in memory
Iqbal Bano's equation with words and notes
Her death has robbed South Asia of a great voice that changed the course of music in the region
By Sarwat Ali
Two of Iqbal Bano's contributions stand out against a whole backdrop of high quality singing. First her choice in the middle of her career to switch to singing the ghazal in the lower and the middle registers and then her singing of the nazm.

review
Painting with the camera
Aasim Akhtar, Ayesha Vellani and Tehmina Ahmed at Koel Gallery, Karachi have shown us what we may see but would never observe
By Nafisa Rizvi
Perhaps the singular feature that separates the genres of photography and art is the degree of intervention, though unquantifiable, between the artist and his/her subject. That photography is a form of art is no longer a debate, and for sceptics we may just say that a photographer wields a camera instead of brush or knife.

Time frames
Ayaz Jokhio questions the consensus on time in his new body of work
By Quddus Mirza
"Nowadays, we are all children of a clock civilization, but we are still sometimes remarkably imprecise in how we measure time." -- Umberto Eco
People are often seen adjusting their watches to the correct time. The notion of "correct" time is so firmly ingrained in our minds that one starts believing in the reality of time as dictated by the clock, dividing day and night into 24 hours, 1440 minutes and 86400 seconds. We don't realise that it is an artificial entity -- invented by humans but imposed by the authority of the state.

 

 

Iqbal Bano's equation with words and notes

Her death has robbed South Asia of a great voice that changed the course of music in the region

By Sarwat Ali

Two of Iqbal Bano's contributions stand out against a whole backdrop of high quality singing. First her choice in the middle of her career to switch to singing the ghazal in the lower and the middle registers and then her singing of the nazm.

Iqbal Bano got her training at home as is the wont with hereditary musicians and her mother Zohra Bai of Rohtak was a very famous singer of her time. Ustad Chand Khan and Ustad Kareem Khan further honed her singing. After partition she moved to Pakistan and lived for many years in Multan before finally settling down in Lahore.

After a successful but short stint with the films she was happy singing the ghazals. Before her introduction to the films she had emerged as a promising exponent of the kheyal and thumri in particular and had already performed on the radio before the creation of Pakistan. But in this new state, in the last 50 years, as ghazal emerged as a popular form of singing in Pakistan, some of the most outstanding exponents reached the apex of this scale -- making in the process significant contributions in the evolution of this particular style.

Iqbal Bano initially sang in the upper register. With the passage of time she began to stress more on the middle register that gave her an opportunity to embellish her singing with graces. Her initial phase in the 1950s and 1960s was her full-throated one, where she threw her voice in the old manner. In the 1970s, she started to explore the lower and the middle octave, which gave more richness to her singing. Most of the memorable numbers of Ghalib and Faiz were first sung by her in this period.

In Pakistan, the classical forms did not receive the patronage that was their due, and with the migration of a large section of the population, the new forms that found favour with the urban audiences were word-centred rather than those exclusively reliant on the note. As the higher classical forms prospered, the emphasis moved from the word to the note.

The forms of dhurpad and kheyal from the 15th to the 20th century were totally obsessed with the correct sequence and intonation of notes which pushed lyrics to the background -- poetry at best became incidental, employed in service of the musical requirement. These elevated classical forms of pure music became arcane and hence elitist from which the common person, more attuned to the word, was left gasping at the pure abstraction of the musical composition.

Ghazal was considered a happy compromise for as a poetical form too it had greater links with the Central Asian and Persian literary traditions. Ghazal, however, had survived on the more popular forums like the salons of dancing girls that were more accessible to people. The audience was admitted on the basis of their ability to pay rather than rank, position or any other societal eminence. These dancing girls or courtesans also helped embellish their performance with dance; therefore, the old artistic trinity of poetry, music and dance was preserved in the more popular salons by the practitioners of performing arts.

The challenge was to lift the ghazal in terms of music from its plebeian status. The singers who were trained in the classical forms, apt to sing kheyal and thumri, brought their musical knowledge to the singing of ghazal. This enriched musically beyond measure the ghazal gaiki as gradually all the embellishments that were part of the thumri ang found their way into this new evolving form. The more romantic strain in our gaiki, which is possibly expressed in the short behlavas, murkis and zamzamas, were creatively employed in this new emerging form.

In Pakistan, three great exponents of the ghazal gaiki, Iqbal Bano, Fareeda Khanum, and Mehdi Hasan have contributed in many similar and dissimilar styles to the evolution of ghazal gaiki in the last 50 years or so. They drew inspiration from the development of ghazal gaiki of Gohar Jan Mukhtar Begum and Begum Akhter, who had made great contribution to the development of the ghazal gaiki in the earlier part of the century. Three other exponents of the ghazal gaiki, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Rafiq Ghaznavi and Muhammed Hussain Nagina also enriched it. Some other names should also be mentioned in this regard. Shamshad Bai was an acclaimed ghazal singer as was Bhai Chhela. And who can forget that Payare Sahib was held in high esteem. Actually, it was Ustad Barkat Ali Khan who brought the thumri ang of singing into the ghazal gaiki and hence started a new trend that was to characterise this form for the next many years to come.

Another side of Iqbal Bano emerged with her rendition of Faiz's Dasht e tanhai main. Composed by Mehdi Zaheer, she sang it without compromising on the quality of music. Usually, in singing great poetry, the predominance of the note usually dictates, the rendition only follows as an explanation of the written word. It needs a great singer to avoid playing a subordinate role in the equation. Many of the great vocalists in the past, in order to avoid this tension of the word and the note, used to sing their own lyrics that they composed or of some poet not that well-known.

But when the great vocalist handles the lyrics, it is the primacy of the note that becomes the overriding factor. It is no surprise that lesser singers cannot add to great lyrics because their command of the craft is wanting, while a great vocalist can create a totally new field of intuitive comprehension. This unity of the word and the note has been arrived at, probably not in some pointed, directed fashion, but really as a synthesis of a sensibility when exposed itself in totality.

The nazm Dasht e tanhai main with its ambiguity and mystifying sense of loss left a diffused impression which probably needed a musical discovery, more apt to exploring the unknown and the unformulated.

Then in the 1980s, Iqbal Bano rendered Hum daikhain ge, composed by Israr Ahmed, which was more a rousing tarana, in keeping with the lyrics, which for many became an anthem to be sung and chanted. Its rhythmic accompaniment and its effervescent tempo went along with the lyric, perhaps, more in sync with an everyday understanding of the equation between the word and the note.

In a listening culture fast switching to first receiving the word and then the note the peril of music becoming a literal transfer is ever present. Iqbal Bano demonstrated how to manage a changing culture of listening without compromising on quality.

 

review

Painting with the camera

Aasim Akhtar, Ayesha Vellani and Tehmina Ahmed at Koel Gallery, Karachi have shown us what we may see but would never observe

By Nafisa Rizvi

Perhaps the singular feature that separates the genres of photography and art is the degree of intervention, though unquantifiable, between the artist and his/her subject. That photography is a form of art is no longer a debate, and for sceptics we may just say that a photographer wields a camera instead of brush or knife.

The show titled "Dissolving Shadows" at Koel Gallery, Karachi (April 16 to May 7, 2009) is a collection of black and white photographs by three photographers: Aasim Akhtar, Ayesha Vellani and Tehmina Ahmed. Of these, Akhtar and Vellani are regular exhibitors and participate in solo and group shows frequently. Tehmina Ahmed has been handling the camera for decades but her career as a veteran journalist deprives her of the time and opportunity to pursue her creative bend more recurrently.

Ayesha Vellani's photographs taken at a brick-making kiln in rural Pakistan depict a stark, dismal landscape that speaks of impecunious depravation. But the narrative contains more than a bleak setting because the people who populate the terrain live out their lives in Vellani's pictures. The effect is almost one of moving film, contrary to the more common belief that the still is the capture of the "decisive moment". A woman takes a break from work and sits on a mound of raw earth to breastfeed her baby while her other youngsters look on. A girl of about 8 cooks chapattis over a hot fire for her little siblings. The men carrying shovels are silent and spectral, silhouetted against the smoky cloud of heat and dust that rises from the buried kilns, we are reminded of the myriads of stories of premature ailments, and deaths that kiln workers suffer. In another dramatic photograph, a donkey succumbs to the weight of its overloaded haul of bricks and is pinned under its yoke on the ground while its owner makes a desperate attempt to haul it up on its feet again. In this terrain, neither man nor beast is free of the yoke.

Vellani's photographs evoke abysmal horror at the fact that this is present day reality for many people in rural Pakistan. Without the photo of the children glued to a small TV set in their mud bricked house, we may have been convinced into believing that it is an archival picture from 18th century pre-industrial era. Vellani's pictures are testament to the physical edge of the camera over the canvas. In conceptual terms, they equally invite thoughtful provocation and challenge viewer perception. But the camera convinces us that this has to be real.

Tehmina Ahmed's photographs of the ajrak makers are particularly striking. Bony but muscled, the men at the dye vats heave out mounds of cloth, heavier for the liquid they hold. The picture of the man in front of a log fire who looks over his shoulder while he waits for the cauldron to heat is a timeless piece and could easily be a black and white version of a Frans Hals painting, simulating with the help of the camera, the deceptive sketchbook immediacy that Hals was so adept at creating after labouring over the painting assiduously.

There are to be found some interesting grainy textures and vignettes in Ahmed's pictures, which she says, are a result of high-speed film, elements she chooses to retain with full advantage.

Another significant work by Ahmed is that of a close-up of the late Rafi Anwar, Pakistan's sole classical dance instructor, surrounded by a coterie of eager children. At first glance it seems the children are following him in prayer but the title of the photograph says otherwise and we realise that he is teaching them a classical dance pose in which the lotus flower is shown to be budding and blooming. There is a complex emotive resonance in Rafi's face, a mix of dejection and hope, which is what he must have suffered during his years of being in a profession that has never found favour in Pakistan except with a few elite. It is Tehmina Ahmed's sensitivity as a photographer that she is able to draw upon these emotions suffused in a scene long past and makes it live for us again.

Photographer/artist Aasim Akhtar is conqueror of the vast and the majestic. His sweeping landscapes speak of the munificence of the cosmic terrain and his richly toned prints render the visual opus in sumptuous detail, in which Mies van der Rohe saw God. In literary terms, Akhtar's pictures would be a collection of short stories, each pulsating with a different set of characters, picking up a new thread of event or circumstance and coming to a dramatic close at the end. Yet they are all imbued with the identifiable sensibility of an artist who has many more stories in his repertoire.

One of Akhtar's pictures shows a rocky chain of hills upon which the sun shines selectively, endowing some peaks with light and others with shadow as if the Gods were playing hide and seek with their creations. In another, a common labourer has carried a crucible to the peak of a mountain where he has been instructed by men to create a concrete structure, but instead, he decides to make it an offering to a superior being and holds it high over his head in adulation.

Akhtar's pictures of dilapidated structures of yore and decrepit havelis of the past are truly his epic pieces. It is hard to imagine that the images have not been artificially calibrated or assembled in order to create the perfect composition but then if we know anything of Aasim Akhtar's work, we will remember that he is a seer in every sense of the word. His visual sensory perceptions pick up on clues that lead to the places from where the precise picture will offer itself for documentation and visual inventiveness. Akhtar's picture of the potter's yard where freshly baked urns and pithoi are lined up in the open courtyard is taken from the inside of the dwelling looking outward creating a natural black frame. The voyeuristic photograph of the innocent child bathing in a courtyard is 'embellished' by shadows striking the pillars at oblique angles, perfect in their rigorous placement.

A significant photograph is one of a decaying haveli wall which was probably the inside of a private chamber, now denuded and stripped of all isolation by the ravages of time, shows up jharoka-like structural ornamentation and concrete shelves, dignified by the presence of cooing pigeons.

Aasim Akhtar's images represent a meticulous and sustained effort to offer romanticism and order within chaos and turmoil. Although his attempts are nostalgic, they are free of sentimentality, an element that adds to the sensory excitement of his pictures. The erratic tone and shifting values of sunlight and shadow become, in Aasim's hands, precisely-tuned and vigorously animated works of differing shades of white, black and grey and can never really be relegated to the label of a black and white photograph.

If ever there has been an attack on photography for usurping natural imagination by serving up "ready-made" images, this exhibition provides attestation to the contrary, for the photographers have shown us what we may see but would never observe without their intervention.


Time frames

Ayaz Jokhio questions the consensus on time in his new body of work

By Quddus Mirza

"Nowadays, we are all children of a clock civilization, but we are still sometimes remarkably imprecise in how we measure time." -- Umberto Eco

People are often seen adjusting their watches to the correct time. The notion of "correct" time is so firmly ingrained in our minds that one starts believing in the reality of time as dictated by the clock, dividing day and night into 24 hours, 1440 minutes and 86400 seconds. We don't realise that it is an artificial entity -- invented by humans but imposed by the authority of the state.

States that exist on two sides of the international border deliberately keep the time zones different, even if not required. Though, once established, time in a country is regarded as the ultimate truth and hence the resistance to the government's decision to move the clocks forward or backward by an hour. People find it hard to see time, a constant entity, shifted on the whims of a few individuals.

Ayaz Jokhio questions this consensus on time in his new body of work. In his mixed media installation "Old Father Time", a series of seven ordinary round clocks is displayed on the wall. At first, the clocks appear usual and familiar, with their identical size and brand, but gradually one starts deciphering the other meaning of the work -- a content exciting as well as exhausting for a spectator. It unfolds the transitory nature of Time and investigates rather attacks in a polite fashion -- the dogmas about Time and its impartiality, objectivity, universality and 'truth'. Ironically (unlike the lobby of a five star hotel) all the clocks show one time, but the denotation of time is not identical in each machine. Some numbers on the dials -- the demarcation or division of hours -- have been painted over in a few clocks. This process of erasure has been done in sequence; in the first piece one sees the normal clock with all numbers intact, but as one proceeds, the hour hands as well as several digits begin to diminish. So much so that in the last one, no hands and only a few numbers are visible on the empty dial of the wall clock.

This gradual reduction of hour hands and swift greying of dials from bright white to a brownish, worn-out tone affirm two separate things, yet connected to each other: that the idea of time is embedded in our psyche in a manner that we can not liberate ourselves from this division; and that with the passage of time shown in diverse directions, the artist investigates the existence of time and its classification into past, present and future.

Another work "Quoting Jorge Luis Borges Who Quotes Saint Augustine" alludes to this inquiry -- of the nature of time. The work, a digital print on canvas, is based on a page from Borges' Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University (collected as This Craft of Verse), in which the Argentinian author mentions time with reference to poetry, while citing Saint Augustine (What is time? If people do not ask me what time is, I know. If they ask me what it is, then I don't know). The passage picked from the book is printed with highlighted mark on the lines about time. This work takes the viewer into the Borgesian labyrinth of ideas within ideas, composed in a perpetual and recurring cycle. Borges delivered the lecture in 1967-1968, while the saying of Saint Augustine must have been from fifth century A.D. The book of lectures was printed in 2000, and the artist decided to make a work out of it in 2009. So the whole debate about time, if traced, includes various conjunctures of time captured in one piece.

The old, rather ancient, text conveys a nostalgic feeling -- of words initially uttered by someone, further quoted by a writer and then used by the artist. Thus the chain of actions formulates a connection in time. It also indicates the aspect of representing, recording and respecting an ordinary person's intervention or participation (often subversive) in a work of art or literature. The practice of underlining or highlighting a segment of text, circling a certain character in a photograph or crisscrossing specific parts of body in a picture printed in magazines or local newspapers is usual in our surroundings.

Ayaz repeats this act by highlighting Borges' words, through drawing a red circle around his dad's face from an old group photo (in Artist's Father); and making crude undergarments in black pen on Goya's famous painting "Naked Maja", printed digitally on a canvas, like a page from an art history book, with a few lines underneath the work (in "Clothed Maja"). Much as we may like to deduce some latent socio-political content in the last piece, probably a comment on our moral conduct, these works reveal his other concerns too. More importantly, it affirms the postmodernist notion that each new expression is nothing but an added, corrected, revised version of things that have already been made or created. Thus, associating with non-artists, Jokhio fabricates his art works by introducing little marks of identification, prominence, memory or censorship. However this leads to a paradox. While in the digital prints, Jokhio adds marks on already 'finished' images, in his installation, he eliminates previously placed numbers, with only a few digits left on the dials of last clocks in the row. Thus he forges a multiplicity of time, in which real time and reality fades into confusion. Another sign of the postmodern period we live in!

The solo exhibition opens today at Grey Noise Gallery, Lahore and will continue until May 15, 2009.

 

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