Call of the countryside

October 11, 2020

As singer Shaukat Ali faces hard times, the government must act to support him and other artistes

Shaukat Ali has been in and out of hospital over the last few months. This popular singer has been warming the hearts of music lovers for sixty odd years with his rendition of the folk music compositions. His specialisation has been the folk songs of central Punjab. Consisting mainly of the bolian, tappay, dohray, these were prefixed or suffixed with geets to be sung on occasions that represented a certain date in the cultural calendar of the province.

Central and Upper Punjab, as well as Eastern Punjab and Haryana, have had a rich repertoire of songs and compositions suited for each occasion. These have been modified with the passage of time. The best aspect about folk music is its incremental nature: its rules are not strictly followed. It actually thrives on its loose structure and flexibility both in form and content. So, it is much more open to changes that take place with regard to places, people and situations and thus is responsive to the immediate needs that help the ordinary people respond to it.

Jugni, now seen as a folk number being part of the Punjabi sensibility, was actually about the jubilee which was to mark the 75th year of Queen Victoria’s rule. The content was contemporary, extolling the benefits of the crown rule, but it was encased in traditional melodies and certain archetypes that have defined life in the Indian sub-continent.

Folk music, usually contemporary in its lyrics, refers to events and personalities that characterise the daily lives of people and the common aspirations and the love interest of the masses who go about their daily chores without pretension. It is associated with the common folks. During the reign of Peoples Party in the 1970s, the focus shifted to folk renditions. It was in this phase that many a folk vocalist came into prominence. One of them was Shaukat Ali. His singing was in sharp contrast to the classical forms that invited a more initiated response.

The other forte of the folk vocalists has been the various, kahaniaan, dastaan, katha that have been sung over generations. Heer, Saiful Malook and Mirza Sahibaan have been part of the local cultural imagination and have been sung at various melas across the landscape. Shaukat Ali was particularly adept at rendering the folk dastaan to an audience that was initially well-versed in the folk and indigenous conditions. These melodies reminded the people who became alienated from these traditions after moving to cities of their roots. Shaukat Ali was more popular for making the adjustment to the urban audiences and his appearance on television was sought after by a large section of the urban audiences, especially in the Punjab.

Since the kheyal and thumri compositions were more syncretic in nature with references to mythology and certain figures embedded in it, the cultural czars in Pakistan have had problems in adjusting to a definition of culture that was fabricated to suit the reconstruction of a cultural past. It was easier to deal with the folk musical expression as it was more localised though initially much fuss was made by the culturally-integrated expression in Bengal. It was dismissed and this dismissal became so wide-spread that it started to be seen as a bias and then a judgment that led to a divide that eventually became unbridgeable.

Folk melodies or compositions are reworked over centuries, perhaps even longer. Calling a composition or a tune new is most likely on account of not being aware of its history. The obsession with originality and newness has led many to experiment with a cause but without any achievement. Those who have brought in the contemporary to be integrated with the traditional have been more successful and have evoked a richer response from the the audiences. Shaukat Ali has been one such artiste. He touches the embedded sensibilities of the people with references that sound contemporary. This has been the secret of his success.

Shaukat Ali’s prime was just before the introduction of electronically generated sound. Once the computerised reworking in post-production hit the stalls, it became the new normal in no time. Shaukat Ali’s music is exclusively based on natural sound: whether it is vocal or instrumentation. The pleasure in listening to him live without intervention by a whole set of gadgetry has made him as probably the last of those who rely on the strength of their voice and the pakkapun of the sur, which only endless riaz can make possible.

There has been much media coverage of the steps this government has taken to provide relief to the artistes who publicly ask for help. This, however, injures the self-respect of the artistes. It has been said that some other route or direction or procedure must be adopted whereby the recipient’s self-respect remains intact. Shaukat Ali has been our pride. Being devoted to the people, he was not mindful of hoarding for his future. Artistes are supposed to be like that and to have emotional temperaments. Hoarding is seen as an antithesis to art. The authorities should take appropriate steps to support him without posturing in the media glare.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Call of the countryside