The eastern classical music form relies heavily on myths and rituals. It often baffles modern audiences when they are told tales of “ragas” (roughly, very particular notes or melodic movements, or distinctively phrased melodic sequences, which delight the listener) being able to effect change in the physical world. According to the literary tradition, Raga Megh (cloud), or Megh-Malhaar, is oft-quoted to possess the heroic ability of causing torrential rainfall, and as a consequence, many songs, composed within the technical constraints of Megh, allude to dark rain clouds, thunder and lightning. In folklore, it is commonly held that an excellent rendition, by a well intentioned artist, who possesses an extremely high skill level, can directly cause rainfall! Now, for the modern novice, who is not well versed in the eastern classical tradition, this sort of storytelling seems very difficult to believe and comprehend. Scientific imagination, and its inherent modern focus upon objectivity, rationality and calculability, comes in the way. How could music cause that? It sounds like hogwash; a mere concoction. But there is more to the tale than the myth being a mere byproduct of an “apparently” primitive, and hence, “irrational” cultural context. This conundrum needs further explanation, and a compassionate analysis.

The musical experience relies a lot on the ability of the human mind and heart to imagine and experience things. Ragas are supposed to possess inherent emotional quotients, which come into play during a live performance. A raga is, then, a living organism, according to the the legendary female vocalist, Kishori Amonkar, who went on further suggest that the raga experience is not limited to mere technicalities of the form, which although have to be respected in their own right. The raga experience is further, supposed to transcend onto the metaphysical and spiritual sphere. Enjoying a disciplined performance in Raga Megh involves imaging rainfall, amongst other things, and this exercise transcends the merely instrumental puzzle of whether the claim to cause rainfall is valid or not. In modern times, the claim might obviously not hold true for every performance in Megh, even by seasoned practitioners. Whether its true in history or not, while keeping space for a semblance of human doubt and wit, remains a question in history. But a new experiential reality is opened up for the believer of the myth - as one is supposed to devote their Self to the Raga performance, which then assumes a rationality of its own, in practice. This is not a question of whether musical performance was purer in history, or whether older audiences and practitioners more able. It is tough to resolve this issue, merely in a textual format. It requires other intervening variables, including live demonstration, and a compassionate ear which can listen actively.

For practical purposes, the eastern classical musical tradition finds itself in the doldrums in Pakistan. Audiences have shrunk dramatically. When I refer to the eastern classical music tradition in history proper, I am pointing specifically to the higher ‘khyaal’ and ‘dhrupad’ forms of singing, for the most part, and not the superficial gimmickry of some contemporary performances which is misconstrued as “classical.” Being able to sing or play licks really fast can fall under the ambit of classical, but it is a mere part, not the whole of the exercise. The totality also includes patient phrasing, a deep understanding of rhythm, strong memory, as well as good physical fitness of the performer. There are no shortcuts. No practitioner ever minds a knowledgeable audience, either. The standards of practice of the higher forms have fallen for a variety of reasons. The strict requirements of the master-apprentice relation which form a very crucial part of the eastern classical music learning tradition are too tough to handle for most beginners. Teachers unwilling to teach their trade secrets to their students as they jealously guard them, as well as the massive learning curves, disappoint and disenchant aspirants. Lack of commercial appeal, lengthy durations of performances, gharana musicians being forced to switch to lighter forms due to lack of appropriate practice, as well as the Pakistani state’s general movement in a conservative direction, are some of the reasons for the downfall. Music, as an art-form has suffered post the rise of religious orthodoxy and obscurantism post-Zia in the 1980s, and classical music has suffered the most.

It is disappointing to see such high forms of classical music heritage being lost to the corridors of history as performers are generally reduced to being mere sources of entertainment, which is but a part of the whole experience. As a consequence, their humanness and capability to operate intellectually is often overlooked, cynically. Moreover, classical musicians might be asked in public settings to perform lighter forms by the audiences in private gatherings because they find classical music too boring and strict. As a consequence of the factors listed above, many instruments, including the jaltarang and the sarod are becoming extinct in Pakistan because there are a few, or no performers left. Instrument makers are also finding it very hard to survive under the unsurmountable weight of material conditions, some switching trades. Voluminous archives are being lost as there is no one interested in digitising old source material.

Popular music has been monopolised, for the most part, by corporate TV shows and their online campaigns, which by virtue of their basic technical design do not favour, pure classical performance while preference is given to fusing it with modern elements and arrangements. The results are mixed, and not always pleasing. These shows have become the holy grail for aspiring artists as a consequence of gargantuan budgets which help spur dissemination, saturating the market in the process for newcomers. Listeners have to be very dedicated to the art form and its historical legacies to find quality material. In this context, the myths and rituals of the art form are succumbing to the forces of modernity and supposed progress, as audiences find themselves looking for physical answers for non-physical questions. The struggle then for the classical music practitioner, is real. Sometimes more real, than real.


The author is a freelance columnist.