A requiem for music
WHAT was a Czech violinist Jaroslav Sveceny doing in Lahore recently?
Was he just another Raymond Davis-type of subversive, camouflaging his weaponry like an Italian mafia hit man in a violin case? Or was he something more sinister, a musical reactionary intent on disturbing our cultural complacency?
The moment Sveceny tucked his prized violin under his chin that evening and began playing, he reminded his audience (all graying and on the wrong side of 40) that he did not simply come from another country. He came from a different world, a world in which its citizens express themselves in sound, in colour and in musical notes. We in Pakistan by contrast are reconciled to thinking in silence. We view life in monochrome. We speak in a monotone. The only notes we recognise are bank notes.
It was not always like this. For thousands of years, we have laughed and sang and danced. One needs to remind oneself that the female figurine discovered at Mohenjodaro was a dancing girl, not some lacquered doll pouting on talk shows.
Over the millennia, our artistic traditions have mutated. Miniature paintings have moved from the intimacy of hand-held muraqqas to flaunting canvases, chosen all too often because they match the colour of a drawing room wall. Dance is performed only when exuberance overtakes self-consciousness. Men and women dance if in private, behind drawn curtains, or if in public, then male with male, females with other females, rarely in an ensemble.
Music is the last bastion of the performing arts. The time-honoured concept of a gharana, ideally, should have served as a crucible for talent. Inevitably music, like our brand of politics, succumbed over time to congenital imperatives. A son followed his father even if he was not gifted, but because he was assumed to have inherited his parent’s vocal chords.
But even in such a familial atmosphere, innate talent was not enough. It had to wait its turn. Asad Amanat made his formal debut only after the death of his father Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. Similarly, Rahat Fateh Ali was confined to the periphery of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan’s troupe until the maestro’s death, after which Rahat took the place he deserved, centre-stage.
Had talent been genetic, Prince Charles would not have been playing the cello, or Thai King Bhumibol jazz on his clarinet. Our own royalty is said to be musical. It is rumoured that a twice-elected prime minister enjoys singing Indian film songs, a penchant he shares with a provincial governor, though they seem to find it impossible to sing in harmony.
No nation treats its inheritance of classical music with disdain such as ours. Even the puritanical Mughal emperor Aurangzeb cared enough about music to order it to be buried, buried so deep that its sounds would never be heard again. If music is alive today, it is not a miracle of resurrection but of nature. It is the desert flower that sprouts in the sand, a triumph of tenacity.
Music needs continuous rebirth. So when should a nation introduce its next generation to music? Some believe that one can never begin too soon. Familiarise a foetus through the walls of a womb to sounds and rhythm. Others start that process before the age of three. In the US, some schools make musical proficiency a pre-requisite to admission. Most schools anywhere in the world offer music as an elective, leaving a child to discover his or her own musical bent. The benefit of exposing every child to music is two-fold: the best become professionals, the worst become better audiences.
It is not accidental that in India, there is a reverence for music that is almost religious in its observance. Children learn any instrument for which they have an aptitude. The aim is to equip them with a tempering skill, to encourage them to play as a member of a team, not simply as a soloist.
Nothing typifies our separateness as much as our musical preferences. The Indians can handle the variety inherent in an orchestra, in which each musician is expected to play in harmony. We on our side prefer the qawwali, in which one singer leads, and the others repeat the line he has just sung. There, a leader functions as a conductor, a coordinator of different sounds. Here, the noise of our leaders is parroted by their followers.
Gradually, whether we accept it or not, we are losing our finer sensibilities. At one time, every house claiming gentility boasted a piano. Today, they are all silent. One cannot find a piano tuner anywhere outside Karachi, and he is ageing irreversibly. At one time, families looked within themselves to provide entertainment. Now, family entertainment is that rare television programme considered safe for viewing by all generations. And there was a time when one could lose oneself in a sublime piece of music. Now, in any pop performance, one is in danger of losing one’s hearing.
The silence perceptible during the performance by the Czech violinist that evening was not because the venue happened to be a five-star hotel. The quietude came from an awareness that, in the midst of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, here was a living reminder of the enduring values of civilisation — the nobler, humanising values every society should live for, fight for, and if need be, die for.
The final piece played by Jaroslav Sveceny was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In the front row of the audience sat the principal of one of Lahore’s leading missionary schools. There could not have been a more poignant reminder that in our country music lovers, like Christians, have become an endangered minority.
The writer is an author.