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

Thursday, 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.


  1. Musab,
    You have a partner in me. I totally agree. Rafi and Dylan (not to mention Fardia Khanum and Saeen Marna) mean more to me than The Arctic Monkeys or Fleet Foxes.

    There are plenty of us with dual citizenship! Keep on dreaming and doing.

  2. Yea. My domain is slightly different. But i hear you.

  3. Musab, great little essay! There are more of us than you may realize. I am in my early 40's now but the past always felt more real to me than the present and the future holds even less interest than the present other than the desire to have more time in it to pursue the past.

    One of my favorite writers is WG Sebald and he felt the same:
    "It's that sensation, if you turn the opera glass around----Curiously, although its further removed, the image seems much more precise. It's like looking down a well shaft. Looking in the past has always given me that vertiginous sense. It's the desire, almost, or the temptation that you might throw yourself into it, as it were, over the parapets and down. There is something terribly alluring to me about the past. I'm hardly interested in the future. I don't think it will hold many good things. But at least about the past you can have certain illusions."


  4. i love randomness...(thats my ADD speaking..:D)... you have articulated a phenomenon which is more prevalent than it would seem.....i like the way you have done it....good read..:)

  5. Interesting read :)

  6. Musab, I commented on it above when I originally read and enjoyed this post but I can't believe that I didn't mention then that "Bhooli Bisri Chand UmeedeiN" is by Razi Tirmizi not Nasir Kazmi. That AK Hangal inteview by Jugnu Mohsin was great. I have it recorded and now that AK Hangal is no more it seems even more poignant.