Musician scholar
Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi who became a practitioner to understand music
By Sarwat Ali
Many scholars and intellectuals inspired by the power of music, particularly classical music, take to the learning of music, acquiring sufficient understanding through an acquisition of the craft, to become practitioners themselves. One such writer, journalist, translator and musicologist was Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi.

A day after Federal Interior Minister Rahman Malik announced ban on five Baloch militant organisations and threatened targeted operations by the security forces against the armed separatists in Balochistan, provincial Finance Minister Mir Asim Kurd survived a suicide bombing at his Quetta residence that killed his two security guards and a servant.

Another Provincial Minister and PPP Parliamentary Leader in the Balochistan Assembly Mir Sadiq Ali Umrani said the bombing was a reaction to Rahman Malik’s statement. Arguing that the use of force wasn’t the solution to Balochistan’s problems, he complained that the PPP-led coalition government in the province was trying to improve the situation through a reconciliation process, but the Interior Minister’s statement would make it worse.

Both Rahman Malik and Sadiq Umrani belong to the PPP — the former is a lateral entrant to the party from Punjab and the latter is an old and diehard worker from Balochistan where the party has been traditionally weak. That they differ widely on the issue of tackling the Balochistan situation explains the inability of the ruling PPP leadership belonging to different provinces to come up with a uniform policy.

It isn’t clear if the suicide bomber trying to kill Asim Kurd was reacting to Rahman Malik’s tough statement against the Baloch militants or that he was sent by one of the five militant organisations now outlawed to accomplish the mission. Unlike the Islamic and jehadi militants, the armed Baloch separatists aren’t known to train and use suicide bombers in their fight against the security forces, government functionaries and other opponents. It is even possible that Islamic militants tried to eliminate the provincial minister in a bid to further destabilise Balochistan. Or Asim Kurd’s tribal opponents could be involved in the bid on his life. His own statement after the attack that he knew his enemies was meaningful and it could mean he was under threat from people known to him.

Still it was obvious that Rahman Malik’s aggressive posture during his Quetta press conference against the Baloch militants was an act of provocation for the latter and signalled a new phase in the government’s efforts to overcome the low-level insurgency plaguing Balochistan. Though he is known to make utterances that sometimes embarrass him and the PPP-led federal government, it is unlikely that he would have announced a ban on the five Baloch militant groups and empowered the provincial government to give police powers to the Frontier Corps (FC) to maintain law and order in Balochistan without the consent of the higher civil and military authorities. In fact, these actions were interpreted by many Balochistan observers as a departure from the PPP government’s largely conciliatory approach towards the Baloch problem. It was felt that the Aghaz-i-Haqooq-i-Balochistan package under which the Baloch people were offered certain rights and incentives wasn’t working and, therefore, new administrative measures were being taken to deal with militants involved in acts of sabotage and target killings, particularly of Punjabi settlers and labourers in Balochistan.

It is strange that someone like Rahman Malik, who lacks credibility and the stature needed to deal with serious issues concerning militancy and political rights demanded by ethnic groups, has been given a free hand to make important statements and take major decisions. It shows the bankruptcy of the PPP leadership that a former law enforcement officer instead of a seasoned politician has been tasked to deal with sensitive issues having a bearing on the future of the federation of Pakistan. Obsessed with his media coverage, Rahman Malik often makes statements that go beyond his mandate and have to be retracted. So often in the past, he claimed and was proved wrong while announcing the death of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders in military action in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas. This was none of his job as the military has been conducting these operations and it has a full-fledged public relations department to inform the media and the public about the battleground situation.

In case of the Balochistan situation, Rahman Malik was initially reported to have said that an operation on the lines of Swat and Malakand would be launched against the militants in Balochistan. Subsequently, he backtracked by arguing that it would be a targeted operation and the security forces would act wherever the situation worsened in Balochistan. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had to intervene to do some damage-control and make it clear that no Swat-like military action was being undertaken in Balochistan. But the damage had been done and the Baloch militants, already in no mood to give up their armed campaign for their rights and eventual independence, were said to be toughening their stance and considering retaliation.

Rahman Malik’s announcement regarding the plan to give more powers to the FC in Balochistan was not only criticised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a number of Baloch and other political leaders, it also drew flak from senior PPP leader Senator Raza Rabbani, who has been closely involved in government’s efforts to stabilise the situation in the province. He expressed concern over the move and said it would have an adverse effect on the PPP leadership’s efforts to end the sense of deprivation among the people of Balochistan. Complaining that he wasn’t consulted on the issue, Rabbani argued that the situation in Balochistan had started improving after curtailing the FC’s powers and removing the roadside checkpoints manned by FC soldiers. It was Senator Rabbani who presented the Aghaz-i-Haqooq-i-Balochistan in his capacity as Chairman of the Parliament’s Special Committee on Balochistan in the parliament’s joint sitting last November and won appreciation for leading efforts to defuse the volatile situation in the province.

The Balochistan-specific measures announced by Interior Minister Rahman Malik were not only ill-timed when Pakistan was reeling from the impact of the devastating floods and needed to focus on coping with the natural disaster, but were also meaningless. The five Baloch militant organisations that were outlawed are illegal and secret and its members cannot be bothered or affected by a symbolic ban on their activities. In fact, these groups have grown in number and size in recent years and the ban could prompt them to try harder to stay in business. The government and its intelligence agencies have also been clueless on many occasions about the strength, hideouts and funding of these organisations. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the oldest and probably strongest of the five groups, survived the death of its head Balach Marri and has many adherents operating from hideouts in Balochistan and Afghanistan. The Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) led by Allah Nazar Baloch, the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) commanded by late Nawab Akbar Bugti’s grandson Brahmadag Bugti, the Baloch United Liberation Front (BULF), the Lashkar-i-Balochistan and the Baloch Mussallah Defaee Tanzim have all been active and claiming responsibility for bombings, kidnappings and target killings.

Freezing their bank accounts and other assets is also a symbolic step as militant groups, whether Islamic or secular, don’t operate bank accounts and instead use informal ways and front organisations to raise and maintain funds.

The Balochistan issue is primarily political in nature and needs to be resolved accordingly. Five military operations since 1947 have been unable to resolve the issue and as a consequence more Baloch youngsters have been radicalised and militant groups waging war against the state have multiplied. The government and the military no doubt have to take action against armed groups challenging the writ of the state and indulging in acts of terrorism, but the focus must remain on politically engaging the Baloch political forces willing to operate in the framework of the federation of Pakistan and granting rights to the estranged youth in a bid to draw them away from armed struggle.


Cause and effect: The September 9 attack on Provincial Finance Minister Asim Kurd in Quetta (above) leads Rehman Malik (right) to  ban five militant organisations in Balochistan .


Somewhere in the small works of Risham Syed lies a big leap into the history of art. Art in its earliest form, as normally believed, existed inside the caves at Lascaux in France. Here, approximately 15000 years ago, man drew pictures of his prey — animals of different kinds on cave walls. Regardless of the purpose behind this archaic endeavour (which according to historians was a magical rite for capturing the ‘spirit’ of the beasts), the fact that images were drawn on the surface of the wall seemed a choice exercised by ancient man and a practise that has survived to this day.

The custom of decorating buildings from inside and outside with patterns and motifs runs throughout history and across cultures. In the Western art, wall has been important in shaping the imagery and ideas of artists. The Renaissance painters aimed to create a window in the wall through which a segment of reality could be seen by the viewers. From the famous Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci to many other art pieces, artists have been placing their works on the wall in a way that the portion of the wall looked a segment of outside world. Probably the later fashion of putting canvases on walls is a continuation of that scheme; and every time we hang a work of art on the wall, we revert to the tradition of treating art as a substitute of or a niche in the wall.

In that sense, wall has been a challenge for painters because whatever one makes is bound to end up on one or the other wall. So an artist dealing with the image in front of him is also conscious of the wall because what he ends up making is in fact a small version or section of the wall. In Risham Syed’s new work, this presence of wall is evident as she has focused on depicting large walls of houses in our new localities. Most of her paintings, each 4 by 6 inches, comprise a large wall at the back of a building, along with a few details of background and landscape.

Meticulously rendered, these works — which exist between a miniature painting and a picture post card in terms of size — suggest two aspects in the aesthetics of Syed. On a formal level, the predominant motif of an uninterrupted wall reasserts the nature/surface of the painting which is flat. Besides, the walls which are often left unpainted or are dabbed with tar, present a texture that resembles an abstract painterly canvas. The unplanned layers of paint and the irregularities on the plastered facade provide a range of interesting subjects for the sensitive painter.

Beyond the formal aspects though, the choice of these walls as the main motif indicates something more permanent and profound. The walls are selected not just for their aesthetic characteristic but as a conceptual preference. All the walls share a common feature — of being back walls which are a part of the house but normally not considered or treated as such, neither whitewashed nor maintained. Somehow these embody a contradiction, because these are the back views or blocked views. Like poor relatives, these walls are a part of a family structure but always pushed behind or hidden from public gaze.

These walls can also be seen as a metaphor for less privileged section of society. Actually, both poor relatives and unkempt back walls are result of a fast urbanised society. It is only in the urban architecture that this wall is erected, which is meant to face or join the rear walls of other houses. Thus one notices these walls in an area that is still developing. Likewise, in a village or a semi rural town, the societal fabric does not make one ashamed of poor relatives.

Risham Syed’s new work seems to be a celebration of these walls which represent less valuable, least glamorous and unsophisticated segment of a house. The artist’s urge to ‘unearth’ these and present these as prime part of her paintings signify her desire to pay attention to the less privileged areas of our existence. Beginning from life, this approach is extended to art too. Because images of these walls, each painted on a small panel, are not installed on the immaculate white interior of the gallery. Instead, deviating from the routine and pristine display of precious artworks, these paintings are placed on an ordinary cement wall (built at an angle inside the gallery space). The unpainted grey background wall is in reality a reaffirmation on the nature of art — of not being a transaction of high cost goods but an activity, that has other function too. Art is mainly an object to be looked upon, appreciated and loved, even if it does not hold an aura or value, is not elegantly framed or displayed. All of this reminds of the ancient state of art (traced from the caves of prehistory), of being part of life, or being life itself. Much like the ordinary walls inside the gallery, the ones painted by Risham and the one constructed by a mason!

(The Solo exhibition which started on September 17 will remain open till September 25, 2010, at Rohtas 2, Lahore)

With sales in the art market in Pakistan ricocheting off the charts, it is only befitting that a panoply of written material about art is seen to accompany the work being produced. Unfortunately pedagogy or academics is far from the minds of buyers and art collectors who are acquiring art with the frenzy and discrimination of a twister. On the other hand, we find reporters and columnists thrust unceremoniously into the complex job of ‘covering’ art shows. Clueless and groping wildly in the dark, these writers are applying the conventions of field reporting to art reviews, resulting in phrases like “(the) work was pretty intriguing” and “(the) oil on canvas work with its bright splash of colours looked quite different from the rest of the lot at the exhibition mainly because of its sincerity in not trying to be different for the heck of it.”

Art magazines are understandably a cut above newspapers because they cater to a discerning readership, with Nukta being the most significant magazine. In this shallow pool of art publications, a scholarly journal is a welcome induction and Sohbet, an initiative of the National College of Arts in conjunction with One Nine Two, Lahore, is breaking new ground. The layout designed by Hasnat Mehmood, an extraordinary post-modern miniaturist himself, the journal is befittingly restrained and unobtrusive in its design values while the choice of paper is appropriately earthy and muted.

Mehmood uses images of various artists’ projects between the articles to provide relief from continual text, although by its very nature, the journal is meant to be dense and esoteric, confined to a limited readership. In another design element, for a reflective, narrative-based piece, Mehmood uses the font Courier to simulate a typewriter, as if the writer were penning his memoirs in keeping with the tone of the article. The fact that the designer has made an effort to break monotony and add visual interest says much for his talents, although it goes against the grain of the ethos of a serious scholarly journal.

Sohbet, Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture, lists a series of well-qualified writers, all holding substantive academic and practical qualifications and the issue comes across as well-researched and well-written in most parts. In the foreword we are told that the journal is divided into five sections which are: Critical Essays, Artist in Focus, Artist Projects, Curatorial Project and Conversation.

The interview by Naazish Ataullah, alumnus, teacher for 22 years and present Principal NCA with Salima Hashmi, alumnus, teacher for 31 years and one-time Principal of NCA constitutes the Conversation section and is an interesting reminiscing account that traces the history of the college not in archival terms but more as a first-hand version of events and occurrences during the rollercoaster of political and social upheavals within the country. For an outsider, the interview may seem, in moments, to wallow in self-indulgent trivia but it recovers when you think of the expansive histories of experience that both these erudite women encompass.

In an article, Shaila Bhatti, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropolgy at University College London, discusses the various museums in Pakistan and claims, a tad bit far-fetchedly, that a refocus on the institution of the museum can help Pakistan regain its lost image in the eyes of the world and “can help re-envision an inclusive national body.”

Alexander Dumbadze’s piece on the Dutch conceptual artist, performance artist, photographer and filmmaker Bas Jan Ader who was lost at sea at 33, is a personal search for the identity and meaning of the artist and his work.

Gemma Sharpe’s piece of writing on the evaluative nature of aesthetic judgment makes great reading. Sharpe begins by drawing the reader into a personal incident — in a museum in Paris — she decides to cross the line drawn by the museum authorities in front of each artwork to prevent viewers from straying too close to the work. She finds herself visually attracted to the work from such proximity and proceeds to explain her emotional upsurge through Kantian philosophy of aesthetic judgment.

The section on Rashid Rana comprises a critical essay as well as an interview with the artist who has brought recognition to the art of Pakistan in the eyes of the world. Rana does not bother with the complexities of semantics and speaks lucidly about his concerns as an artist.

If there is a failing in the journal, it is that the articles are too pronouncedly about artists and their works and less about ideas. The exciting fuelling of debate and discourse happens when innovative ideas are presented within the paradigm and context of art as a component of society and history in the making and not necessarily art as individual practice.

Theories of art have always issued from a group of artists working within a societal, political or ideological framework. In line with this reasoning, Virginia Whiles’ article is outstanding because it questions the hegemonic stand of western academia and its firm control over the paradigms within which art criticism flourishes today. However, as she notes herself in her article, the journal Third Text has been working to expand the boundaries of critical perspective. It is a journal that most Pakistanis would surely not have heard of though it is revered in western academic circles where subversive voices are heard and appreciated.

In short, Sohbet is a feat of literary and visual daring and enterprise. The hope remains, as always, that it is a sustainable effort.


Musician scholar
Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi who became a practitioner to understand music
By Sarwat Ali

Many scholars and intellectuals inspired by the power of music, particularly classical music, take to the learning of music, acquiring sufficient understanding through an acquisition of the craft, to become practitioners themselves. One such writer, journalist, translator and musicologist was Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi.

It is usually said that for an understanding of music it is imperative to be a practitioner as well, otherwise the entire understanding is external which may add a few new dimensions but nevertheless remains extraneous to it. Many of the music theorists while pontificating about the essential characteristics of music or dilating upon its static and unchanging character are floored when they are asked by practitioners to put their ideas in a musical form. More often than not, these intellectuals or scholars apply the theories related to their own fields like philosophy, religion, politics, literature or physical sciences to music. They desire to see the same results but not finding one impose an understanding that may belie the particularity of music.

In history, one has known of partnerships between people who thought about music and those who facilitated its implementation by giving it a musical form. In most cases the name of the musician was lost in history, while that of the scholar, the sufi, the poet or the king has survived. Such ironies of history speak more of the disparity in ranking based on privilege and hierarchy rather than merit.

Guru Nanak is more famous than Bhai Farinda and Bhai Mardana while nobody knows of Danna but everyone swears by the name of Bulleh Shah. Ordinary people still believe that Badshahi Mosque was built by Aurangzeb and Taj Mahal by Shah Jehan. Thus, obliterating the distinction between the patron and the architect/maimaar at the expense of the latter.

One does not know who were the musicians behind the creative innovations of Man Toomar, Hussain Sharqi Jaunpuri and the institutionalisation of music among the Chishtia Order.

It is assumed that there was one person who could do incredible things like write lyrics in many languages, compose music, sing and create a new way addressing music. As a prisoner and a free man, a courtier and a commoner, a disciple and layman Amir Khusro exists more in legend than in reality.

But some scholars made an effort to learn music to the extent where they were able to reach a certain level of competence in their practice. Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi started learning classical music at the age of 16 and by 1936 he started broadcasting classical music from several stations of All India Radio. At the All India Radio, in one of the several programmes on classical music that he produced, he introduced 65 styles of taans. He not only wrote its script describing all the styles but also vocally demonstrated each taan.

In Delhi, his first music teachers were Bhallaa Mal and Pandit Lakshman Prashad. Later, he became a disciple of Master Imaamuddin. And then the famous vocalist of Delhi Gharaana Ustad Chand Khan, brother-in-law of Ustad Bundu Khan accepted Shahid Sahib as his disciple. He continued learning from Ustad Chand Khan for about 25 years.

Even after coming to Pakistan, Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi continued to correspond with his ustad Chand Khan to discuss various issues of music, making queries and seeking clarification about various intricacies and complexities.

In Pakistan, he joined Radio Pakistan as a music supervisor and also started broadcasting classical music as a vocalist under the name S. Ahmad. In 1959 he toured the Far East under a Unesco mission to introduce Pakistani literature and culture. In 1950, he established Pakistan Music Academy where he taught and trained many young singers and musicians for several years.

He was the grandson of the famous writer, scholar and reformist Shamsul Ulama Nazeer Ahmad also known as Deputy Nazeer Ahmad. After matriculating in 1923 from Delhi, Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi passed his intermediate from FC College, Lahore from where he entered the medical college.

However, he found that working on dead bodies was against his liking and so he left medical studies just after one year. In Delhi, he completed his BA Honours in English Literature and in 1930 launched an Urdu literary magazine Saaqi, which he continued publishing from Karachi after independence.

Dehlvi  had a unique and interesting style of writing pen sketches. Two collections of his essays Ganjeena-e-Gauhar (1962) and Bazm-e-Khush Nafsaa(n) (1985) have been published. He also published a reportage entitled Dilli ki Biptaa — an account of the bloody riots of 1947 in Delhi. Another book Ujraa Diyaar has essays on various aspects of Delhi’s social and cultural life. This includes the interesting description of Delhi’s musical gatherings, musicians and their art. He also translated into Urdu from English many works of psychology, biographies and fiction — novels, dramas, including Goethe’s Faust and several short stories. He was one of the eight writers involved in founding the Pakistan Writers Guild in 1959.


Dehlvi, inspired by the power of music.



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