Saint of symphony

October 3, 2021

Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai’s raags indicate that he retained Kalyan, Khambhat and Bilawal in their shudh (original) state

Saint of symphony

Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai, on his urs, is remembered for multiple legacies he left behind, the most important being music. During the duration of the urs, the vocalists chant the wai on the main door of the shrine, the melodic compositions of his poetry on the dhamboori, which is said to have been modified by him to suit his musical requirements. Apart from the annual gathering, musical performances also take place every week or every day.

Amir Khusro, generally seen as one who made a major contribution to making music integral to the ritual of the shrine in and around Delhi, is said to be credited with the creation of certain forms: raags, taals and bandishes. However, he did not elaborate on a whole system as the later music sages did who thought that the musical expression was also essential to their sensibility.

It must be said, with some reservation, that when musical or other expressions become integral to religion, one is always in a quandary whether to assess and consider these rituals. In this instance, is music of gurbani, art or merely a religious ritual? Should whatever is being performed considered a part of the religious ritual and be left alone for the fear of intruding into another faith or should it also be seen for its artistic merit and assessed as such?

Perhaps another example is the Sikh codification of music that can be cited where the local sensibility conditioned its categorisation. One of the essential rituals of Sikh religion gurbani – the singing of the sacred text that consists of shabads and kirtans is always sung at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, which points to the significance of music, song or incantation as being integral to their religious ritual, or probably to their religion in its most spiritual sense as well. These singers have been usually divided by the religious establishment into raagis and rababis, the former are Sikhs, while the latter are Muslims and said to be the descendants of Bhai Mardana.

The contribution of Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai to music can also be seen in the context of the relationship between a high classical tradition and its regional sources. His was an attempt at codifying a system of music that was more specific to the region. Shah Abdul Lateef’s music was the expression of his sensibility, which is obviously conditioned by the ethos of the land. The musical modes that he is credited with are very peculiar to the region and once again strengthen the argument that the local traditions went into making the mainstream of music, each contributing due share.

In all, he selected 36 raginis. Thirty were earmarked for the exclusive singing of Shah’s own poetry, while six were used for singing other compositions. The raags of classical music which are mentioned in his works are: Kalyan, Khambhat, Siri, Suhni, Sarang, Kedara, Desi, Baruva Hindi, Sorath, Baruva Sindhi, Ramkali, Bilawal, Asa, Dhanasari, Purbi, Kamod, Yaman, Husaini and Basant.

Shah’s raags indicate that he retained Kalyan, Khambhat and Bilawal in their shudh (original) state because these constitute the three basic thaats to which also belong some other melodies of the group. The 14 other melodies of the classical tradition were retained in the form in which they were being sung by the people. The functional compositions of each of these melodies do not necessarily conform exactly to their classical prototypes. The following 17 were selected from Sindhi folk music Samundi, Abri, Madhoor, Kohiyaree, Rana, Khahoree, Rip, Lilan, Dahar, Kapaitee, Pirbhati, Ghatu, Seenh Kadaro, Marui, Dhol Maru, Hir and Karayal.

Mardana, called Bhai Mardana, in the manner of respect that the Sikhs afford and express, one of the closest friends of Nanak was a Muslim. It is said that Mardana used to play the rabab and sing. His descendants known as rababis were entrusted with the task of composing the text of Nanak to music, and possibly also the other liturgical texts of the later gurus. Very little is known about the exact details of the life of Bhai Mardana but that he was a very close associate and also accompanied him to the many epic journeys that Nanak undertook to parts of the civilised world.

Bhai Mardana, since he was a musician, must have set the poetry of Nanak to music and his descendants continued to do so and became the official minstrels to the Sikhs. Another name mentioned in history is that of Bhai Farinda as being very close to Nanak and also being a minstrel and also responsible for setting the text to music or chanting the shabads and kirtans.

The classical tradition in the region was always seen as the extension of the cultural hegemony of the central empire that ruled the regions from its capitals and hence an instrument to facilitate an imperial design. On the one side were the minstrels who sang the pristine folk, roaming from village to village and congregating at the urs of the various pirs and soofia that are found in abundance in the sub-continent. On the other side were the court musicians who upheld alongside their ‘naiks’ the superiority of the classical tradition. In Sindh, the classical musicians were non Sindhis, having migrated to Sindh as various courts granted them patronage, the most important being that of Khairpur. These musicians and vocalists then married the native musical patterns to their more formally structured musical systems and created something that was unique. To many Sindhis, this was tantamount to spoiling the pristine beauty of an art form by making it a victim to virtuosity.

In the sacred texts of the Sikhs, many raags are prescribed for the singing and chanting of the shabads and kirtans. Some have been more designated for particular compositions of the text while others are not so formalised in their description. Soohi, Bilaaval, Gaund, Sri, Maajh, Gauri, Asa, Gujri, Devgandhari, Bihaagra, Sorath, Dhanasari, Jaitsree, Todi, Bhairaagi, Tilang, Raamkali, Nat Narayan, Maali Gaura, Maaru, Tukhari, Kedara, Bhairav, Basant, Sarang, Malaar Jaijawanti, Kalyaan, Vadhans, Parbhati and Kaanra, all these 31 in number are the designated raags.

The descendants of Mardana must have been outstanding musicians but the records have not been maintained to say with certainty which ones were truly great. However, if the 20th Century is any indication to go by, then many reached that pinnacle like Master Ghulam Hiader, Bhai Deesa, Bai Lal Muhammed, Rashed Attre, Wajahat Attre, Sain Akhter Hussain, Tufail Niazi, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Wazir Afzal, Hamid Ali Bela and Munir Hussain. Nearly all the rababis migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition, mostly from the Punjab and a few from Bombay and Calcutta where the theatre/film world had attracted them.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Saint of symphony