Begum and barsis

December 8, 2019

Great musical legends were remembered by their musical barsis. Is the tradition dying?

Does anyone remember Roshan Ara Begum? Hardly. These days’ classical and traditional compositions are being reworked with contemporary sonic treatment. Multiple variations of the same melody, some of which can be accessed in archives with the click of a button now, are hardly ever referred to. The listening public is sold the idea of what is new, the contemporary and the latest.

Living the moment now has become an end in itself, considered to be stand alone, with no reference to the past or the process that has eventually led up to the present. One institution held close by the tradition of hereditary musicians was to recall and remember the contribution of an artiste of the past, a well established ritual of observing through the celebration of a barsi on the date of the passing away of the artiste. These barsis were an occasion for the artistes to perform and through their music; acknowledge the past and also act as insurance that it is to continue in the future as well.

The real forte of Roshan Ara Begum was not the lighter forms of singing, even the semi-classical numbers that she sang often were on popular demand by those who had heard her and Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s recorded thumris.

But now barsis are no longer regular inevitabilities or ‘supposed to happen’. They came literally like the date in a calendar; a necessary gathering call to the practitioners to come and pay their tribute through the art form itself. But now the tradition is fraying at the edges and may die out soon as it is being treated more and more as an event to perform, a concert with quasi commercial potential to be sold with maximum returns.  

Two of the barsis that were held regularly and were well attended and participated in fully were of those Ustad Alamgir Khan, the shagird of Bhai Lal on the other side of the road across Taxali Gate. Ustad Alamgir Khan, is buried there and it is said that in the vicinity was the Mahavidyala that was established by Pandit Vishnu Digamber Paluskar for the purposes of passing on of musical knowledge in a more classroom-like pedagogical module. The building of the Mahavidyala now exists only in photographs, while the area in the vicinity has all been built up and there is nothing but narrow lanes, small houses and makeshift shops.

The other barsi probably still held but not with the same pomp was that of Mubarak Ali Khan/Fateh Ali Khan in Lyallpur/Faisalabad, and Nusrat Fateh Ali made sure that the tradition continued. It became a source of making of more music as has been the initial purpose of a gathering of musicians. Because of the success of Nusrat Fateh Ali and his popularity the barsi was held regularly and was well attended by the musicians and the general public.

Pandit Paluskar established quite a few institutions across the sub-continent in an effort to make the transmission of musical knowledge more in synch with the formal methods of education that were being regularized by the colonialists. Especially through the pedagogy of the arts, as was obvious in the setting up of institutions like the Mayo School of Arts and Craft which later became the National College of Arts.

The last time Roshan Ara Begum performed was at the Alhamra. She was as usual very composed, her unaging self. For more than an hour she sang her favourite raga shudh kalyan followed by a thumri in jhanjhoti. As usual her performance was flawless, the note was exceptionally forceful and the delivery very clear. Her performance always maintained a certain level, at times she was brilliant, really excelled and was inspired by the moment, otherwise she was very professional, competent and hardly ever faltered.

That evening, one could not predict that this was her last performance. Alas it was, and she died in the first week of December, 1982. She was considered a leading classical vocalist much sought after in Bombay though she had sung for films and a few ghazals in the earlier part of her life she gave all up for the sake of kheyal and thumri where she truly was remarkable and few can emulate her. But as she married and moved to Lala Musa, the village of her husband, after partition; she was confined to the four walls of her house.

She occasionally made a trip to Lahore or some other city when invited for a classical music concert; either on the radio or stage. She would come out of her exile so to say and performed as if there had been no break or no dislocation. And then she would go back to the anonymity of rural existence, her husband and extended family.

The real forte of Roshan Ara Begum was not the lighter forms of singing, even the semi-classical numbers that she sang often were on popular demand by those who had heard her and Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s recorded thumris. It was really to remember the genius of Abdul Karim Khan and a way of paying tribute that she sang these thumris as she knew that she was not the greatest of thumri singers, certainly no patch on her great Ustad.

It is unfair, that as an example of her musical greatness, short numbers or pieces are played which were either sung for a lark, or sung and then not really approved of and thus discontinued with. Kheyal is the elaboration of the notes in a certain pattern that follows the tonal structure of the raga Roshan Ara Begum’s expansion of the raga, the command over taans and very subtle division of the rhythmic cycle, laikari, were exemplary.

Classical and contemporary music: Begum and barsis