Recording Hindustani Sangeet – the music of Pakistan and Northern India – is not an easy task. Our music does not lend itself easily to recording and poses many challenges for those who undertake the daunting task of capturing it.
The correct recording of it depends primarily on four factors – the musician, the audience, the accompanying artists, and the set-up; it is not possible to conjure musical magic if all four are not present.
The musician needs to be talented, knowledgeable and prepared. In addition, he needs to be in the right frame of mind, in a good mood and motivated to do his best. Our musicians enjoy being surrounded by admirers, both of their music and their person, and are at their best when fully engaged with an audience.
The right audience for our music is not easy to find; certainly not in Pakistan or even in India. The audience needs to be knowledgeable, well-behaved, aware of proper mehfil decorum, able to concentrate, willing to engage with the performer, and enthusiastic about lavishing praise.
A performance of Hindustani Sangeet is never a solo exercise; its success relies as much on the principal performer as it does on supporting musicians. Proper chemistry between the two is necessary. Accompanying musicians need to be able to read the mind of the main performer, accurately anticipate his needs, and complement the performance in a supportive and unobtrusive manner. They also need to be aware of the unique personality traits and requirements of the musician. This is not easy and varies greatly from one musician to the other.
[quote]A regal Behag by Ustad Rais Khan is the finest piece of instrumental music in the album[/quote]
In an interview, the great tabla maestro UstadMiyan Shaukat Hussain Khan spoke about accompaniment. “Malika E Mausiqui Roshanara Begum liked simple and accurate accompaniment on the tabla,” he said. “She did not want the tabla player to do much more than just play the theka (basic words of a rhythmic cycle). Ustads Fateh and Amanat Ali Khan enjoyed dialogue with the tabla player when they were in the mood for it; otherwise they liked simple accompaniment. Ustads Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan kept the tabla player on his toes throughout a performance. They wanted an intensely engaged and complex accompaniment. I used to accompany all three in a way that satisfied each one of them. That is what a good accompanist does. He does not have a style of his own. He plays in the style that the performing artist wants. Period.”
The sound of most instruments – especially the sarangi, veena and tabla – resonate in unlikely areas in the space around them. Traditional placement of microphones does not work in such scenarios. Most digital recording equipment is designed for western music, and analogue equipment, which is more appropriate for recording our music, is increasingly hard to find and expensive to employ. Since the interaction of the musician with the audience is vital to a good performance, it is necessary to take audience seating into account when setting up for recordings. It is customary in our mehfils for the audience to praise the performers with spontaneous and loud expressions of mashaalah, subhanallah, wah wah, ah ha ha, kya baat hai and other such words. This unique aspect of mehfils cannot be ignored when recording music, neither can improvisation, key in our music which is never written.
A consequence of all these challenges is that a very low number of good recordings are available in the market. It is, then, a great pleasure to listen to the more than thirteen hours of music packaged in the Tehzeeb Foundation’s wonderful set, Indus Raag – Collector’s Edition. The set includes 12 compact discs of music recorded in the five-year-period ending in 2011, along with an accompanying booklet. It may well be one of the finest sets of classical music ever released in Pakistan, almost on par with the 1978 EMI sets of Khawaja Khurshid Anwar’s Raag Mala and Gharanon ki Gaiyiki.
The husband and wife duo behind Indus Raag, Malahat and Sharif Awan, seem to have made all the right decisions about the musicians, accompanists, audience and recording arrangements for Indus Raag.
The set features some of the best musicians, both young and senior, in India and Pakistan today. A number of well known musicians including Ustad Rais Khan, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Gwalior, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Ustad Naseeruddin Khan Saami, Ustad Bashir Khan and Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan are featured in the set along with emerging ones such as Akbar Ali, Asad Qizilbash, Karam Abbas Khan, and Mumtaz Ali Sabzal.
Accompaniment is provided by musicians of very high caliber – Kamal Sabri on sarangi, Ustad Bashir Khan and Shabaz Hussain on tabla, Nafees Ahmad Khan on sitar, Afzal Khan on the harmonium, and several other talented musicians.
The Tehzeeb Foundation has a carefully curated list of members, a lot of whom were present during the performances featured in Indus Raag. Enthusiastic, motivated and attentive, they helped bring out the best in the performers. A number of the performances were attended by senior musicians and musicologists, whose presence encouraged and, to some extent, forced the artists into peak performance. The success of some of the masterpieces in the set owes a great deal to these audiences.
Faisal Rafi was responsible for recording the music for Indus Raag. He records in a simple manner, focusing primarily on capturing sound accurately. He succeeds where many fail – correctly capturing the natural sounds of the sarangi, sitar, banjo, and flute. His greatest achievement in Indus Raag is the recording of three tabla solos, using a single microphone in each, and judiciously leaving the balancing of the sound of the duggi (left hand drum) and dhaavan (right hand drum) to the percussionist instead of handling it in the recording. The one area where he fails is in capturing the reaction of the listeners. The recordings seem incomplete without the customary wahwahs and subhanallahs of the audience.
Sharif Awan made a conscious decision to record most items during live performances; where this was not possible, an audience was invited to the studio. “Our music is not meant for the studio,” says Malahat Awan. “Pakistani and Indian musicians come alive in front of a knowledgeable audience. The usual set-up of a recording studio kills their spirit. We, therefore, recorded all the music in front of a live audience.”
The first disc in the set, aptly titled Historic Jugalbandi, features three items – Aiman, Bhairav and Khammaj – by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Gwalior. A Grammy award winning musician, Bhatt plays the Mohan Veena, a slide guitar that he created himself by modifying the concord archtop guitar. The instrument has a total of nineteen strings: three baaj ke taar (melody strings), four hikaari ke taar (drone strings) and twelve tarabke taar (sympathetic strings). The Mohan Veena is a loud instrument, not ideally suited for a jugalbandi as it tends to drown other music. Thanks to Faisal Rafi’s superior recording technique and Bhatt’s restrained playing, the jugalbandi works well. PanditJi plays as an accompanist when Fateh Ali Khan sings and comes into his own with some great interludes between Khan’s vocals. The three items contain some genuinely magical moments.
Indus Raag features a magnificent khayal in raag Lalit by Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan. He renders the raag with great fidelity evoking the feelings of anguish, longing and sadness associated with the Lalit. The master skillfully uses the shudh and teevarMadhams (natural and sharp versions of the fourth) sequentially in his rendition, making the afore-mentioned hallmark of Lalit, bringing the raag to life. He makes sure that the focus on the vadi sur (dominant note in a raag) shudh Madham does not result in shifting the notional scale in the minds of listeners, causing the raag to sound like Miyan Ki Todi. After a sombre aalap (opening passage of khayal sung without rhythm), Shaggan Khan sings the traditional bandishRain Ka Sapna in vilambit (slow tempo) teentaal (rhythmic cycle of sixteen beats), rendering it in its entirety from sam (the first beat in a rhythmic cycle) to sam. The great Ustad of the Gwalior gharana is one of the few living vocalists who are able to render complete texts of the songs accurately over the complete aavardi (one complete cycle) of a taal. The drut (fast tempo) bandish in Punjabi, Bhanwda Joban Yaar Da, Dooja Nazar Naeen Aanwada (the youth of my beloved captivates me, I am unable to see beauty in anyone else), is one that was composed by Shaggan Khan in his youth after he listened to a Sufi saint sing the mukhra (opening text of a bandish) at an Urs. UstadJi’s rendition of Lalit is a lesson in raagdari (the knowledge of raags), laykari (rhythmic virtuosity), taankari (rendering of musical passages at high speeds), and roohdari (spiritual component of music). This is the best piece of vocal music in the entire set.
A regal Behag by Ustad Rais Khan is the finest piece of instrumental music in the album. One of the greatest sitar players of all times, Rais Khan is hands-down the most melodic sitar player in the world today. The maestro spent many years playing sitar for the Mumbai film industry. During this period, he developed a remarkable ability to render extremely beautiful, short but complex pieces, composed in specific raags, as interludes in film songs. His facility in playing aesthetically pleasing, technically accurate and musically complete pieces during a classical performance adds immense beauty to his music.
Behag is an Audav–Sampooran raag which means that it uses five notes in aarohi (ascent) and seven notes in avrohi (descent). Rikhab (second) and Dhaivat (sixth) are omitted in aarohi, but such rules are for novices; master musicians can always break them. Ustad Rais Khan breaks one often using Dhaivat and Rikhab, in a subtle manner, on several occasions in ascent. This adds a mysterious and romantic element to his rendition. Khan Sahib’s expert use of both the teevar and shudh madhams adds beauty to his authoritative presentation of the raag.
[quote]The ancient raag is mentioned in the holy Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib[/quote]
Indus Raag includes a brilliant Nat Naraini by Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, one of the finest classical vocalists in India and Pakistan today. A student of Ustad Ghazanfar Ali Khan and Ustad Gajoo Khan, he is greatly influenced by Ustad Amir Khan of Indore and consciously follows his style. The rendition of Nat Naraini is masterful. The ancient raag is a part of the Sikh tradition and mentioned in the holy Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib. Two of the ten Sikh gurus, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjun Dev composed shabds (Sikh religious songs) in Nat Naraini. Khan’s rendition of the rang is serious, somber and deeply meditative. He unfolds the raag in vilambitektala (rhythmic cycle of twelve beats) at a leisurely pace, improvising mainly in the madh and mandar saptaks (middle and lower octaves). He places emphasis on expanding the raag, and on melody. The use of alankaar (embellishments) is restrained. He ends the khayal with a short piece in drutteen taal focusing on taankari and the singing of sargam (sol-fa syllable).
Bilaskhani Todi is one of the most important and beautiful morning raags. It was invented and sung by Bilas Khan at the death of his father, Miyan Tan Sen. The raag uses the notes of the Bhaiarvi thath but its structure is derived from Todi. This is not an easy raag to sing and is reserved for master musicians. Ustad Naseeruddin Khan Saami sings a beautiful Bilaskhani in Indus Raag. The gandhar (third) of Bilaskhani is lower than that of Bhaiarvi and known as ati komal gandhar. Saami Sahib’s correct use of the note sets it apart from Bhairavi, making his Bilaskhani a standard for the correct intonation of notes. His meends (glides) creates an atmosphere of sadness, loss, and pathos that is fundamental to the mood of Bilaskhani Todi.
Another good Todi in the set, is Kamal Sabri’s Ahiri Todi on sarangi. The promising son of the great Ustad Sabri Khan performs the raag in a disciplined manner and maintains its unique identity by protecting it from the diluting influences of Ahir Bhairav, Parmeshwari and other Todis.
Two junior musicians make their mark in Indus Raag. The first is the highly talented and prepared vocalist Akbar Ali who sings Darbari, Saraswati and Madhvanti along with his less talented but more popular brother Javed Bashir. At a very young age, Ali displays a keen understanding of music, has a commanding stage presence and demonstrates a noteworthy ability to engage the audience. His rich voice spans a full three octaves and is being cultured under the guidance of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan. Akbar understands tabla and rhythm well and finds it easy to demonstrate superior layakari in his performances. Originally from a family of qawwals, Akbar’s future as a competent khayal singer seems destined. Mumtaz Ali Sabzal, a young musician from Baluchistan, plays Behag and Basant expertly on a modified version of the African banjo. Sabzal has a keen sense for improvisation and a versatility not found often in classical musicians. He plays a folk dhun with the same gusto and proficiency that he displays in his classical pieces.
The set include three tabla solos, each one important in its own right.
The first is a traditional solo of teentaal by Ustad Bashir Khan. One of the finest players of tabla in Pakistan, Bashir Khan is a student of the Ustad Karim Baksh Pairna who was a staff artist at Radio Pakistan in Quetta. The solo is one of the very few high quality solo recordings of Bashir Khan available today and features some rare, heretofore unpublished, compositions of Ustad Budhay Khan of Narowal, Ustad Nabi Baksh Khan Kaalaria and Ustad Karim Baksh Pairna.
Ustad Karim Baksh Pairna was known for two things in addition to his mastery of tabla. One was his intense rivalry with Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa and the other was his knowledge of some exceedingly rare taals including the twenty-five beat Durga and the twenty-nine beat Nau Taal Ki Sawari. His student, Nazir Khan, plays a solo of Durga Taal in Indus Raag. Known more for his accompaniment of folk artist Abida Parveen, Nazir Khan’s handles the complex taal in a competent manner.
[quote]A total lack of gimmickry and artifice in the solo lends it maturity rarely seen in Pakistani musicians of his age[/quote]
The third tabla solo in Indus Raag is a rendition of the ten beat Jhaptaal by Shahbaz Hussain. A student, among others, of Ustad Miyan Shaukat Hussain Khan, Shahbaz shows the greatest promise amongst Pakistan’s young tabla players. Shahbaz is today the best representative of Miyan Sahib’s style of tabla. His solo is dignified, mature and disciplined. He proves that there is more to playing tabla than just ginatkaari (arithmetic) and tezi (speed) by placing an equal emphasis on timing, traditional compositions, and the tonal quality of his instrument. His bols (tabla syllables) are clean, crisp and accurate. He plays authentic compositions of both Delhi and Punjab in the solo, having learnt from masters of both gharanas. His pace is relaxed and leisurely, giving listeners the time to assimilate and enjoy his music. A total lack of gimmickry and artifice in the solo lends it maturity rarely seen in Pakistani musicians of his age. Perhaps the greatest virtue of his tabla is its tonal quality. The sound is rich and commanding, reminiscent of the sound of the inimitable Miyan Sahib.
The set features a competent Shahana Kanhra by Asad Qizilbash on the sarod, a wonderful Shyam Kalyan by Ashraf Sharif Khan on the sitar, an earnest Kafi in Sindh Bhairavi by Shoukat Manzoor, five short but earnest pieces by brothers Jawad and Mazhar Ali Khan, and a scintillating Hemavati by Salamat Hussain on the flute.
Not all items in Indus Raag are great, though. It has its share of lackluster performances, most notably by Hamid Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana, and some decidedly poor ones.
Hamid Ali Khan sings an uninspiring Gunkali and a jaded Kalavati in Indus Raag. The performance is unbecoming for a musician of his lineage. One expects singing of this caliber from younger musicians with significantly less experience; not from a direct descendant of the founders of the Patiala gharana. A singer who showed tremendous promise a few decades ago, Hamid Ali Khan disappoints thoroughly in Indus Raag.
Another musician of the Patiala gharana, Raza Ali Khan, fares much worse in Indus Raag. The grandson of the doyen of the Patiala gharana, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and the son of Ustad Munawwar Ali Khan, to say that Raza Ali Khan is a sad disappointment is an understatement. His Purbi and Kamod have no virtue other than brevity. Again, one expects a whole lot more from a musician of such great lineage. What we get instead is insipid recitations of great bandishes of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan without even a trace of the intricate chaumukhia gaiyiki (versatility in singing encompassing multiple genres) of one of the greatest musicians of all time.
Its few shortcomings notwithstanding, Tehzeeb Foundation’s Indus Raag – Collector’s Edition features a great body of work and bears testimony to magic that is created by the confluence of great musical performance, accompaniment, listening and recording. A job well done.