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In the business of music

Haris Noorani was passionate about classical music and struggled to create an environment for the form to thrive

In the business of music

It is difficult for me to recall when I met Haris Noorani for the first time. But it so happened that I found myself being invited to his house for a mehfil of music in the late 1970s. It must have been through a bunch of music enthusiasts a la Najm Hosain Syed, Reza Kazim, Sikander Kaleem who held the cause of classical music very dear to their heart. He then lived close to Liberty Market and the music session ended with us becoming friends.

I found out he had a very good collection of music and an even better taste.

He then sold the house as the market encroached upon the neighbourhood and started to build one in Defence. In that interregnum, he moved to a rented house in Cantonment and it was here that the planning and execution of the Nabi Baksh Benefit Concert took place. Photographs were collected, some written material was edited and a brochure of sorts was prepared. The Alhamra Hall was booked in advance and the artistes who were to perform at the concert were contacted — this included big names like Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ashraf Sharif Khan besides Ustad Shaukat Hussain Khan and Ustad Nazim Ali. People were generally cooperative and willing to chip in raising the sum for the purposes of helping out the ustad who had retired from Radio Pakistan.

The concert went off very well and a sizable amount was saved to be handed over to the ustad in the shape of a fixed deposit in one of the government financial instruments.

Emboldened by the initial effort, we planned to hold a similar concert the next year for Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan. The booking of Alhamra halls was becoming more difficult. One had to resort to seeking the good offices of commissioners and secretaries to get the date as well as some possible concession in rates. The artistes too were engaged and this time round it was Ustad Fateh Al Khan, Shahida Parveen, Ustad Salamat Hussain with Ustad Shaggan himself rounding off the programme with his own performance. For the brochure, Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Sheherezade Alam volunteered to help while the whole jingbang of sympathisers like Kishwar Naheed and Salima Hashmi moved in to help in collecting donations.

Haris Noorani longed to have an environment conducive for classical music here but, with years, grew disillusioned and even gave up listening to music from his own collection in the last years of his life.

There was an unstated division of labour. I looked after the artiste and sound arrangement while Haris took over the collection of funds through the sale of tickets/donations, a natural division since he belonged to that set and moved with the lot. But as we approached them again the same lot was not that forthcoming in loosening their purse strings. “Oye phair aa gaey oo?!” (Hey, you’re back to ask for more again?) was a refrain.

Some volunteered to advise that the cause of classical music was already lost; some suggested making the fund a more formal affair as if they were planning to set up their next industrial unit. Very few even invited us to dinner to discuss the mechanism of the prospective concert. We were often treated to very lavish dinners with more than adequate doses of fine appetisers. Much more was spent on those evenings than what we had asked for the concert.

When he started calling people, many of his friends and many more of his acquaintances (a lot who knew him by name), he realised that the enthusiasm and the willingness of the initial effort had fazed. On answering his call, voices would become a little cold, some refused to come on line, some promised the payment but never delivered. When pestered, they started avoiding us — some more frank and friendlier taunted him for changing his business from the manufacturing of ceramic tiles and insulators to benefit concerts. Some said they had already paid and had to be reminded it was for the previous year.

The concert for Shaggan was held and it was a success and a sizable sum was handed over to the artiste in the shape of government securities. But the attitude of the people — friends and acquaintances — left a sour taste.

After many years, he again felt concerned about the state of music in Pakistan and prime moved the formation of SurTaal — meant to raise funds through annual membership fee and hold programmes of leading performers in people’s houses. In the beginning, the collection and membership drive looked promising but then the same excuses and lapses started to surface.

For many decades he was content with visiting India, bringing lots of recorded music. Since he had family in Bombay (Mumbai), he visited the country quite often renewing friendships with the likes of Bobby Sethi who ran Kalasangam, a very successful informal body for the promotion of classical music. I would get a call every time he came back and then we listened to music he had brought with gossipy tit-bits about the music scene in India.

In the meantime, he would invite artistes from Pakistan and India to perform at his house like Ustad Sabri Khan, Ustad Zaheeruddin Dagar, Wasifuddin Dagar and Manjari.

Haris was mortified by the usual music concert scene at homes. There would be the singer performing with the guests loitering around the bar, talking, gossiping, laughing and women flashing their skin through clothes and diamonds for social mileage. Heartbroken, he formally wound SurTaal after about ten years. He still insisted on inviting artistes from India for concerts at his house.

He had a wonderful collection of music, primarily classical, and had a very good understanding of the forms. He listened to some of the greatest artistes performing live like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Allah Rakha, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Bhim Sen Joshi, Pandit Jasraaj and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in India and elsewhere.

Haris Noorani longed to have an environment conducive for classical music here but, with years, grew disillusioned and even gave up listening to music from his own collection in the last years of his life.  

(Haris Noorani passed away on November 29)

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • Sarwat …. This piece made me very sad. Haris Noorani was a silent, but potent, player in Lahore’s music scene who shunned publicity. I remember my father telling us that the first function of music is the ‘ear’ …. to be able to listen is critical. From that flows all else. Sad … very sad.

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