Voice of unity

September 4, 2022

Sain Zahoor is famous for playing the eiktara that provides the melodic parallel to his vocalisation

Voice of unity


ain Zahoor collapsed on stage while performing in London. He was rushed to the hospital and is now, mercifully, on his way to recovery. In his eighties, he is still robust enough to carry a performance.

He plays the eiktara that provides the melodic parallel to his vocalisation. Eiktara is an ancient instrument, as ancient as any documentary evidence available. It was a standard instrumental accompaniment to the roving minstrels who travelling from place to place singing.

Eiktara, as the name suggests, has just one taar (string) that is strummed. It serves as the drone, the melodic parallel in singing as well as providing the basic rhythmic structure like the theka. A very simple instrument and hence very difficult to play, it was the standard accompaniment for the folk musicians because it was convenient to carry.

The kalam sung by the minstrels, as indeed by Sain Zahoor, is not of the well-known poets. It is a mixture of folk poetry, a combination of the well-known classics of the language, allied with the contribution of the contemporary poets, and lines that may or may not qualify as lyrics. All this is as close to the contemporary idiom and the concerns as it gets seen through the lens of a person steeped in the quasi mystical tradition of the land. Even when lyrics of famous poets are sung, phrases and rhythmic schemes that sound relevant and nice but cannot be referred to any particular source are generously added to it.

It is difficult to authenticate the claim but probably the text of the sufis and the jogis was played and sung on the instrument as the minstrels roamed from place to place singing and getting some alms in return. Seen as a part of the Bhagti tradition, it is possible that the practice goes back much further and that the minstrels provided music on a daily basis. The jogis were very apt at it and many of the asthais and antras have come down to us singing the praises of these jogis and chanting in praise of some beautiful person and seeking bichiyyadar (charity of the body) in return.

I was present when Sain Zahoor started playing and sing his signature number, Allah Hu, on eiktara in Amritsar and dancing to the accompaniment of the rhythmic pattern established by the eiktara. The audience was spellbound. The melodies and the intonation disrupted by the Partition of the Punjab and the diversity that went into the making of Punjabi culture was seen in two split sections, eastern and western, for no such division or distinction had existed earlier. It was and is artificial and meant to justify the political division of the province.

Hailing from Haveli Lakha, Sain Zahoor belonged to a tradition.It is the resilience of the cultural practices that without any institutional support the talent keeps emerging. In the landscape of North India, the saffron clad jogis and sufis chanted the kalam and filled the cultural landscape with high melody.

It is one of the professional hazards of the performing artists that they collapse on stage while performing. The act is so exacting and the stress level so high that the health does buckle under the gruelling hours on stage. One has known of so many artistes who collapsed while singing or dancing. Fortunately, Sain Zahoor was taken to a hospital immediately and survived.

He is very melodious especially when he sings AllahHu and somehow catches the essence of the culture of the land as it has evolved over centuries.

As it happens, folk vocalists and musicians who hail from the hinterland and are then recognised as significant artistes, are at the mercy of promoters and impresarios that may have other concerns than the mere authenticity of the text, the bandish and the sonic particularity. The effort is more to synthesise it with the sonic patterns that are more in tune with the sensibility as well as the technical innovation particularly of the digital era.

The artistes have to resist the pressure of these people and of the commercial allure and find a way in the middle. Sain Zahoor, a very unpretentious person, has been walking the tight rope for almost 25 years and rather successfully. May he be in good health for a long span to keep adding artistic value to the lives of people, particularly in this part of the world.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Voice of unity