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A classical music lecture and demonstration by Sampurna founder-director Saffia Baig recently began by her saying that this kind of music has a 5,000-year history in the subcontinent, being rooted in spiritual and mystical soil where the innate virtue of humility is stressed.
The ancient musical system differed from today’s in that the latter shows a strong Muslim influence. Music has always been a part of Hindu worship with the lower castes forbidden in earlier times to sing the chants, and punished by having molten lead poured into their ears if they dared. But as the music evolved, new modes and genres appeared not subject to caste.
Under the Mughal emperor Akbar, the Sufi and Persian melodic influence was considerable. The Sufi idea was to spread the concept of universal love, and they used music as a means of conversion. In the 15th century drupada (meaning “words of truth”) appeared and was much used by Tansein (born in 1508). He was the greatest musician at Akbar’s court, the emperor declaring him to be second only in importance to himself and bestowing upon him the name of Tansein (“commander of an army of notes”). He was born to Hindu Brahmin parents, hitherto childless but blessed by the Sufi Mohammad Ghous, who declared that this child would become rich and famous, later adopting him and renaming him Atta Mohammad Khan. Swami Haridas, Tansein’s guru for 10 years, eventually invited him to the court of Gwalior, from whence he later moved to Rewa, gradually becoming a mystic and yogi, and discovering the spiritual powers of musical vibrations. It is well-known that his voice could light lamps and cause birds to sing. What is more, many singers go to Gwalior to chew on the leaves of the tamarind tree standing over his grave. At this point, Saffia sang a drupad piece, with a soft alaap which gradually rose in volume, notes always well-maintained and her mellow voice emphasising them appropriately.
Another form to emerge was qawwali, and here the audience was invited to sing along and clap with Saffia, before she embarked upon the story of Amir Khusrau, the Sufi statesman and scholar born in 1234 and known to us all for his gift of the tabla and sitar. He was Indias first great musicologist and was influenced by Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, apart from this introducing innovations like the use of Persian and Arabic features that were to give added grace and elegance to music. Two of his contemporaries were Sultan Hussain Sharki and Niamat Khan Sadarang, and from his association with them came khayal (“imagination”). Here, an accomplished khayal singer, Saffia burst into song with a raaga sarawat piece (Saraswati being the goddess of music) in eika tala vilambit laya, then progressing to sola materi and including sargam tans and aakaar tans, echoed soulfully by Akhtar Hussain on the sarangi now and then. This was followed by the chhota khayal, Unabin soona subh sansar.
Next came a rendition of thumri, most of which originally described the romance between Radha and Krishna, followed by a dadra number, a form still lighter than thumri and with a more pronounced rhythm.
After an interval of sargham, where one followed her phrase by phrase through some subtle variations, Sabuha Khan explained the principal difference between ghazal and nazm, this being that whereas the nazm develops one idea, the ghazal, which has its origins in Persia and Arabia, expresses a different idea in each stanza, both forms being mirrors of the culture of their times.
Finally, in order to demonstrate the obvious need for classical training as a foundation even for this form, Saffia sang a popular Mehdi Hasan number, Ku ba ku phail gaye baat, beginning in mellow softness and with well-controlled long notes and a slow sargham.
The session ended with her announcing that apart from conducting daily classes in singing, she will train fifty 12- to 16-year-olds for the Shanakht Festival which will take place from April 8-12, sponsored by the Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan.