When an English daily erroneously classified Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (UFAK), one of Pakistan’s prime exponents of the “khyal” vocal form, from the Patiala lineage, as a “qawwal,” it was both infuriating, for classical purists, and embarrassing for music practitioners, to say the least. Speaking strictly traditionally, dhrupad and khyal vocal forms have an exalted status because of a more rigorous emphasis on voice culture, and technically more daunting compositional clarity and structure, in comparison with ‘qawwali’ – which is an esteemed form of vocal music but around different ends – evoking mystical contemplation in the listener with an emphasis on chorus chanting and repetition of chorus chants by bigger ensembles. The newspaper editors might have confused the khyal singer, UFAK, with the father of qawwali maestro, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (NFAK) who was his namesake. Ironically, NFAK was bestowed the title of “Ustad” by both the Sham Chaurasi, as well as Patiala gharanas, from their scions UFAK, and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan (USAK). USAK recorded a heartfelt, yet technically complex, tribute composition to NFAK, titled, “Taan Ke Baadshah, UNFAK.” i.e. (King of the Taan, UNFAK). Carrying on his father’s keen interest as a practicing musicologist, UNFAK could maintain supreme fidelity with classical rules and composed innumerable tasteful “sargam i.e. soflege, sequences in call-and-response intervals with tabla rhythms which became an essential part of his live set-list. Moreover, USAK’s move to include shades of the lighter Siraiki folk-Kafi tradition in his classical repertoire was a revolutionary step for then-strict classical traditions and the extremely popular track, “Sanwal Morr Moaharan” serves as a great entry point if the end goal was to attempt to understand his genius.

While many artists, post-1947, struggled with the strict technicalities of austere forms, as the Pakistani state repeatedly failed to preserve the rich cultural diversity and musical heritage of the lands that formed the erstwhile Pakistan, USAK and NFAK, however, remained relevant communicators and autonomous actors –managing to translate their rigorous practice routines into deeply spiritual and contemplative emotional quotients in the hearts and minds of their audiences. The Patiala scions of that generation also softened down their stance on classical purity – switching to lighter ghazals and Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, another legend, singing the famous national anthem, “Ae Watan Pyaare Watan” when the times got hard and seeking bread and butter became the primary urge, as opposed to fidelity to tradition. Pure classical music practice suffered immensely as the state failed to protect the gharana dwellers who chose to stay back, and not make the move to India – where the state was kinder to artists. Many Pakistani legends, such as the once in a century type of gifted singer, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, from the Kasur-Patiala gharana, chose to move to India, after a religious bigot allegedly threw the carcass of a pig while he was performing in Lahore.

To their credit, the newspaper gracefully apologised after some social media outcry over the gaffe in the eulogy. Regardless, the standards of music journalism are falling drastically in the country as classical forms are being commodified by corporate giants post the Coke Studio revolution. On the one hand, there is the presence of the misplaced belief amongst some music critics that Coke Studio has actually done some kind of righteous service, and been generous to the classical musical traditions, which stands completely deflated if empirical evidence is taken into account. While Rohail Hyatt’s Coke Studio efforts might have actually popularised lighter folk traditions by creating presentable accounts in modern contexts, in the form of some Sanam Marvi and Abida Parveen performances, the classical musician who requires longer performance times, often anything between thirty minutes and two hours, if not more, has been marginalised like never before, to the point where common audiences believe that vocal gimmickry such as the ability to sing “licks really fast” equates to “classical,’ now. It doesn’t. Secondly, many people might have high-quality Wi-Fi, but that, of course, does not mean that the quality of the debate about classical music has improved due to a faster flow of information. Some people make the highly anti-intellectual argument that music ought to be felt and not dissected, as discussion seemingly reduces the “spiritual quotient” of a performance. But that honestly defies logic. If the listener is better able to comprehend the building blocks that make a musical piece, and understand the human physics that enables a vocalist to appropriately sing from their diaphragm, or helps them listen to music better with reference to the contemporary pitch standard reference, A440 Hz, the listener can see musicians for what they are – hard working labourers with material constraints. Artists are human beings, first and foremost, and only, a few reach the level of greatness that NFAK reached – after a long struggle of singing at shrines as a devotee, before getting his big break through promoters who used the British expatriate market in 1980 -, an effort which was facilitated by a “minimum of 10 hours of practice each day” – with his live ensemble.

Music, for NFAK, in his own words, was “the path to finding spiritual unison with the Creator.” It is highly unfortunate, then, that the God-fearing NFAK, was then forced to keep armed security guards after some hardened religious zealots issued death threats as they wrongfully believed Sufi qawwali to be against the spirit of religion. It is not a surprise that this incident coincided with General Zia’s iill-fated strategic depth policy that enabled him to become America’s stooge and support some sectarian groups over others, for shallow opportunistic gains. As NFAK succinctly put in an interview to PTV in 1989, “qawwali traditions of cross cultural empathy and compassion and their promise of egalitarianism to the marginalized underclasses within austere Hindu caste traditions, were probably the primary reasons for the cultural conversions of parts of the laity to Islam.”

The plight of the indigenous Eastern classical music art forms and their practitioners can be observed through visibly shrinking audiences and a lack of concerts. UFAK’s mastery over “taankari” can be observed in his delightful interplay with his brother, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, on a Youtube video of their famous thumri “Kab Aao Ge” which is extracted from old PTV live footage. USAK and his brother Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan’s Raag Darbari can serve as a great entry point into their tradition. The 1960’s and 1970’s were heydays of the Pakistani state television and Radio, as classical music got ample coverage and had considerable following. In 2017 Pakistan, as music dissemination tends to focus more around corporate marking, visual FX magic and Youtube-friendly music packaging – the classical/folk artist assumes a position in the backdrop – for a ten second instrumental cameo on a hasty song interval, or bizarre and often, disappointing attempts at fusion music where the modern pop-star remains the central focus. Had that not been the case, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan would be a household name, and not your average “jack-of-all, master of none” fashion designer-cum-drama lead-cum-model-cum-TV show host/hostess, who sings, occasionally. God bless technology?

Some people make the highly anti-intellectual argument that music ought to be felt and not dissected, as discussion seemingly reduces the “spiritual quotient” of a performance.