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A story of five decades


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the-south-asian.com                               April  2001

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Music in Pakistan - The Story of Five Decades


Khalid Manzoor Basra

About the Author: Late Dr. Khalid Basra wrote this article a little over three years ago - perhaps his last piece of writing. He wrote it for a publication that I was editing at the time. Dr. Basra was a senior civil servant in Pakistan - and a lot more. An aesthete, a scholar (he earned his PhD in Music from School of Oriental & African Studies, London), a keen sitar player, an able  administrator - he was a free and a humane spirit. He passed away from  this world three years ago at the age of 39. - Editor

Noor_jehan_1.jpg (15672 bytes) pak_gharana.jpg (37849 bytes)

The city of Lahore was arguably the most important cultural centre in the entire North India on the eve of independence. It retains that position in contemporary Pakistan but has not been able to recover from the loss it suffered due to the  Partition. Lahore produced some of the pioneering names in modern classical, popular and film music of the region and had a wide collection of individuals, venues and institutions supporting musical activity. 

Lahore’s most interesting feature was the organisation of musical activity around takiyahs and baithaks where some of the leading musicians of the times could be interacted with socially and musically. Takiyah, was the name given ti inns. In 19th century several such establishments existed around Lahore to house travellers when the city gates were locked at sunset. Most of these takiyahs were just outside the walled city and by their nature provided avenues for congregation and social activity frequently featuring musical performances. At least one, Takiyah Mirasian still retains its entity. it is just outside Mochi Darwaza in Lahore and has been the site of some historic musical performances. 

Baithak (a place to sit) was a subsequent institution performing roughly similar functions as a takiyah. before the partition, almost every prominent musician had his baithak where he also taught pupils. Baithaks of Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Ustad Sardar Khan and many others were very vibrant institutions.

These institutions of gharana (Gharana is Urdu for family; lineage. In the context of music, it has evolved as a term for a school of music) and ustad-shagird (an academic/devoted relationship between teacher and pupli) created a musical idiom and were supported by the patronage of affluent Hindus and Sikhs, who left at the time of Partition.


Lahore Radio

Music was one of the major cultural traditions affected most profoundly by the division of the  sub-continent. Pakistan inherited a large number of front ranking artists but the large network of patronage rooted in the wealthy Hindu and Sikh middle class was lost. Departure of pupils and connoisseurs from these communities left musicians (who were largely Muslims) to the vagaries of chance careers.

Radio was the only established institution at the time to which musicians could turn to. In 1947 Pakistan inherited two stations, one at Lahore and the other at Peshawar. The next to go on air was in the capital Karachi on 14th August 1948. Today there are 22, covering 75 percent of the area and 95 percent of the population. 

For music, radio was the most important state institution that emerged in the British era and continued to retain this unique and influential position well after Independence. It substituted the princely states’ patronage towards musicians of note. Well known musicians had a princely lifestyle and only States could afford them. Radio made such musicians more accessible to the masses.

The Lahore Radio had on its regular staff well known instrumentalists, composers and vocalists. At the time of Independence the list for Lahore Radio Station included names of the legendary tabla player Mian Qadir Bakhsh (the teacher of two of the greatest tabla players of our times, Zakir Hussain’s father Ustad Allah Rakha and the late Ustad Shaukat Hussain), Bhai Lal of the rababi family and Ustad Niaz Hussain Shami of Sham Chaurasi (who worked here as a composer), Shamshad Begum and Surinder Kaur. 

Lahore Radio is also credited with the launching of the careers of two of the most popular film singers of the sub-continent, Noor Jehan and Mohammad Rafi. Lahore boasted of the richest collection of musicians at the time in entire North India. A decade before the partition when Lahore station came into existence, its first day’s artists included the legendary Inayat Bai Dheroo Vali and Ustad Barkat Ali Khan. Roshan Ara Begum sang on the second day travelling specially from Bombay for the programme.

However, after the 1947 division, most patrons of music crossed over to India, and the musicians who stayed behind sought the patronage of radio station and its directors.The instrumentalists had the opportunity to work at the radio as staff artists and thus get a regular salary. The leading vocalists could perform only as casual artists.  Radio’s first chief in Pakistan, Z.A. Bokhari had a serious interest in classical music. He wrote a treatise on music ‘Raag Dariya’ (Raga of Rivers) and developed a strong tradition of marsiya (religious music) and singing of Iqbal’s poetry on the radio. Bokhari’s keen musical interest ensured that music had a handsome contribution in all these activities and radio was thus able to provide jobs to a number of musicians as members of orchestra and composers. Some highly talented instrumentalists like the sarod player Nazar Hussain left their original instruments and  became very successful composers.

Increased criticism from orthodox quarters influenced the  official policy which proceeded to discourage thumris and dadras as these echoed ‘predominantly sensuous and amorous themes’. (Dadra - a  musical genre, sung in a tal cycle of six beats stresses the words more than the musical intricacies in its rendition as opposed to the thumri, a genre of singing, light and amorous in character, which employs intricate melismatic patterns and stresses musical lines more than the words).

While instrumentalists moved to orchestras,  the vocalists did not have that option. Practitioners of genres like dhrupad (a musical genre, a composition, regarded as the oldest extant musical genre in North India), thumri and dadra were the hardest hit - these were dubbed as Hindu in ethos. A number of fine vocalists and instrumentalists were forced to look for other careers. Some emerged as composers and some had to take up new instruments as the orchestras of radio, recording companies and film did not have the taste or the need for their specialisation. Though thumris and dadras were rejected, the khayal and the ghazal were retained. (Khayal, a musical genre which succedded dhrupad, has greater pliability of structure. Its origins are linked to Amir Khusrau).

Similarly,  important instruments such as, veena, pakhavaj, sarod and sarangi disappeared from the scene and many other instruments and vocal genres are now without major practitioners.

The craft of traditional musical instrument manufacturing has also suffered due to the lack of demand.  At the time of Partition Lahore was a major centre for traditional instrument manufacturing and also had a number of shops dealing in western instruments. While the latter have disappeared altogether, the former retain a reduced activity. Lahore is the main centre of the trade and caters to other parts of the country as well. The main family running the business is the family of Ustad Ramzan Khan (born 1930) whose father Ustad Sher Muhammad died early 1997 at the age of about 90. The late Ustad was awarded the Presidential Medal for Pride of Performance for his unique expertise in manufacturing a large range of instruments. His son Ustad Ramzan is regarded as the one of the leading sitar makers of contemporary times by leading professionals with whom he has worked and is also the repository of a large range of special techniques in instrument manufacture and repair.

 One of the most prominent sitar makers of India, Rikhi Ram who is now survived by his son and grandsons running the business in Delhi trained with Ustad Ramzan’s family to learn the art of sitar making. He had a shop in Anarkali bazaar. 

Lahore also has a large number of shops dealing in harmonium and tabla manufacture, which are the two largest selling instruments - as these are used by nearly everyone involved with music. 

At present  institution engaged in some meaningful archival activity is the Classical Music Research Cell which is now housed in the basement of the Lahore radio station. The Cell was conceived in 1972 and after government’s approval started functioning under the supervision of the famous poet, the late Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 1976. The Cell faced several problems in the intervening years, and today it is the zeal of two individuals - Mr. M. A. Sheikh and Mr. Saeed Qureshi - which is responsible for the survival of the Cell.  Through personal efforts and interest, they have collected a large amount of recordings, rare books and material and information about the music and musicians of Pakistan. The Cell also has a large collection of photographs of musicians and has also published a few original and translated works of music.


next page

Lahore's music traditions & Lahore Radio

Film Music

Sufi Music

Folk & Ghazal





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