Musical heritage The last rites?

The absence of music academies is a major factor in the present state of affairs. The traditional ‘ustad shagird’ relationship is the ideal method of learning, but in its absence, music academies can serve the purpose, as is being done in Bangladesh and India

Recently, there was an uproar in the British press over the programmes aired by BBC Radio 3. The protests centered around the allegation that BBC 3 was neglecting classical music and instead, was devoting more time to pop and mindless chatter. The uproar grew so loud that Gerald Kaufman, head of the Commons’ Select Committee, wrote to Roger Wright, the controller of radio, conveying to him the sentiments of the people in simple words: grand masters such as Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler were being replaced by pop music. The radio chief promptly replied that the ratio of talk and music was being maintained. The discussion continues, but it appears that by temperament and tradition, radio will have to yield to the people’s demands.

The same example cannot exactly be applied to our social conditions, even though we are passing through the same situation. No doubt the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century have brought tremendous change in the content and form of our music. Pakistan, like the rest of the world, cannot escape the trend of change, making formidable strides in contemporary music and winning laurels from across the world. Scores of modern groups have emerged and hit it big with popular numbers. With the growth of local radio and television channels, our classical, folk and traditional music is suffering as pop music pushes our rich musical heritage out of the picture. If the situation continues, we will be at the loser’s end.

There are two aspects that need to be examined. The first is the approach towards traditional music, including classical. The other is the absence of the will that drives the community to preserve its heritage.

The decline began in the early 1970s when pop music overrode the entire scenario. Introduction of newer technologies brought all forms of modern music to the new generation in an easy manner. This is not a strange phenomenon. Every society has witnessed this process and it will continue. But that does not mean one loses one’s identity.

Our musical heritage has come to the present state of near-perfection after a long process of experimentation, sponsored by the affluent class, music lovers and the artists themselves. After the collapse of the institution of rajas, maharajas, nawabs and connoisseurs, the artists turned to the music industry, which came into being at the time. Recording companies, radio and later television became the main sources of livelihood for artists. Meagre remunerations were hardly enough for survival as they spent time not only preserving the art, but also teaching students so that classical music would not die. Ironically, we did not evolve a cultural policy. Our broadcast institutions were run by bureaucrats, as other public-service departments are.

The result was, and still is, that the process of deterioration continues unabated. Today, after the death of all the great grand masters, there is no one to preserve and promote this heritage. Worse still is the state of dance.

The tragedy does not end here. There is nobody in the government who has the slightest inkling of the catastrophe we are heading towards. The federal government and all provincial administrations have ministries of culture, but one has yet to hear a word about how to meet this challenge. The entire budget goes to paying the salaries of officials who do not even know their own culture.

India was the first to face this kind of dilemma. Ranging from film to theatre, radio to television, it is a vast country with a multitude of cultures. It was a colossal task to preserve the musical heritage. They built shock-absorbers by strengthening the traditional institutions of learning, bound their electronic media to promote classical music, established academies to institutionalize the discipline, made sure that no vocalist, instrumentalist or dancer was deprived of the basic means of living and opened schools at home and abroad and accorded due recognition to them.

What can we do to stem the rot? First, there is the question of whether or not music is allowed in our religion. In this regard, ignorance plays its part. When the MMA government took over in the NWFP, one of the first things they did was to ban music. Not only that, audio and video stores were also closed down while professional singers, including eunuchs, were banned.

The result is that today, with almost every noteworthy vocalist and instrumentalist gone, their descendants have either joined pop groups or taken up other occupations. Only a small number of singers from Patiala, Sham Chaurasi and Gwalior gharanas and a few scattered amateurs are trying to salvage what remains of their great heritage. How they can achieve the mastery of their ancestors, is a difficult question. One can attach many hopes to them, but the fact remains that presently, Pakistan is almost barren when it comes to music.

The absence of music academies and teaching schools is one of the major factors contributing to the present state of affairs. Maintaining the traditional ustad-shagird relationship is the ideal method of learning, but even in its absence, music academies can serve the purpose, as is being done in Bangladesh and India.

The most important factor is political will, which we lacked from the very beginning. Living in a society which has been turned into a political laboratory for the past 55 years, we need some sensible persons in the ruling class who understand the importance of cultural heritage and the need to preserve and promote it. There are ways to do it, but there is no shortcut to regain what we have lost.

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