Contemporary yet traditional
Pandit Bhimsen Joshi”s music was a quest for the infinite mysteries
of this universe
By Sarwat Ali
Very few musicians who had already started to perform by 1947 and became maestros later are still alive and can be counted on the fingertips -- like Pandit Jasraj, Fateh Ali Khan and Ravi Shankar. Most of the current maestros sang or played their first notes in the environment of an independent India or Pakistan.

By Dr Arif Azad

The arc of popular revolt that originated in Tunisia is spreading across the region. For a region that has slumbered in political quiescence for so long, to rise up against long entrenched potentates is very refreshing. Although the spontaneous revolution in Tunisia was unexpected, the rest of the region seems to be imitating the popular uprising pattern on a sustained basis. That Egypt was the next to be influenced by the wave is all the more surprising. Yemen, where demonstrations for political openness are happening, also seems to be falling into this pattern.

This pattern emanates from similar characteristics that mark the region. One of the commonality is the sheer longevity of authoritarian countries.In almost all of these countries of North Africa and the Arab world, the undemocratic leaders have been ensconced in power from two to three decades. The first to fall was Zine-el Abidine Ben Ali, after ruling Tunis for twenty three long years. All of these country”s dictators either came through coups which mutated into one party state. Most of the rulers came from military backgrounds and turned states into security states (Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya). In all of these countries secular government sought western protection against the real or imagined threat of Islamist groupings. This resulted in snuffing out of any political opposition -- Islamist or liberal.

These countries also harbour a sizable youth population which has grown up under the shadow of dictatorships, knowing no freedoms. Moreover, this generation is also adept at harnessing the internet for its social and political aspirations. This techno-savvy youth bulge is unemployed amid rising food prices. Put all these combustible materials together and popular revolution becomes a distinct possibility.

That is exactly what happened in Tunisia where the self-immolation of one unemployed youth attracted the whole nation”s attention to the country”seconomic plight amid affluence of the ruling few. One after another town joined the spontaneous protest movement that soon engulfed the country sending shock waves across the region. Protests were led by the youth and curbed by notorious state security apparatus killing hundreds. This did not deter the protestors from persevering in its  protest mode.

The upshot was the ouster of its Ben Ali from power. The Tunisian revolution was entirely spontaneous with no vanguard party spearheading it. This again proves the long- sustained myth of these secular authoritarian regimes as the last bulwark against lurking Islamism. When the revolution began its journey, the Islamists were nowhere lurking in the front rank of protestors. In Tunisia there were no religious parties represented in the protest movement. This also means that religious parties” threat was exaggerated by the ruling authoritarian regimes to prolong themselves and gather the support of the Western power. These protests were also not led by other liberal or secular forces. This is true of both Egypt and Tunisia where youth formed the bulk of protests and figures with no political background but moral authority became the focal point.

For example, in Egypt Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize Winner, has become the leading opposition figure who has been given mandate by even the Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate on their behalf as well. In this sense these uprisings are the manifestation of popular power. What these two revolutions also share is the similar tactics used by the army. In Tunisia, the refusal of the army to shore up crumbling Ben Ali was the tipping point when the protest movement tasted its success. Similarly, in Egypt, the army has declared people”s demands as legitimate and indicated its intention of not firing on protestors. Yet another similarity that crops up is the identical role of state police and the security forces. In the early phase in Tunisia, plainclothes thugs and state police acted brutally to suppress the protests. In Egypt, we see a copycat brutal suppression and bloody killings perpetrated on protestors. In both cases casualties numbered in hundreds. This only goes to show how these rulers relied on the repressive state apparatus to shore them up.

In the region, all authoritarian regimes have subsisted on creating terror and fear by these police and secret police apparatuses. Against the dogged popular resistance, these state-nurtured repressive apparatuses seems to be melting away, as the case of Egypt shows. The Tunisian revolution was given early boost when Wikileaks only confirmed what every Tunisian knew about corruption in the House of Ben Ali. Al Jazeera”s continuous coverage of the revolutionary upsurge, coupled with the wider use of Facebook and Twitter as mobilising tools, cemented different social groups into one cohesive whole which tipped the balance.

In Egypt, the new media is being used in a similar fashion, with the government clamping down the internet and shutting down internet services to control the contagion of revolution spreading further. Yet protestors have found ways to skirt around these restrictions by spreading the message around. As a result, the streets have become people power festivals, with army troops looking the other way while Hosni Mubarak”s rule totters. This is already evident in the hand over of effective power to Omar Suleman and Hosni Mubrak”s intention not to put him forward in the upcoming elections.

Egypt is almost there in so far as the ouster of Mubarak is concerned, yet the contours of the future are uncertain. This is what worries the West which propped up this regime to provide pillars of stability in the region. Now, with people reclaiming their right in a belated outbreak of revolution, this prospect of people”s democracy is deeply frightening to the West. This is going to become more problematic, as it seems, with Egyptians” seemingly successful revolution. And this virus of revolution is set to spread to other countries given the generic similarities between authoritarian regimes in the region.

For people it is the best of times; for dictators and their Western backers it is the worst of times.


Dr Arif Azad is chief executive of the Network for Consumer Protection.

By Fareeha Rafique

For all those based in Lahore who take an interest in art, the National College of Arts” thesis display is an annual pilgrimage. Offering the opportunity to view work in several disciplines, be it the avid collector or the casual observer, there is enough going on for everyone to take something back with them -- a thought, or a purchase.

Unfortunately though, with the college being located where it is, the political situation does have a bearing on normal, everyday activities. On a Sunday, for example, with a mega procession being taken out, access to the Mall, and hence the college was blocked, making potential visitors turn back. And on a Monday, due to the governor”s presence at the college, high security in the area meant parking was a nightmare.

Once you do actually manage to make your way inside, though, it”s easy to forget all else, and leave the outside world outside. And that is part of what makes art a finer pursuit.

A fair-sized lot had displayed in the textile design section this year. And while one is certainly tempted to take in as many departments as possible in one go, that is a bit of an aesthetic marathon. Focusing on specific areas of interest and going a bit more slowly is worth its while. Lest you might overlook various details at first glance, for example, that even as students there are always those who try and chip in towards the revival of dying crafts.

Like in this year”s textile class, Lalarukh and Tariq Manzoor must be credited for working on innovating in handloom weaving. In every bunch of students there are those who fall back on familiarity as safe ground, and those who opt for a more exploratory approach. That applies to topics of inspiration, modes of execution and materials used as well.

For instance take buttons. Yes, buttons; one student”s display was eye-catching in that she had done her work entirely out of buttons affixed together, row upon row. Her most developed piece was the one in white, with different textures in fabric and tones of white played with to create a design. Nonetheless, though the idea was interesting enough, one was left feeling she could have done more with it.

Themes of inspiration chosen by students are liable to being repetitive, indeed. But at times it is interesting to see how something that seems like the same old topic on paper is given a new twist. Into that category would fall Fatima Abbas” and Noreen Shafiq”s work. The Egyptian theme may be a hackneyed one, but Abbas” panels, primarily in white, were well-composed and tactile enough to seem strong as designs not overshadowed by the inspiration. While Shafiq”s sea-life theme had beautifully designed bags that were the manifestation of not borrowing directly from the source. Her small-scale panels too, with delicate detailing, had turned out as well as the bags, which varied from the clutch to the oversized tote. Again, with Zara Hameed”s work, the mere mention of “truck art” might bring all sorts of visual clichés to mind, whereas her work was refreshingly unusual as well as interesting.

With some students, limiting the quantity of work makes for a cohesive, well-designed range of designs, while with others the same tends to make the effort involved seem minimal. It is, indeed, possible to have a limited number of items/designs on display, be they large-scale or small-scale, as long as the work shows a thought process that is mature. Other times, no matter how large you go, that is not adequate disguise for lack of input.

Phool Zaidi”s “micro architecture” work did not, however, suffer by being blown up to mural proportions; in fact, that was what gave it necessary zing – a microchip inspired mural – playing with proportions by its very nature. Similarly, Saira Imtiaz who worked in paintings inspired by Neil Eje”s therapeutic music used scale to her advantage. The white, openness of her large canvases together with the translucent quality of painting imbued her work with a harmonious, peaceful mood essential to the theme.      

And while on the issue of themes, one of the more unusual ones to be seen this year was Venetian Carnivals. Vibrant as the mood of her inspiration, in fuchsias and magentas, it was a good change to have an out-of-the-box topic, as it was to have someone trying to merge African Kuban art with influences from Azad Kashmir. It is, indeed, the unusual thought that shall keep infusing a breath of fresh air into creative processes. May that be something as abstract as “self-illusion,” rendered in airy, porous white textures – larger-than-life bubbles cast in net of varying textures, used to create panels and an organic lamp. In contrast to work by a couple of students who opted for the minimalism of white, was the kindergarten art inspired display. Again, no less successful, in a colour palette that was cheerfully garish, the sheer variation of work on display is what shows that the creative wheels should keep turning, and individuality encouraged.

A drawback to the thesis display at NCA every year is that with the work being spread all over campus (and in Tollinton as well) it is a tad baffling for visitors to try and find their way around. It would certainly be a good move to have a help desk at the gate to guide people to the relevant department”s display that they would like to get to. It is all rather disorganised with one trying to ask random students for info on what is displayed where (notwithstanding the few posters by individual departments at the entrance guiding one). Plus the fact that timings are not regulated so no matter when you pop in, some of the displays are likely to be shut – for no apparent reason other than the fact that the student decided to take off.

Minor inconveniences that are a bother for the eager visitor. Together with the help desk, it would lend a more organised air if a comprehensive list and map to what is displayed in which areas were to be put up at the gate – along with display timings. Also, it would be great to have a helpline number to call for information on display timings, press queries etc. And basic info next to each display ought to be mandatory -- the student”s name and topic; surprisingly enough put up by just a few.

  By Quddus Mirza

Pakistan kay Saat Musawwir
Author: Shafi Aqeel
First printing: January 2011
Publisher: Academy Bazyaft, Karachi
Price: Rs800


Many years ago, I was assigned to study Siddhartha by Herman Hesse during one of my classes at NCA. Even though there was an English translation available in the college library, I managed to find the Urdu version translated by Asif Farrukhi. The experience of reading the story in Urdu with a lot of Hindi words was incredible; it felt as if I was reading the original text, and the actual book by Hesse written in German, as well as the English version, was mere translation! The reason for this illusion or misreading lay in the context of the tale. Although Siddhartha was first published in German, because of the background of the narrative and characters, the Indianised Urdu text appeared more authentic, whereas versions in other languages seemed strange and alienated.

This is exactly the situation one witnesses with books written on Pakistani art in English. Even though we have a number of publications dealing with different aspects of Pakistani art and having different academic worth, their content is primarily about an art world that employs Urdu as its language of expression. Somehow, these commendable endeavours seem to lack a certain degree of authenticity.

This observation becomes acute while leafing through the latest book on Pakistani art by Shafi Aqeel. His fifth on the subject, “Pakistan kay Saat Musawwir” includes chapters on Sadequain, Ahmed Saeed Nagi, Hanif Ramay, Iqbal Mehdi, Ghulam Rasul, Abrar Tirmizi and Gul Muhammed Khatri. All of these painters were author”s friends, so the book is a blend of his memories of these individuals and his views on their art. Interestingly, on these pages one encounters super famous personalities like Sadequain along with figures such as Tirmizi and Khatri, who are not much known in the art world. However, despite the disparity in their standings, the author creates intimate portraits of these personalities, with anecdotes that are entertaining, revealing and relevant.

Like his previous publications on Pakistani art, in this one too Shafi Aqeel comes across more as a fiction writer than a chronicler of artists” lives. He has created personal, engaging and insightful sketches of his painter friends, yet at no point one feels his text has an exaggerated tone or is adorned with extraneous praises. On the other hand, at places, he discusses the shortcomings of his buddies, such as mentioning the incident of Ghulam Rasul”s sending his own work to an exhibition abroad, instead of other painters who were invited by the foreign gallery organisers; similarly he discloses eccentricities of these painters, who were indulgent in “prohibited” activities.

The book seems like a believable document on the lives and art of our painters. It provides useful information on the history of art, establishment of galleries, beginning of painterly calligraphy and earlier phases of these artists. Most crucially, Aqeel”s account of the last days of some of these men is valuable because often a painter is put into oblivion once his heydays are over. In that sense, it is important to know about the life pattern of a creative person -- his positive and negative features, his fascinations, professional achievements, prejudices and preferences -- in order to construct a complete picture.

This aspect of infusing contradictory dimensions of a person in order to portray him as honestly as possible has to do with Shafi Aqeel”s frank temperament as well as his choice of medium. Aqeel today stands apart among our art writers because he has chosen a language that has the largest readership and widest appeal. That has made the publication more relevant, reliable and authentic.

What Shafi Aqeel is trying to present -- through this volume and with his four other books -- is a neglected aspect of our art discourse. He may not have been conscious of this but gradually this discipline, like other areas of knowledge and professions, is being confined to a specific English-speaking section of society. There are exceptions in the form of several modern and contemporary artists who were educated at state-run Urdu medium schools. But with the classroom education in art institutions, art criticism, gallery talk and collectors” discourse being all conducted in English, our art is heading towards a ghetto mentality/status as far as the general public is concerned.

Not surprisingly, all the painters included in the book by Aqeel were trained in Urdu medium institutions. A couple of letters in Urdu by some of them are printed in the last pages of the book. Sadequain, Ramay and Tirmizi wrote (poetry and prose) in Urdu, Rasul published essays on Pakistani art in Urdu, and Mehdi was associated with Urdu magazines (Akhbar-e-Jehan and Subrang Digest) as a regular illustrator. In that way, writing about them in Urdu is more appropriate besides reaching out to the majority.

At the moment, Shafi Aqeel is rendering this service solely, but this needs to be expanded in order to extend the audience of art and connect the creative activity to a larger and local public.


Contemporary yet traditional

By Sarwat Ali

Very few musicians who had already started to perform by 1947 and became maestros later are still alive and can be counted on the fingertips -- like Pandit Jasraj, Fateh Ali Khan and Ravi Shankar. Most of the current maestros sang or played their first notes in the environment of an independent India or Pakistan.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, who died on January 24, 2011 at age 88, had started to perform before independence but by the time this region was divided his genius flowered in this new atmosphere of freedom. And he became one of the doyens of kheyal gaiki in the subcontinent. Though he was born in Karnataka, he developed a penchant for Hindustani music when he heard the recording of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and decided what course he had to take. After an anguished struggle, he eventually became the shagird of Sawai Gandharva who was an able shagird of the Kirana Gharana.

This elementary eclecticism, which Bhimsen Joshi demonstrated, was also the chief characteristic of Abdul Karim Khan and Sawai Gandharva. Abdul Karim Khan was from Kirana but during the course of his long illustrious life he ventured forth into Marathi culture while also being enamoured of Carnatic music. His recordings back his fascination for the other musical forms and systems other than his own.

Usually there is a tendency among musicians especially the ones associated with classical music to stress on the purity of raag or the style, which usually makes them very exclusionist -- closing them to whatever else is happening around them. This dismissive attitude has been the drying up of quite a few classical traditions but some have kept their ears open. During the days of Abdul Karim Khan, the centre of music patronage was shifting from the princely states to the new commercial centres like Maharashtra. For the new emerging classes and sections of the population adjustments in musical forms had to be made without compromising on quality.

The shagirds of the Kirana Gharana too were more eclectic in character. Sawai Gandharva did not restrict himself to the purity of the classical tradition but looked around for inspiration from other musical sources. His exposure to the theatre too was responsible for looking out of the box, dappling in forms and styles that were alien to his musical upbringing. But he welded them all to develop his own style that was only in one essential manner connected to that of his ustad. He inspired others as well like Feroze Dastur and Gangubai Hangal.

India became independent and the music scene went through a seismic change. The princely states disappeared and the state of India took the place as patrons of the arts but it now had more to do with the refurbishment of the image of India as prompted by its official version. The young musicians and vocalists had much to cheer about. The cultural parameters had shifted and changed. Bhimsen Joshi held the middle ground between the callings of the contemporary and tradition. And he was immensely successful with a voice that moved easily over the three registers, a repertoire of raags and bandishes that was envy of most. He was greatly influenced by his senior contemporaries like Ustad Amir Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar and Begum Akhtar. He could elaborate on the raag in the lower register because of the bass quality but with an equal facility move to the upper register to retain the musical edge of the tonal structure. His music was a quest for the infinite mysteries of this universe that he was able to communicate to the audiences through the gradual and studied expansion of the raag with due emphasis on the nuances of the important notes.

The principal export of India became culture, high culture and many sought the avenues of the West to gain international recognition and fortune and most who succeeded were instrumentalists -- the vocalists had to take a back seat as the language became a barrier between them and the Western audiences. But still some success was achieved in introducing the classical tradition beyond the boundaries of the subcontinent.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi could not be put down on his understanding of the spiritual raags and the virtuosities involved with their expositions especially in the kheyal. Though he branched out in other forms like the thumri and bhajan, the forte remained kheyal with the repertoire he had acquired and internalised from the soundness of his tradition being totally syncretic in character. He had the good sense to imbibed and receive from all possible sources without putting ideological constraints first. He remained the representative of a tradition or cultural strand that voiced a sensibility with overarching catholic tones.

Some of the raags were his favourites like shudh kalyan, darbari, bhimpalasi, puriya dhanashri and sarang. He also cut a jugalbandi recording with the famous Carnatic vocalist Balamuralikrishna.

He was deeply committed to Sawai Gandharva and after he passed away in the early 1950s Bhimsen Joshi took upon himself the responsibility of organising a festival in his name. This eventually became a very sought-after and prestigious forum for the musicians, especially, classical musicians to perform and except the very last when he fell very ill it continued to be held with aplomb.

He received many accolades, awards and medals. He was respected and praised without reservation by the novices and initiated. The list is long including Bharat Ratna, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Academy, Karnataka Ratna, Maharashtra Bhushan, Swami Haridas Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Delhi Government.





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