The music clan

August 29, 2021

Late Qurban Niazi had been a recipient of Sitara-i-Imtiaz

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Qurban Niazi’s talent was totally overshadowed by his brother: the immensely-gifted Tufail Niazi. Both appeared in the inaugural music programme when Pakistan Television was launched in Lahore in 1964.

His death is an occasion to remember the family’s contribution to music. Tufail Niazi’s sons, Babar and Javed, are also singing to keep the family tradition alive. All of them have made a significant contribution to music, particularly popular music or folk music without compromising on the standards. Qurban, probably facing stiff competition from his brother, switched to naat khwani and was one of the leading exponents in that area as well. He was subsequently awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the government of Pakistan.

In a family of musicians, it is generally assumed that every one, particularly the males will achieve a certain standard. It is for the few to excel, and really make a name for themselves to bring about something that is original and creative, breaking away from repetition and just regurgitation of melodies sung.

Both Qurban and Tufail were born in a village near Jallandhar. Both were scion of a clan specialising in playing the pakhawaj, but Tufail did not restrict himself to any genre or specialisation. He went in search of a more contemporary expression that was ironically facilitated by the partition of the sub-continent.

The entire musical social ethos changed after the division of India and the resulting migration. Being Muslims, the Niazi family chose to migrate to Pakistan, and had to find new patrons and perform for an audience that was more varied and exposed to myriad cultural influences due to a number of factors including the influence of the ever growing media.

The number of prefixes and suffixes to Tufail’s name is reflective of the migration of population and the changing taste that the artistes had to adapt himself to. He was only Tufail Multani when the family migrated to Multan and lived there for some time. Before he became famous, he was just Tufail; then he became Master Tufail. He performed solo and then in a group and made a name for himself when he set up his own drama group. He travelled from village to village, mela to mela, urs to urs and was better known in the rural circuit as Master Tufail than among the urban audiences which were fast switching to more cosmopolitan film music.

Tufail Niazi was no Pathan; the Niazi in his name was from Pir Niaz Ali Shah, his patron saint. The story goes that at the inaugural in 1964 of the Pakistan Television in Lahore as he was preparing to sing the first number on the network, Aslam Azhar enquired about his full name. He called himself Tufail Multani but on the suggestion of Aslam Azhar changed it as a symbolic homage to his patron saint.

In Pakistan, with the kheyal losing patronage among the population of the new country, especially the new urban educated classes, the popular forms of music, the folk music in particular was greatly heard and so patronised and promoted. There is something about folk music that is probably more text based and lends itself easily to the listening public than the kheyal which lays greater stress on vocal variation, permutations and has not much to do with the words.

In the debate about the cultural contours in the new country, it was easier to distinguish between folk music that was area specific, compared to the classical traditions, which happened to be more standardised and was heard over a larger stretch of land with a wider audience.

Then classical forms were on the face more syncretic and many in the new country felt uncomfortable about certain names, deities and mythological references in an effort to carve out a separate identity from the Indian landmass. And after the creation of Bangladesh, this process of being selective about inheritance became simpler. The classical forms were hugely patronised in East Pakistan but with its loss the more homogeneous reading of culture became simpler and simplified. It was easier or more convenient to plaster a uniformity in the name of the popularity and people brand.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, with its more awami approach, facilitated this transition in the 1970s. The popular forms and the film song became the hallmarks of the vocalists who were largely appreciated for it.

Lok Virsa or the Institute of Folk Heritage was formed and the Niazi family made a huge contribution in establishing it and making it a success. Lok Tamasha recorded, identified and marketed talent from across the country and the country’s cultural image based on folk music was solidified. Only later the qawwali took over and became a popular form of vocal music breaking in a way from exclusivity of the shrine.

The intonation in music is changing very rapidly due to the wholesale induction of the computer-generated sounds and software pre-empting the rules of composition. Not yet but very soon, artificial intelligence will point to the way that music ought to be made. The Niazi brothers, Javed and Babar, should be felicitated for preferring to stick to the traditional manner of intonation and relying on the taseer of the sur rather than the medley of sound with a rhythmic overlay. It appears that the qawwali will retain its more traditional form of intonation because of its quasi-religious references which many insist should be resistant to change. While this may not be possible entirely, at least some effort will be made to bring about a marriage of the two and it will not be hijacked by the technological onslaught that has made resistance more and more unlikely.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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