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 .

Sunday, October 26, 2014

...Of The Great Discoverer

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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


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

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



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


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



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

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


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



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

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

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


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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

...Of A Return To General Practice

It is exactly ten years to the day I joined Medical school. To say that the five years I spent there were life changing would be an understatement. Apart from the obvious fact that I entered a 17 year old awkward undergrad and left five years later as a chubbier but still awkward doctor, there were other imprints the place left on me. Most of my enduring friendships were formed in those five years; mainly because, due to a rather nomadic upbringing, Med school was the only place where I had lived for the extended period of five years. The degree of financial independence I achieved there afforded me ample opportunities to indulge my (at least at that time) burgeoning pursuits. I dabbled in, explored and discarded quite a few of those pursuits, and made the best use of the opportunities for discovery that were available to me. During those five years, my newly discovered passions ranged from music (Dylan, Waits, Young, and later, Qawwali) to books (enlarging my Wodehouse collection, the divers pleasures of Rawalpindi's second-hand bookstores) to travel (the beginning of my love affair with Lahore).

After Med School came a year of internship (House job) in Lahore, and because my family had shifted there, the city that had intrigued and enchanted me on various (mostly surreptitious) visits finally became Home. The internship year is probably the most demanding year in a medical professional's life, and my case was no different. I managed to get a maximum of two or three nights free per week, and holidays were almost nonexistent. But I managed to make the most of the precious little free time I had to explore the historical, cultural and culinary (mostly culinary, hence the ever expanding waistline) treasures of Lahore. At the end of my year in Lahore, I prided myself on being better informed about the city as compared to many longtime residents. On a professional level, I managed to acquit myself fairly well in a trying and sometimes overwhelming schedule.

The number and variety of patients and diseases that I got to observe, treat and monitor was both exciting and a little bit daunting. However, the natural evolution of a career in medicine tends to turn a doctor from a Jack-of-all-trades to (if he/she's lucky), a Master-of-one. A specialty has to be decided early and the course of study altered to fit the specialty. I chose my specialty fairly early and applied for the necessary examinations. After months of fairly intense study (including a month of sixteen-hours-a-day drudgery), I managed to pass the examinations and get selected for training in my desired specialty. The training will start next year (touch-wood) and I will hopefully be limiting myself to patients who have been referred to me for specialized treatment. So from my early years of attending literally hundreds of patients a day, with complaints ranging across the spectrum of disease; I will eventually be able to give my undivided attention to a handful of patients per day, with problems and illnesses that fall within the narrow confines of my specialty.

The reason I have set out the story of the last ten years of my life in rather unnecessary detail is that I have found strange parallels between the trajectory of my professional life and (of all things) my blog. My blog seems to be hitting the same pit stops as my career as a doctor, the only difference being that while my career has trudged along at the speed of an arthritic tortoise wading through a pool of treacle, my blog has raced ahead like a coked up, amphetamine fueled rabbit.

Before my drug crazed animal analogies get out of hand, allow me to explain.

For the initial three years of its existence, the blog was as random as could be. Topics ranged from explorations of the world of show business to football to half a century old cartoons. I wrote about whatever interested me. Of course, grumbles about lethargy, laziness and bloggers' block abounded even then, but i managed to churn out a respectable number (if not quality) of posts every month. Gradually however, a change came over the blog. Over the last three years, I have started writing almost exclusively about the subject that has interested me most. That subject is music, and especially "Sufi" music ( I hate the moniker as much as you ). As the topics of my posts have gotten more specialized, the number and frequency of the posts have decreased. The main reasons of this decline in output are my old friends lethargy, laziness and bloggers' block; but another factor has also contributed.

Since the direction I have chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to steer my blog in demands more than a passing interest in and knowledge of the subject, each post has to be prepared to a stricter set of standards compared to before. Each post has had a fair amount of audio/video accompanying it, which has meant long uploads. I have listened to each recording a fair number of times before writing about it, and the writing itself has been a result of concentrated effort at getting my point across without resorting to pedantry. This has had a rather unfortunate effect on my already crippling procrastination habit. I have hesitated to commit myself to the preparation that each post demands, refraining from writing about subjects that I felt I wasn't qualified to write about or where I felt I couldn't get my point across in a manner that I saw fit. As a result, there have been one and two month intervals between posts and the annual output has declined sharply.

My blog has specialized a full five years before my medical career shall, but there is a small but nagging difference. While I am willing to narrow down the spectrum of diseases I want to treat, I have not been able to narrow down my interests. Over the last few weeks or so, I have been thinking of pulling a Benjamin Button on my blog. In other words, I have decided to turn it back from a specialist to a general physician. I shall of course continue writing about Sufi music and Qawwali, but I shall also begin seeing other patients again. Topics and themes that have greatly affected me but which do not require extended preparation or exercises in meticulousness shall (hopefully) be discussed again. It might alienate some of the newer readers, but it might also recapture some of the esoteric, fly by the wire feel of the early years. Lets see how long this experiment lasts.

Book Of the Week : 'The Diaries : 1969-1979" - Michael Palin
Movie Of the Week, 'The Innocents' 1961
Music Of The Week, 'Popular Problems', Leonard Cohen