Of blood and tears

December 23, 2018

The recently held Tehzeeb Festival in Karachi brought classical music to a discerning audience

Of blood and tears

The dusk paints the sky in misty grey hues on a Friday evening. The chilly breeze from the seashores of the city blows around the tangled leaves of a lonely palm tree inside the Karachi Arts Council. Located on M.R. Kayani Road, the entrance of the arts council is blocked with a long queue of people, most of them elderly. Several food stalls, festival merchandise counters and outdoor decorating lights create an aura of festivity.

I have arrived in Karachi the same morning with a delegation of artists from Lahore. We are provided living arrangements on the fifth floor of a local hotel near the Cantt Station. The floor is named after Sassi, the famous heroine of folk mythology, and she’s perhaps the only woman on the fifth floor, apart from me. The hotel corridors embody the charm of the narrow alleys of Lahore’s Shahi Muhalla, which, in the olden times, would remain alive with musicians and performing artists. The hotel rooms are reminiscent of the classical music baithaks from the old city of Lahore. The sounds of tabla, harmonium and taanpura echo through the corridors as the musicians proceed with their afternoon riyaaz. Taking a little walk in the red-carpeted corridor, I overhear intimate discussions between the eminent ustaads from Lahore, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

Following the artists and the festival team to Karachi Arts Council, I enter the hall from the backstage. A shiny white-coloured fabric sheet, wreaths of flowers, musical instruments and coloured lights grace the stage. The three rows of the moleskin-red seats for the reserved guests begin to fill-in with avid classical music connoisseurs. Sharif Awan and his better half, Malahat Awan, both draped in traditional attire, cordially greet us.

Sharif Awan, the festival director, founder of Tehzeeb foundation, speaks to TNS, saying: "It’s an important year for us as Tehzeeb has successfully completed its 10th edition. It is not mere entertainment for us but a pure labour of love that comes from our deep passion to explore, promote and preserve the common South Asian heritage. I feel more encouraged and devoted to the cause, now that I have noticed a substantial change in people’s perceptions about performing arts. It’s great to see that such forums can actually bring about a social change."

For the uninitiated, Tehzeeb Festival is a premium classical music event that offers an indelible feast to music aficionados in Pakistan. Initiated in 2009, under the aegis of Tehzeeb Foundation, the festival has featured legends of Hindustani classical music from across South Asia, in its nine previously organized festival ceremonies. The tenth edition of the Tehzeeb Festival, a three-day classical music affair was scheduled between Dec 14 -16, 2018, featuring exponents of some of the leading gharanas of the subcontinent.

The inaugural day witnessed a fully packed auditorium swarming with music enthusiasts. The musicians performed authentic classical and semi-classical music to regale the listeners with their finesse and fervour. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Gwalior Gharana did a soulful exposition of Raga Darbari Todi in his reverberating voice, forming the highlight of the day. Darbari Todi, an extremely rare raag is attributed to Miyaan Taansen. Fateh Ali Khan’s signature well-woven sapaat taans added radiance to his rendition. Izzat Fateh Ali Khan, the eight-year son of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan impressively presented Raag Sohni of the thaat Marva, and received a thunderous round of applause from a rather surprised audience.

The hotel rooms are reminiscent of the classical music baithaks from the old city of Lahore. The sounds of tabla, harmonium and taanpura echo through the corridors as the musicians proceed with their afternoon riyaaz.

The festival this year has been focused on bringing younger and comparatively unknown voices from across the country. One of them is Vijay Kumar from Balochistan. He opened with a reposing alaap and proceeded till the end to the taraana while superbly exploring Raag Behag.

The other artists featured on the first day included Rakae Jamil, Gul Muhammad and Imran Ilyas Khan.

Part of the day also included a literary session on Jaun Elia to mark his 87th birth anniversary. Titled Haalat-e-Ghair Hazira, the session featured Anwar Maqsood’s imaginary conversation with Jaun Elia that took the audience on a tour of "Koocha-e-sher-o-suKHan", the part of heaven where all the great poets from Mir, Ghalib, and Sauda to Iqbal, Faraz, Nasir Kazmi and others reside.

The second day of the festival featured an exceptional vocal recital by Wali Fateh Ali Khan. His soft tonal texture combined with a resonant voice, proving his worth as a mellowed vocalist. Originally from Afghanistan, Wali, became a disciple of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Patiala Gharana at a very young age. He also remained in Delhi under the supervision of Ustad Rashid Khan of Rampur Seheswan Gharana. Wali’s rendition of Raag Jog has some noticeable flashes of Ustad Rashid Khan’s style.

Ustad Raza Ali Khan, the grandson of the legendary Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s stellar performance was one of the spotlights of the second day. The ustad from Kolkata presented a complete picture of Raag Hans Dhun, bearing testimony to his ingenuity as a vocalist. Ustad Bashir Khan on tabla impressed the audiences with his brilliance too.

Professor Shahbaz Ali’s solo harmonium recital was another sought-after item on the second day. His exquisite rendering revealed his eminence as a harmonium player and remarkably communicated the nostalgic spirit of Raag Jansammohini. He’s a disciple of Master Sadiq Khan Pindiwalay and is currently the only harmonium soloist in Pakistan.  Sajid Ali accompanied Shahbaz from Lahore on tabla, whose Punjabi ang complemented the overall performance.

On the third day, the audiences enjoyed Karam Abbass Khan’s grandiose rendition of Abhogi. Kalawati and Abhogi are same scales with a shifted ‘Sa’. Thus, any amateur performer would easily inter-mingle the two. However, it was evident from the masterful treatment of his rendition that he is a class apart as a vocalist. He is a true practitioner of his elders’ legacy, treating raags not just as scales but also as living beings having distinct moods. At one point during the drut (the fastest tempo) portion, while he was performing taans, he inserted his finger in his mouth, touching his throat; he shows his bloodstained finger to the spectators, saying "this isn’t an easy task."
A round of plodding performances by Turab Ali Khan, Ustad Shahid Hamid and Ustad Sajid Hussain followed on the third day before the much-anticipated appearance of Ustad Hamid Ali Khan of Patiala Gharana. Accompanied by his son, Inam Ali Khan, the good-looking father-son duo was both an aural and visual treat for the audiences. Their emotive elaboration of the night raag chandarkauns, mingled with a plethora of robust embellishments of gamaks, taans and paltaas, ornately depicted the longing mood of the raag. Their amusing stage presence, pleasant chemistry and vibrant laykari, a signature characterstic of Patiala gayaki, created a stirring ambience that left a unique and lasting impression on the audiences. Ustad Hamid Ali Khan also mesmerised the audiences with a few ghazal performances in his mellifluous voice. At the close of the festival, a middle-aged woman went up to the stage and pleaded with Hamid Ali Khan to sing her choice of ghazal.  After several denials, he finally gave in to her request. Overwhelmed by emotions, the woman breaks down.  Tears fell down her face as she sat by his side while he sang the verses. There couldn’t have been a better conclusion to the festival. No wonder Hindustani classical music is not just limited to the mundane detail of scales, it demands blood and it evokes tears.

Of blood and tears