For a novice (ataayi) like me, navigating through the intricacies of the eastern classical music tradition will seem like a daunting task, especially in Pakistan. The disappointing lack of formal institutions geared toward imparting knowledge on the subject and meagre opportunities for music education in educational institutions, both private and public, have created a quagmire, of sorts, for the prospects of the art form in our region. The problem is compounded by the dearth of the availability of skilled teachers in the subject matter, and the reluctance of the gharanawalas (a system of social organization linking musicians by lineage or apprenticeship), to make their expertise and the rationale behind it open to the laity and jealously guarding it. The dilemma is escalated due to the very nature of the theoretical assumptions behind the eastern classical music forms – contrary to the conventional wisdom that suggests that eastern classical music is entirely based upon improvisation and situational call and response dialogues between the performers who are letting out their soul in an impromptu manner (aamad), there is a very real set of technical rules-based frameworks of surr (pitch) and taal (rhythm) grammar which serve as limits, of sorts, and dictate the general trajectory of a performance.
It is precisely here, where the going gets too puzzling for an aspirant – although many efforts have been done to systemize the raga syntax, and some with a semblance of success, [especially Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande’s treatise on thaats (which roughly correspond with Western modal systems)], any classical musician would agree that the only way to comprehend the mechanisms operating under the vast umbrella of the subcontinental classical music form would be under the tutelage of an ustad (an expert, preferably belonging to a gharana). However, one can sympathize with the hesitancy of some of the gharana folk to extend their knowledge to the masses, because it is exactly that what keeps them unique. At a point in time where connoisseurs of the classical music form are dwindling at an alarming rate, and the gharana musicians themselves are switching to milder forms of music due to the undeniable weight of material conditions, the prospects for the art form seem dim.
The cut-throat dynamics of demand and supply in the modern and technological fate of our times have significantly reduced the appeal of pursuing and performing classical music. While audiences prefer to listen to songs with the radio-friendly time length, purely classical traditions, such as khyaal and dhrupad gayaki, are impossible to do justice to in such short spans. Additionally, certain ragas are supposed to be performed at a given time of the day – their designated samay. At a semi-private performance in Framingham, Massachusetts, talented young vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty was seen rejoicing the prospect that she could perform raga Bhimplasi – belonging to Kafi thaat and roughly corroborating with the Dorian mode in the West – in the early afternoon, which is the time stipulated for it according to age-old tradition. One can only sympathize with the poor old early morning ragas, because they will keep succumbing to the impossible task of finding an audience, falling prey to the contemporary state of affairs. On the other hand, the juggernaut of Bollywood is seen as the holy grail by even established artistes, and it is safe to say that this is not the most enabling environment for purists and proponents of the strictly classical forms, in contemporary times. You do have the occasional thumri thrown in the mix, and songs such as Aao Ge Jab Tum Saajna, expertly sung by Ustad Rashid Khan, maintaining almost perfect fidelity with the raga Tilak Kamod - belonging to thaat Khammaj, which roughly corroborates with the Mixolydian mode in Western Music. It cannot be denied that some film composers have found the uncanny knack of phrasing raga melody forms and mood settings in a tasteful manner.
And outside of Bollywood, albeit rarely, great East-meets-West blends can been conjured up. I do not want to be perceived as being averse to innovation and fusion music, because I am not. In fact, Remember Shakti, the collaborative jazz-meets-Indian classical effort of the great British guitarist John McLaughlin, of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame, the ingenuous flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, the table maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, amongst others, has remained a constant on my playlist for the last fifteen years. Of course, and although the band members do not like the label ‘fusion’ being attached to them, the Mekaal Hassan Band is worth mentioning in this category, because they have managed to create splendid music, that, and please forgive me for using the cliché, cannot be characterized by being reduced to mere words. The track Sampooran on the self-titled debut album was probably one of the best renditions of a seminal bandish in raga Yaman - also known as raga Aimen in common parlance in Pakistan, belonging to the Kalyan thaat and roughly corroborating with the Lydian scale in Western music - to come out of the Indian subcontinent in recent times. The one thing common between the two aforementioned bands, amongst other things, is being well versed with the theoretical concerns of the East and West – which enables their music to be absolutely phenomenal; possessing huge amounts of attention to detail yet making for easy listening.
The almost enchanting and mystical beauty of the eastern classical music tradition lies in its intrinsic complexity - the seeker of knowledge is safe with the acquired disposition that it is impossible to ever completely master the art form, and that shortcuts will take you nowhere. Moreover, it has the ability to generate an ethos of humility and forbearance in the subject who tries to navigate through a plethora of temperaments necessitated by the resolution of a multitude of melody forms along puzzling beat cycles. Additionally, it allows, even for the sunkaars (listeners), to gain an appreciation for the cultural eclecticism inherent to the subcontinental music traditions, in spite of all narratives to the contrary brought to us in the wake of an unfortunate and violent partition. Finally, the infamous razor sharp wit that comes along with navigating through the eastern classical music circles is surely an end worth seeking. And any one in their right mind would agree that all the afore-mentioned traits could do our fractured national consciousness project a world of good, surely?