor and sung by Rafi saheb is unequalled in Bollywood history. The two had more chemistry than any on-screen pair could ever achieve, an affinity so brilliant that you could forget that it was actually a playback singer belting out "Aasmaan Se Aaya Farishta" while Shammi dangled from a helicopter in An Evening In Paris, or that it was someone else and not Shammi singing "Main Gaoon, Tum So Jao" to the cute little critters in Brahmachari. Again, the amount of pure, unadulterated joy that Shammi Kapoor managed to express in the songs was a mark of his consummacy as a performer. He was also the first leading man to incorporate dance - his own trademark style of dance - into the three minute song that was the staple of the Bollywood film. With the jaunty, slightly spastic and ever-so-debonair flicks of the head and jerks of the hips, he was able to communicate an irrepressible joie de vivre to everyone who watched.

Bollywood's answer to Elvis, Shammi also shared the King's unfortunate weight issue, yet for at least ten years - the most fruitful period of his career - he didn't let his weight come in the way of having a grand old time onscreen. He sang, he danced with an exquisite lissomeness that defied logic and he churned out hit after immortal hit all through the sixties. It was only when the weight problem got out of hand that he gracefully changed gears from leading man to character actor and spent the rest of his career as a bearded, benevolent presence in film after film. Kidney failure plagued him for the last two decades of his life, a disease that was precipitated if not aggravated by the same weight issues. But Shammi didn't let an ailment control his life and spent his last years squeezing out as much enjoyment and happiness out of his days as possible, a fact that was borne out by the delightful series of webcasts he made in these last few months titled "Shammi Kapoor Unplugged", a series that I watched eagerly and with great enjoyment. I remember him remarking once that he had dialysis thrice a week, yet on the other four days, he managed to have so much fun that those three days were more than compensated. On his final webcasts, I could see the ravages of age and disease - the laboured breathing, the thinned frame and the raspy voice - but I hadn't thought that they were that serious, which is why his death came as a shock to me.

Life and death are part of the inevitable and vicious circle of life and no matter how much you reconcile yourself to it, the passing of someone special always leaves the geart pained and sorrowful. With Shammi Kapoor's passing a great chapter has closed in the history of Indian cinema. Now only two, albeit two of the greatest - Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand - remain of the Golden Age of Bollywood. Dilip saheb is an infrequent sufferer of health problems and Dev Anand is in his nineties now, so I'm afraid we won't be blessed with their presence for long, but again, their passing will leave the heart sorrowful. Only one thing remains to assuage the heart's pain, and that is the treasure trove of memories immortalized in celluloid that Shammi Kapoor has left behind; memories that might start fading a bit faster after his passing but will never be completely obliterated. The joy he brought - that's a word one has to use often when describing him; joy - to millions around the world, the way he lived his life on his own terms till the very end, and the innumerable memories he has left for his fans are his astonishing and magnificent legacy.

Farewell Shammi Kapoor, and thanks for the memories ......

Thursday, July 28, 2011

...Of Another Country

I've been aware of this malady of mine for a long time but it became painfully obvious around a weeek ago. I was sitting in an empty dining hall, perfunctorily changing channels on a beaten down old television when I stopped on PTV. They were showing an interview with the senior character actor AK Hangal. It was some fifteen minutes into watching it raptly that I came to a realization that I was probably the only person in Pakistan who, at 11pm on a Friday night, would willingly tune into PTV of all channels, watch a rather exhaustive interview with a 94 year old actor whom most people would only barely know of, and not only watch it but nod knowingly every time the words "Garam Hawa", "Homi Wadia" or "Prithvi Theatre" were mentioned. While I was thus a revereein' the interview ended and the credits rolled with Mehdi Hassan singing Nasir Kazmi,

"Bhooli bisri chand umeedain, chand fasanay yaad aaye
Tum yaad aaye aur tumhare saath zamanay yad aaye"

Inexplicably, my eyes grew moist.  It was then that I turned off the television in some alarm and left.

Ever since then, I've been trying to figure out this peculiar predicament. Why is it that I live a sort of double life in which the past plays a more important role than the present or the future. Why is it that I will gladly spend days upon days listening to or editing a 40 year old piece of music and consider it the most pleasurable experience imaginable when the very same piece of music will make grown men cover their ears and run for cover. Why do I spend (or did I spend) hours on the internet trying to find a site that will stream Turner Classic Movies so I can sit back and watch Preston Sturges marathons. Why do I know Monty Python jokes better than names of some of my family members?

It's not that I have an overpowering obsession with all things grey and mouldy, it's just that the past is more appealing to me than the present.And when I refer to the past and the present, I mean of course the cultural aspect. I don't want anyone to get the idea that I dream lovingly about the days of kerosene lamps and open air lavatories. It's the cultural, the artistic ephemera from the past that fascinates and captivates me, and I can't seem to find an explanation for it. I have a fairly active social life (or at least I did when I was in Lahore), am fairly proficient professionally and function adequately well in everyday situations. Yet always, and I mean always, at the back of my mind will be snippet of a Rafi song or a line from a Wodehouse novel or a scene from a Humphrey Bogart film. It's a semi-sleepwalking state that I've perfected to such an extent that except for the keenly observant, no one can usually guess that I'm actually thinking of something completely remote from the topic of conversation whenever I'm talking to them. Again, it's not that I have no interest in the present, or like Ignatius J Reilly from The Confederacy Of Dunces, consider everything modern 'an abortion of the highest order". I am a rabid fan of film, literature, television and some of the music of the present day, although I will admit my tastes differ slightly from the average.

Someone once asked Dylan why he played so many old songs on his radio show, "Well, there are more old songs than new ones y'know" was his reply. And I suppose that is an argument that can be advanced in my defence. There are more Rafi songs than Atif Aslam songs, more Wodehouse novels than David Mitchell novels, and according to the law of averages, proportionally more good Rafi songs than good Atif songs and so on. But popular taste, and indeed my taste doesn't work by this logic. It's something else that draws me to what I call entertainment and what others call, in a most appropriate word, "maghziyaat".I guess it's more of what Dylan meant when he wrote in Chronicles, and I'm paraphrasing here, that his world wasn't the world of the '60s, his world was the world of a hundred years ago; the world of the American civil war  that he spent hours every day reading about in the New York Public Library. The events in the daily newspapers of the 1860's were to him more relevant and more resonant than what was going on around him. That was also what attracted him to the folksong in the early part of his career, the fact that something was written decades ago yet was still relevant and alive.

I think maybe that frame of mind comes closest to describing my own. I believe music and film and literature from the past aren't things that come with expiry dates or notices that say 'You must be this old to enjoy this.' The fallacy that most people fall into is thinking that the exact opposite is true, that a Mehdi Hasan ghazal is something only 'Uncles' are supposed to enjoy and we'll be damned if we're caught listening to it. The same is obviously true the other way round and the members of one generation are generally averse to partaking in the pop culture of the ones that succeed it. Thanks to modern means of communication and dissimination, the past and the present are both right in front of us, to partake of as much as we like.

I don't know where I intend to go with this discussion ( or this one-sided ramble if you will ), but I started out attempting to identify what it was that makes me so attracted to the past. I think I tried a similar exercise previously, in a rather execrable little poem if I remember correctly *shudders*.  I haven't come to any conclusion but I think that if I can somehow balance, however precariously, the demands of what my father often refers to as 'PRACTICAL LIFE" (yes, he uses capitals when saying it), with the demands of say, knowing the names and artistic aachievements of Messrs Jerome Kern, Bulwer-Lytton, Bix Beiderbecke, Rex Harrison and Micheal Bloomfield, I might be able to achieve a rare distinction, a dual citizenship of the present and the past, which as they say, is another country.

Monday, July 25, 2011

...Of Five Weeks

It's been exactly five weeks since I came here from Lahore. "Here" being the place I'm currently ensconced in (I love that word) and the name of which I can't mention because of reasons too tedious to go into here. I had thought at the outset to write a journal. I thought I could overcome my natural laziness and get down to at least a cursory habit of regular writing, after all I had faithfully kept a journal for the whole six months I was at PMA. I kept at it for a week, writing in pencil because I'd been told that journals are best written in pencil, but eventually complacency interfered. The journal is now being used for jotting down stray thoughts that'll prolly be collected in a blogpost. It wasn't just complacency though. The fact that nothing ever happens where I am living contributed directly to the cessation of my pencilling. And when I say that nothing happens here, I mean just that. Here's a brief rundown of an average day.

Get up around 8.
Shower and such.
See the two or three patients that come to the clinic.
Play video games till 2.
Nap till 6(aka roll around in bed trying to sleep while fanning yourself with a folded up newspaper).
Go out for a bit of exercise (only the first week)/Watch movies/television shows/documentaries on The Dude* till dinner.
Drive two miles to where the inhabitants gather every night, have dinner, do the day's only bit of socialising.
Drive two miles back and go straight to bed.

*The Dude being my laptop, named after the person who's lazy footsteps I seem to be following, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski.

It's not just my innate introversion and asocial tendency that's led me to spend my days as described above. It's a mixture of being miles away from other people, lack of access to electricity, the telephone, the tv, the cellphone, the internet and other similar modern abominations and yes, my innate introversion and asociality that's turned me into either a modern day Thoreau communing with nature or a slightly paunchy, mustachio'd version of Rousseau's Emily. Yes, mustchio'd. I've decided to keep a moustache in lieu of a pet and I can say it's proving to be a great companion. Many an idle hour has been spent twirling the edges of said fungus while lying on my bed staring at the ceiling. But gentle reader, I hope you don't get the impression that I'm living in a sort of Kafka-esque morass of utter despondency and boredom. There are distractions, a few every day, that help tide the day over and have helped me while away these three weeks.

There's the weather first of all, a weird abomination that seems to have combined the worst features of the weather systems of the Amazonian rainforest and Hell. We have the heavy rains expected in this time of the year, but they aren't just heavy. Every night it pours, turning the dirt roads into slush and making it impossible to leave the room. And inside the room is an entirely different matter. The drip-drip-dripping roof and the buckets on the floor to catch the indoor deluge were something I'd only seen on TV or in movies until now, but being a quick learner, I can now easily place buckets, mugs and glasses at strategic locations within five minutes of hearing the first distant roar of rainclouds.  It rains every night, usually accompanied by violent thunderstorms, and every so often as a special treat, we have gales that uproot trees and block roads. The rains are then followed by the most oppressive mixture of heat and humidity ever concocted by Beelzebub or whoever's in charge of the meteorological machinations in this part of Pakistan. A dozen glasses of Energile every hour are required to prevent oneself from dehydrating to death. I use to think Lahore's heat was bad until I got here. On the bright side, one doesn't have to worry about hygiene because at least seven baths are required every day if you want to save yourself from turning into human fly-paper.

Along with the weather, the fauna round here are definitely something to write home about. Apart from the usual domestic menagerie of cats, dogs and goats and the profusion of insects both great and small, In three weeks, I've seen jackals, deer, an ibex or two, baboons, wild boar (who seem to roam these parts in groups of upto 50), wild buffalo, hyenas, foxes and yes, that most common animal around here, snakes. More on the snakes later, I believe they require a separate account because of the special part they play in our social life. At least you can say this about the dumb chums, they really go out of their way to socialize.

The insects were the first to establish contact. One afternoon around three weeks ago, I woke from my nap itching all over. I thought a shower'd fix it but it didn't. A look at my arms and legs revealed that I'd turned a pretty pink, and not only was I pink, I had erupted in an effusion of large wheals and bumps. I realized I was getting an allergic reaction because one of the insects that inhabited my bed, taking completely the wrong view of my sharing the sheets with them, had decided that it was time for us to become more than just friends. I hurrried over to the tiny hospital that doubles as my office and got myself injected with the requisite mixture of steroids and anthistamines that ought've gotten rid of the unwanted effects of insect affection. The pinkness and the itching started going down and I breathed easy. But at around midnight, the itching returned with a vengeance, burning up my arms and legs. I bore it as much as I could, then decided i oughtta get a second shot of the medicine if i wanted a good night's sleep. I got out of my bed and immediately felt the ground give way under my feet. I grabbed at a nearby chair as my heart sank like it'd never done before. I realized that the allergy was worse than I'd thought, and when the sinking feeling didn't pass after a minute or so of horrid waiting, I made a dash for the hospital. Barely getting to the door, I woke up the poor nurses (male nurses dear reader, no need to look at me that way). Got my BP checked and just as I'd thought, it was down to 100/60. I got myself hooked up to an I/V line so that I could get some fluid in me and get my BP up, dozing off to an uneasy sleep only to wake up only an hour later feeling that the itchiness and the queasy heart-sinkingness were returning. A review of my BP revealed that it'd gone down to 80/40 and we'd officially entered scary territory. That's when I did one of the most surreal things I've ever done. Being the only doctor at the hospital, I made the decision that the patient's condition was now beyond my capabilities and that he should be evacuated to the nearest medical centre. I wrote myself a prescription accordingly and called the ambulance, which came a half an hour later and by 5am I was safely settled in a medical ward. The happy result being that my nurses now happily tell everyone who cares to listen, "You'll never guess who was the first serious patient doctor sahab referred? Himself!!"

When I got back, the first thing I did was to get a mosquito net and fix it onto my bed. I mean I was flattered by all the interest the insects were showing, but you have to draw the line somewhere, if you know what I mean. That's when the goats came into my life. There's a herd of mountain goats that can be seen prancing around my lodgings, and I hadn't paid much attention to them. That is until it was, as the writer says, a dark and stormy night. My room has tiny courtyard in front of it, with a roof large enogh to barely keep out the rain. I was sleeping while the tempest raged around me when I suddenly felt he bed shake. For the first week after I'd gotten here, I was plagued by almost nightly nightmares, probably a subconscious response to the change in surroundings. I thought this too was one of theose nightmares when suddenly, my senses were assailed by a curious smell. I thought, I've never had olfactory nightmares, what gives? Waking up and looking about, I realized that I was surrounded by goats, hundreds of them. They were all around the bed, they were under the bed, and one of the more adventurous ones was trying to get into the bed. They were fidgety, loud and smelly. Especially smelly. Still sleepy, I tried to figure out the reason of this hairy convention that had suddenly decided to congregate around me. I knew it couldn't be just my animal magnetism, and it was when I looked around that I realised that a rainstorm was pouring outside and the animals had gotten in around my bed to try to shelter themselves from the elements. I figured it wouldn't be nice to shoo the poor creatures away into the rain, so I pinched my nose and willed myself back to sleep, being woken once or twice again when one or the other of the members of herd got particularly excited. The goats, encouraged by my hospitality, have now become a fixture so that every rainy night, I have to accomodate a dozen or so hirsute quadrupeds around my bed.

The isolation has had its advantages as well. In fact, if it weren't for the weather and all the animal intrusions, I might've grown to like this place. The locals assure me that I've just come at a slightly importune time and if I'd arrived any time except the months of May-August, I'dve found the place heaven on earth, albeit still one overpopulated with goats and snakes. I've managed to do a lot in these five weeks, including finishing six books, one of which I had started thrice previously and had given up on because a)it's a rather difficult read and b) because there were too many distractions in Lahore. And having finished it, I can safely say that "The Confederacy Of Dunces" is one of the funniest, smartest books I've ever read, and one that has given me two of my favoritee fictional characters in Patrolman Angelo Mancuso and Ignatius J Reilly. I've also started brushing up on my Persian, doing it the only way I thought best, by reading Rumi's Masnavi verse by verse and then breaking down the accompanying translation. I've listened to music almost non-stop, to such an extent that my favorite pair of headphones finally decided it could take no more and handed in the dinner pail. Luckily I'd brought an extra pair just for that contingency (at the time of writing, these too have gone kaput) I've been listening to a lot of Jazz and marvelling at the absolute genius of Louis Armstrong, especially his recordings of the late '20s and early '30s. The mixtape a friend gave me before I departed from Lahore hs also been on constant play, as have been two or three of my favorite Qawwals. Lest anyone fear I've been shirking my duties too much, I must inform them that I haven't been tardy on the Qawwali front, having cleaned up and edited the sound on ten or so very rare Qawwali videos.I had also stocked The Dude full of movies and TV shows because I had a pretty good idea of the amount of boredom I could expect, and I'm glad I took that precaution. I can also safely say that Freaks And Geeks is one of the greatest, humanest TV shows I've ever seen.

My situation here isn't entirely an uncomfortable one, but I'm sure I can surround myself with a more homely atmosphere. That's why when I get home on my first leave, along with the requisite amount of catching up and reacquainting myself with such exotic things as running water and muslim showers, I need to do some shopping. Specifically a television and a DTH antenna. Maybe then I can give the Dude a rest and recapture some of my old couch-potato glory just in time for the football season. Who knows, with a couple of posters on the wall, a UPS, football on the telly and a goat or two by my side, I just might grow to like this place. Touch wood!

...Of A New Perspective On Heaven And Hell

Pop Milton once said, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven”. I've come to somewhat similar conclusions over the past five weeks, as you can read below.

Heaven is having the leisure to finish six books in five weeks.

Hell is being surrounded by people who read Sidney Sheldon and call this activity "bookreading"

Heaven is listening to Barre Ghulam Ali Khan sing Malhaar while the monsoon rages.

Hell is trying to keep goats out of your bed while the monsoon rages.


Heaven is a cool glass of Energile after a long day in the sun.

Hell is the long day in the sun preceding the glass of Energile.


Heaven is understanding what Ghalib meant when he said,

          "Dil dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat, ke raat din
           Baithe rahain tasawwur-e-Janaann kiye huay"

Hell is understanding what Ghalib meant when he said,

"Girya chaahe hai kharaabi mere kaashaanay ki
Dar-o-deewaar se tapkay hai bayabaan hona"


Heaven is a life free from Pakistani news channels.

Hell is hearing secondhand bad news, weeks after it ocurred.


Heaven is no Sahir Lodhi and no Madni Channel.

Hell is no Coke Studio and no Turner Classic Movies.


Heaven is living in splendid isolation.

Hell is having nobody to contact when the toilet drain clogs up.


Heaven is finding cellphone signals in the middle of a secluded field after you've wandered miles searching for them.

Hell is realizing that the field is infested with snakes and that the signals aren't strong enough to even send a text message.


Heaven is watching all three seasons of Black Books without interference.

Hell is a place where "Mind Your Language" is considered the pinnacle not only of British comedy, but of all comedy.


Heaven is living where I live.

Hell is living where I live.


Friday, June 17, 2011

....Of Leaving Lahore And Long Overdue Admissions.

When I was in Med School, a yearly trip to Lahore was an almost sacred ritual. For a few days every year, spending a sizable chunk of my meager allowance/stipend, I'd grab a bus to Lahore, happily explore the city on rickshaw, meet the few friends I had there and get some shopping done. Summer or winter, I'd make it a point to visit Lahore, even if it meant using false pretences to goad out a permission from my parents. Even though I had lived a sizable chunk of my life in Rawalpindi and hadn't ever LIVED in Lahore, I considered it my , erm my spiritual home if you will. However, when my five years in med school ended and it was time to decide where I wanted to do my house-job, I was in a fix. My family was in Rawalpindi (they'd planned to eventually move to Lahore in a year's time) and I knew and liked the city, but somewhere in the back of my mind was the voice that said, "Go to Lahore!!"

In the end, it was the advice of a friend - a friend of otherwise highly dubious character traits - who implored me to choose Lahore, that, coupled with my parents' decision to bring forward their planned Lahore move ahead by one year, made me decide for Lahore. Looking back, it was probably one of the smarter decisions I've made in a rather checkered decisionmaking history. After spending one whole year in Lahore, I can safely say that I haven't regretted it one bit. I had come here primarily to do my housejob and that I did. It was the most intellectually rewarding one year I could hope for, even better than what most of my coursemates in Rawalpindi had spent. I got the chance to learn at the feet of some of the best teachers in the country and substantially improve my practical and clinical skills. On the personal side, I was lucky to have two of my closest friends -make that three, with the third a recent addition - living literally next door. That meant I was never too hard pressed for companionship.

The exploring/photographing bug bit me at just the right time as I scoured the backroads of Lahore in search of amazing places. If summer had delayed itself just one or two more weeks I'd have visited and photographed just about everything I'd set my sights on. Unfortunately the oppressive Lahore heat (probably the only thing in which Lahore loses brownie points to Pindi) and my tight schedule meant that I still haven't visited or photographed a few very important landmarks - Masjid Wazir Khan for example. Some other time perhaps. It's also been a year where I've indulged almost all my rather varied intersts. I've been to Qawwali performances by the dozens, watched plays and stand-up shows, attended concerts and conferences, and in what must certainly be the highlight of my life so far, met Yusfi sahab. And I've eaten, by God have i eaten. The extra tonnage that I've put on over the last year doesn't do justice to my culinary exploits. In short, I've lived it up - at least according to my definition of living it up.

My one year is now up, and it's time to leave. I'll be moving to a rather remote location in two or three days, as diametrically opposite to Lahore as you can imagine. Even though I knew that I was gonna have to leave Lahore at the end of one year, that still doesn't make the departure any easier. I may be able to live without the food, the exploration or the 'ronaq' but there's one very vulnerable chink in my armor, one that I don't usually let show to others,but one they might notice if they are attentive enough.

When we were completing our training, a newly graduated psychologist joined us for six months. The poor guy had to spend all day dealing with idiots who'd shout out,"Yo shrink, come here and tell me about my personality." And being the nice guy he was, he'd provide them with a rather detailed and unflatteringly accurate description of themselves. One day, when he and I was alone, he asked me why I hadn't ever bothered him with the usual request. i replied that I pretty much knew who I was and didn't need further analysis, thankyouverymuch. He said he'd still tell me one rather important thing he'd noticed about me over the course of six months, it was that I had a 'dependant personality'. I needed people, friends around me to function properly. Without a proper social support structure, I was constantly in danger of collapsing inwardly into a coccoon. I simply nodded my head in assent and left, slightly unhappy that he had discovered my most important weakness.

And that is the chink in my armor that must now confess to. I'll be going to a new place, with a new set of colleagues, which is something I would've been fine with were it not for the fact that the remoteness of my location might make it impossible to establish any contact with the folks back in Lahore, or for that matter anywhere else in Pakistan. Without my 'social support', I'd be a fish out of water, which is a rather frightening proposition. But what gives me some hope is that I've been in a similar situation before. Five years ago when I joined med-school, I was thrust into a group of strangers. It took some adjusting, but after spending five years, I count that group of strangers among some of my very best friends. Maybe this adventure'll turn out the same way too. I can only hope.

What my two year stay at my next port-of-call will lack in friends, it'll more than make up in free time. From people who've served in similar places, I've gathered that killing time is the most important problem one faces. I think I have that covered. There's the extensive study that I'll have to start in order to appear for my specialization exams, then there's the Truckloads of Qawwali recordings that I've been assigned to edit and catalog. There's 160+ gigabytes on my harddrive that I'll devote substantial time to; so that at the end of two years, I ought've listened to all 19571 songs I've accumulated (a daunting task). A trunkfull of unread books goes with me too, none of them related to medicine. With such ample supplies, I think I'm pretty much covered as far as killing time is concerned. And if all else fails, I can still write.

I'll end here, I don't know when I'll get the chance to write again, so readers can consider this another one of my temporary retirements from writing. Consider this also, whether they can read this or not, a thankyou to all the many people who have made this year the most special year of my life. And finally, consider this a thankyou to Lahore, for being so good to me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

....Of Faded Voices And Silenced Chants

A week ago, a friend from 'Qawwali Central' in Islamabad was over for a few days. One of the subjects that we got talking about -in between the customary tape exchanges - was the fact that we only have recordings of up to two generations of Qawwals. Apart from one or two recent instances where the third generation of Qawwals has started carrying forward a gharana's name (Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the young Qawwal Bacchay for example), most of the recordings are from either one or at the most two generations of Qawwals. The earliest available recorded material dates back to the late fifties or early sixties, with the bulk of the recordings from the preceding era either lost or in the collections of some rather miserly collectors (a fact Farid Ayaz sb complained about when I inquired about some older recordings).

This is a pity, because there are a lot of names from the not too distant past that have legendary status in the world of Qawwali, yet the only record we have of them is through recollections of those who have heard them, or passing mentions in books or articles. We have for example, no recordings of the two great Qawwals Farooq Ahmed Nizami and Raees Ahmed Nizami. The earliest available recordings of the original Manzoor Niazi troupe are from the fifties. We know nothing of Meraj Ahmed Nizami's father except that he was called 'Pyaray Khan Sahib'. There are countless other examples of illustrious Qawwals whose music is lost to the ears of the world, drowned out by the ravages of time.

The preservation and dissemination of music from that bygone era is important for many reasons.First, as a window to the culture of the pre-partition era, the few surviving recordings are a brilliant time capsule of the musical styles, instrumentation, language and performance idiom of that time. Second, they represent, if not an ideal then a model from whence modern Qawwali in specific and modern folk music in general, has evolved. And third, as a sociological-anthropological study, the early Qawwali recordings provide an insight into the the arrival of modern recording techniques with all their benefits (wider listener-ship) and handicaps (the three minute time limitation) and their effects on a centuries old art form. What follows is a brief introduction to some of the Qawwals of the pre-partition era whose recordings have somehow survived. Some of them carried on in the tradition of the Khanqahi Qawwali, some made bold new innovations and some successfully achieved the rare distinction of fusing both modern and traditional Qawwali.

The Earliest Years 

The earliest Qawwali recordings were made at the time of arrival of recorded sound in India in 1902. Three artists were recorded at that time,Kaloo Qawwal, Pearu Qawwal and Fakhre Alam Qawwal. Contemporary records state that they 'achieved lasting fame and performed widely for audiences in the tens of thousands'. According to Prof. Regula Qureshi,

During the British period the record industry settled for solo songs of a popular devotional type with little evidence of the authentic sound character of Sufi music. Of course, the three-minute duration of these recordings could hardly permit the freedom to repeat and amplify musical portions which is so essential to that idiom. In fact, the early recordings share stylistic traits with contemporary urban entertainment music like charbaiat and nautanki as well as with the music that accompanied silent
films and was later incorporated into film songs . But ultimately the industry did not invent this idiom: it only promoted and projected it, thereby giving preference to what were essentially freelance urban entertainers over the tradition-bearing hereditary qawwali performers who were, and still are, affiliated with Sufi shrines in a quasi-feudal arrangement. Through this preference Pearu, Kaloo, and Fakhr-e-Alam became 'stars' who also performed widely before huge live audiences, both Muslim and non-Muslim
, and in settings ranging from open-air grounds to recital halls . They were often dressed in Western clothes and sitting on chairs; Kaloo is remembered for always appearing in an impressively neat Western suit . His photograph embodies a Western-Islamic image with tie, shirt and jacket he wears a Fez, the formidable Pan-Islamic head-dress favoured by elite Muslims at the time.

The recordings of Kaloo Qawwal, Pearu Qawwal and their contemporary Iboo Qawwal are interesting in that most of them are devoid of the takraar or even the handclap accompaniment that is associated with Qawwali. The texts are devotional (hamd or naat) and the singers sing solo, accompanied only by a harmonium (an occasional bulbultarang) and a tabla.

Kaloo Qawwal - Dua Me-kash Ne Di Hai (1920s)                                               

Pearu Qawwal - Mujhe Aap Ki Ik Nazar Chahiye Hai (1920s)

Iboo Qawwal - Jamal un Ka Noorani (1920s)

The Thirties

The success of the earliest Qawwali recordings paved the way for more Qawwals to try their hand at the new medium. The more commercial sound of the early Qawwals influenced the style of Qawwali being performed at the Dargaahs and a new style emerged. Again, Prof. Regula Qureshi,

 By the 1930s two recording artists emerged, Azim Prem Ragi and Waiz Qawwal, who also impressed Sufi audiences. While in proper Sufi settings they did not use studio instruments as was done for recordings, Waiz Qawwal used to intone a simple melodic accompaniment on the sitar. The recognition of these performers in Sufi circles is reflected in their names and special titles - Waiz( 'Religious Commentator'), Prem Ragi('Minstrel of Love') - which were bestowed upon them by Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a great Sufi and literary figure attached to Delhi's Nizamuddin Auliya shrine . This fame in turn influenced the diversification of qawwali recordings towards including some genuine Sufi classics, like Azim Prem Ragi's recording of the famous Persian poem Nami danam che manzil bud by the thirteenth century poet Amir Khusrau.

 The two Qawwals mentioned in the above excerpt are in my opinion, the two seminal artists in Qawwali history. They were the first to successfully fuse the classical Sufi repertoire and the traditional Qawwali performance style with modern studio instrumentation and the requirements of the gramophone age. Azim Prem Ragi was known for writing most of his own material and mingling it with the classical sufi kalaam. He was considered one of the favorite Qawwals at the Ajmer Dargah and it is said that the Fakirs and Saadhus would come down from the hills surrounding the shrine to listen whenever he performed.

Azim Prem Ragi Qawwal - Daras Bhikaran Hoon Teri Ajmeri Khwaja (1930s)

Ali Buksh Qawwal, also known as 'Waiz' Qawwal was the other important Qawwal of this era. He was a shagird of Tanras Khan (according to Frid Ayaz Sb) and included many of the kalaams preferred by the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana into his repertoire. He performed extensively at various dargahs as well as recorded in Bombay and Calcutta. Two of his greatest legacies are the popularization of 'Girah' - the inserted verse - and the use of Sitar in Qawwali. He held the distinction of being the first Qawwal to perform Pir Mehr Ali Shah's legendary na'at 'Ajj Sik Mitran Di', and Pir Sahab (R.A) was so taken with his performance that he gave Waiz the title of 'Sufi'. Later, Pir sahab's son , Hazrat Ghulam Mohyeddin (R.A) sent the young Mehboob Qawwal to Delhi to learn at the feet of Waiz Qawwal. Although Haji Mehboob spent very little time with Waiz, he picked up his two most important qualities - the beautiful Sitar acompaniment and the expert use of the Girah - from Waiz Qawwal.

Meri Nas Nas Haq Haq Bole - Ali Buksh 'Waiz' Qawwal (1930s)

The other great Qawwal to emerge in the thirties was Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal. He is considered the Jadd-e-Amjad of the modern Fareedi Qawwals - darbari Qawwals at the Baba Fareed shrine at Pakpattan, including luminaries like Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal, Mehr Ali- Sher Ali Qawwal, Miandad Hafiz Dad Qawwals and Sher Miandad- Badar Miandad Qawwals. He was one of the earliest popularizers of the 'Punjabi' Qawwali style. Another of his great innovations was the rearrangement of the Qawwali Party. As Adam Nayyar writes,

Traditionally, the master singer was placed in the centre and given the title of mohri, meaning "leading chess figure". The tabla-player was directly behind him, while the prompter (with the books and manuscripts for the words of the mystic singing) sat behind him at his left shoulder. The mohri was flanked to his right and feft by two singers with harmoniums (avazia), while the rest of the chorus was aligned on both sides in two rows, the better singers up front. Important changes were undertaken by (among others) Ustad Mohammad Ali Faridi. During this period, the mohri or lead singer was placed to the right of the stage. The avazia was to his left and another good siriger to the left of the avazia. The task of this singer was to support the lead singer, have sufficient knowledge of musical theory and to take the place of the lead singer in emergencies. The tabla remained in the central position and was now behind this "backup" singer. The other positions remained the same. This change in placement is generally followed to this day by all qawwal in the Punjab. The creation of the "backup" singer was prompted by the fact that qawwal groups were often named after a leading pair of brothers or a father-and-son pair.

Thall Wich Khari Sassi Haakaan Maardi - Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal (1930s)

Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali Qawwals are probably the most important Qawwals to have emerged in the thirties. They were revolutionaries in the world of Qawwali. Members of a gharana that stretched back many centuries, they were the first of the Khandaani Qawwals to be successful recording artists. Performing pure sufi kalaam, infusing it with stylings from the classical 'khayal' style of gayaki as well as the traditional Punjabi
style, they played a huge part in popularizing Qawwali among the more high-brow listening audience. They were the first to perform Iqbal's kalaam in the Qawwali idiom, a fact that garnered praise and gratitude from Iqbal himself. Their recordings of Shikwa-Jawabe Shikwa are legendary and remained the template for all future recordings of the kalaam. The two brothers continuously performed till the mid-sixties when Fateh Ali Khan passed away and the mantle passed to a young Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sadly, I know of no recordings of theirs from before partition.

Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwals - Nasima (1952)

The final Qawwal from the thirties that I have recordings of is someone I admit having no information about. If anyone can enlighten me, I shall be exceedingly grateful. Din Muhammad Jallundhri Qawwal seems to have recorded exclusively in Punjabi in the late thirties and early forties. The style is forceful, with simple but effective instrumental accompaniment. Two or three of his recordings are in the form of conversations, eg between Sohni and Mahiwal and Laila and Majnun etc, while the rest are hamds and na'ats.

Din Muhammad Jallundhri Qawwal - Laila Te Majnu (1937)

The Forties

The final pre-partition decade saw a further change in recorded Qawwali with the arrival of the 'Bombay' or 'Narrative' style of Qawwali. Instead of the standard practice of melodic recitation of a selection of verses, artists like Ismail Azad Qawwal and Habib Painter Qawwal popularized the 'Narrative' or 'Storytelling' style of Qawwali. This style involved extended girah-bandi without musical accompaniment, in a narrative or storytelling style. Music was used only during the bridge and the chorus, while the lead singer weaved two or three narratives around them, accompanying himself on the harmonium. According to Prof. Regula Qureshi,

Musically, this narrative style is outstanding for its lack of melodic movement,except for melodic markers at structural turning points in the song. Most conspicuousamong these is the impending conclusion of the inserted girah recitative;it is marked by a conspicuously high register and a quick descent into the refrain. The verses contain a repetitive, even playful, oratory typical of other Indian oral narratives. Indeed, this style of qawwali became highly popular as a non-religious genre, especially in contests (muqabila) between two qawwal parties who, in live performances,outdid each other in improvised verses. In Bombay, such contests were favorite live entertainment in the 1940s, sponsored by Muslim neighbourhood associations. Essentially, the 'story-telling' qawwali represented an expanded influence of popular entertainment on record production; but its lower-class character evoked disapproval from the Muslim elite, begining with elite performers themselves.
Long-time HMV producer of classical recordings G. N. Joshi reports a telling incident from 1952 when the great classical ghazal singer, Begum Akhtar, was almost irreparably lost to the Gramophone Company because an unlettered official made the offensive suggestion that she model her natt recording on the qawwali style of Ismail Azad

Habib Painter Qawwal - Qadam Laghzeeda Laghzeeda (1940s)

The major departure from this narrative Qawwali style was presented by the last major Qawwal to emerge in the pre-partition era. Kallan Khan Qawwal was one of the darbaari Qawwals at the Kalyar Shareef shrine. He performed Qawwali the traditional way, with handclap accompaniement and based on mostly Sufi texts or na'ats. Incorporating all the innovations made in the preceding decades, he used girahs, takraars and alaaps, fusing the modern and traditional into something that closely resembled the Qawwali we are all familiar with today. He was accomapanied in some of his recordings by his nephew, a young and rather talented Qawwal who would later achieve legendary status as Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri Qawwal.

Kallan Khan Qawwal And Party - Madina Na Dekha To Kuch Bhi Na Dekha (1940s)


The purpose of sharing these recordings from some of the pre-eminent Qawwals of the pre-independence era was threefold. First, to trace the evolution of recorded Qawwali over the last century and understand the various changes it underwent before assuming it's current form. Second, to provide whatever information I possess about the various artistes that were once superstars but have now been all but forgotten. And finally, to give readers a chance to listen to some beautiful music that despite it's age, still has the power to move and entrance.

In the beginning of this piece I mentioned some 'miserly collectors' who can't stand sharing the enormous treasures of music they possess. I have accumulated a modest collection of 'my' kind of music and despite the protestations of some of my friends - and the dwindling readership of my blog, I can't seem to make myself part of that group.