Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana died on Jan 4. Classical music in Pakistan died earlier. Nothing epitomises that more than the headline on a leading news website: ‘Renowned Qawwal Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passes away’. It is just as well one can’t read one’s own obituary — that would have been the unkindest cut of all for the doyen of the khayal tradition of North Indian classical music. Meanwhile, a leading newspaper had referred to Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum a while back. Mercifully the malika-i-mausiqi was no longer alive to realise how quickly she had been forgotten.
These kinds of gross oversights in leading news portals and newspapers are indicative of the fact that many now have no familiarity with the tradition or the achievements of classical music’s leading exponents. One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because the art form is not part of the sensibility of a new generation.
This statement is a factual observation without any moral judgement on individuals who choose or not to familiarise themselves with the art form. North Indian classical music may be dead in Pakistan but it remains very much alive in other parts of the world with many brilliant and exciting young performers carrying it to ever greater heights.
However, the death of the classical tradition has some implications for music in general which remains alive in Pakistan. The reason is not apparent but should become obvious on reflection. Simply put, the classical tradition is the repository of the rules of grammar applicable to all music and those unfamiliar with them are severely limited in their education and thereby in their exposition.
Ghazal remains an enormously popular genre in Pakistan but has anyone matched, let alone surpassed, the standards set by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum? All these artists were or are classically trained. The same could be said of leading geet singers like Rafi and Noor Jehan and legends of devotional music like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen.
Without knowledge of grammar an artist can become an extraordinarily good mimic, reproducing hits of particular masters, but remain quite limited in the ability to innovate. Only knowledgeable artists like Mehdi Hasan can evolve a new style, moving beyond that of an earlier era characterised in the case of the ghazal by a legend like Begum Akhtar.
This caveat is not limited to singers. The quality of music, embellished by voice, depends almost entirely on the aesthetics of composition. Almost all composers who left a mark on popular music — Naushad, Khurshid Anwar, Feroze Nizami, among others — were deeply conversant with the intricacies of classical music. Only intimate knowledge of the relationship of notes to each other and to particular moods and times can yield memorable music — no accident that film songs that have stood the test of time were composed in particular ragas of classical music.
The relevance of knowing the essentials of a craft goes beyond music. Only a writer deeply familiar with the underlying grammar of a language and its heritage can craft elegant sentences. We do have an innate sense of grammatical structure of the language we speak from an early age but this intuition does not extend to foreign languages.
We can observe this in the average quality of written English in Pakistan — it is rare to see a coherent paragraph leave alone a beautiful one. This is also the reason why the vast majority of students memorise passages they hope to reproduce in examinations as answers to questions posed in English. They simply do not have the linguistic mastery to capture abstract thoughts in writing or to craft original sentences in real time. What they can convey relatively easily in their own language they struggle with in a foreign one.
This loss of originality and creativity and the recourse to memorisation and reproduction in fields quite unrelated to music is a huge price for the neglect of foundational knowledge of which grammar is a major component.
Add to this three other dimensions of classical training. First, the exposure to related art forms. Second, the extended practice under expert tutors that transform formal rules of grammar into integral elements of expression so that they become second nature. Third, the fact that widespread classical training produces not just artists but discriminating audiences that artists have to satisfy. Standards decline rapidly without such audiences which is why a classical education is needed in schools from an early age to sustain an aesthetic sensibility in society.
A digression: music is a language with a minimal alphabet of seven notes and a fairly simple grammar. The children of musicians encounter this language at birth which is why they can learn it even without any formal schooling. Fateh Ali Khan Sahib conveyed this vividly with the story of a lady of the house who, while rolling dough in the kitchen, was able to reprimand a practising youngster that he had fallen short of the nikhad by a shruti.
Needless to say, the lady, though not a performer, was the daughter of an ustad herself. The context was an explanation of why even with such advantages the standards of gharana music were declining over time. No amount of knowledge, he lamented, can make up for the lack of riyaz that is an equally integral part of a classical education. Who is there to step into the shoes of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan or of Roshan Ara Begum?
No real harm was done by referring to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan as a qawwal nor will the earth shatter with the death of classical music in Pakistan. It is the loss of the classical tradition which renders us incoherent that should be the subject of our attention.