Music across borders

Delhi-based researcher and documentary filmmaker Yousuf Saeed’s fascination with renowned poet Amir Khusrau proved to be a self-invigorating experience. After helming a series of movies on Khusrau, Saeed became greatly interested in Sufism, classical music, history and related themes. He was so deeply impressed by the talented artiste, that he wanted to explore his heritage and applied for a fellowship in Pakistan. Saeed stayed there for eight months to pursue his research and filming. Though he began interviewing musicians and scholars about Khusrau, he was intrigued by the course of classical music post 1947 in Pakistan. That was how his 2005 film Khayal Darpan was conceptualised.

Khayal Darpan shows musicians speaking nostalgically about the pre-independence era when people from all over the subcontinent flocked to Lahore to hear the finest vocalists

The documentary chronicles the lives of surviving practitioners and patrons of classical music and also raises vital questions about cultural identity, nationalism, legitimacy of music in Islam, Pakistan’s popular culture and its impact on India. Saeed says, “This film does not claim to be a complete story about the classical music scene in Pakistan. It is more like a sample of certain traditions and trends that I witnessed — it’s a personal journey, and these are my preferences.”

The film shows musicians speaking nostalgically about the pre-independence era when people from all over the subcontinent flocked to Lahore to hear the finest vocalists. However, things changed gradually after partition since culture became a defining factor of identity on both sides of the border. As lawyer and musicologist Raza Kazim remarks in the film, “While Pakistan became an Islamic nation, India projected itself internationally as secular.” So Hindustani music, with its overwhelming Muslim contribution, became a marker of its identity.

Vocalist Sarah Zaman narrates how she had to face several hurdles to pursue classical music, thanks to her gender. Prohibited from practising their art, many khayal singers turned to musical forms like the ghazal and qawwali, which were seen as belonging to Islamic culture.

Saeed conducted extensive research and met several artistes while filming Khayal Darpan. He admits that his knowledge of Indian classical music also proved handy. “It helped me survey and analyse many features of Pakistani music world. My knowledge of Urdu made me appreciate the published material produced in Pakistan on classical music.”

He confesses that filming the documentary proved to be an eye-opener. He says, “I went to Pakistan with various presumptions, many of which turned out to be baseless stereotypes or prejudices that are prevalent in India. In fact, the music scenario there helped me look at India’s cultural scene from a different perspective. My sojourn also helped me collect enough material to argue a case against the superficial cultural division between the two countries and communities, which is what I’ve tried to portray in Khayal Darpan.”

Saeed mentions that his interactions with various artistes and students helped him understand that the elitist tag attached to classical music is responsible for its decadence today. “Classical music has always been considered an art for the high classes. Unless efforts are made to make it more lucid for a popular audience (without diluting its basic structure), it cannot be saved from extinction.” He concurs that while in India, there are many institutions and national interests protecting it, it is taken for granted that classical music is not going to disappear. But this is a false notion. “We are no longer living in the age of the nawabs and rajas. It is high time we learn to appreciate and promote good music in this super fast age. Of course without compromising on its fundamentals.”

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