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Composing a culture

On how the magical transformation of seasons had captured the imagination of our poets and musicians

Composing a culture
The culture icon — Amir Khusro.

It has finally been decided that basant will not be celebrated this year as well. It was hoped that the new regime in power will accede to the wishes of the people in wanting to celebrate their festivals which have been embedded in the culture of the land.

Kite-flying was only one manifestation of these activities. Lahore and Kasur were considered to be two cities most avid about kite-flying; other cities or towns in the now Pakistan did not celebrate on the same scale. Gradually it caught on and, by the beginning of this century, even Karachites had started to fly kites.

Since the seasons were more clearly demarcated in this part of the world, the two that were particularly celebrated were bahar (spring) and barsaat (monsoon). In our poetry, particularly the one heavily influenced by Persian tradition, bahar is mentioned more than the monsoons or the rains. There were hardly any rains in the Iranian landmass and surely it was not on the scale and manner of the Indian subcontinent where the landscape experiencing sweltering heat within minutes would be transformed with the roar of thunder and lashing rain. This magical transformation had captured the imagination of poets and musicians who sang paeans to it.

But bahar, since it was also a magical transformation after khizaan, was written about much and employed on a very large scale as a metaphor for change, a change that was both welcome and painful because it was supposed to account for the missed opportunities. And the season was, as if to end in a resolve to flow along with signs of change and hopes for the better.

In our music, spring is also an occasion to celebrate on a mass scale. As the Indian subcontinent was bracing itself to be the assimilating ground for the confluence of cultures, iconic figures like Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusro promoted to end the alienation and express them in the vocabulary of the land. There are many bandishes that have travelled down to us after so many centuries in which the pseudonym of “Nizamuddin” or “Deenibuksh” is used. It is said these were basically composition of Amir Khusro which were made to celebrate spring at the end of winter, a kind of a paying of a tribute to his mentor as has been the wont in our culture.

It is very difficult to say which bandishes were composed when and by whom as the entire history of music has been oral and subject to much variation and change. But, in the tradition, it is said that certain bandishes have been attributed to many Sufis, and the famous musicians who composed them used the name of their patrons as in the case of kings or of the murshid mainly the sufis. It is also very difficult to say exactly as to who composed them, and that these have not changed over centuries and remained in their original form. In the environs round Dehli many basants were celebrated and attributed to the various Sufis whose shrines dotted the landscape there.

Raag basants and bahars are or were sung on a large scale when traditions were still intact and the modal system raged without challenge. Hori and dhammar was also sung on a large scale and it usually accompanied holi which is also a festival to celebrate the onset of spring. Similarly, the basants and bahars were sung in this season to also express happiness and homage to the god of regeneration.

There were many variations to the basic modal structure of both the raags, and by combining raags many varieties were created. As many versions of basant and bahar were sung, many were Mishar Mela Ragas (The combination of two) like basant bahar, handol bahar, adana bahar & others associated to Basant & Bahar.

It may be conceded that in the classical period, the effect of the raags was quantified by the category of rasa. Each raag was supposed to evoke a certain rus, and if done well was considered to be the aesthetic achievement of the artist. The raags contained that rus and it was up to the excellence of the artiste to make it so happen and realise. It was also said by thinkers and musicologists that not only each sur but each shruti too contained a certain quantum of aesthetic emotion. It was left to the expertise of the artist to weave and bring it out the tapestry of aesthetic emotion and communicate with the audience who breathed the same air. There was nothing given or mechanical about it, and as rus was an aesthetic category, heavily mediated, it should not be confused with its metaphoric implications.

It is always hazardous to be definitive about the originators of the raags, the bandishes or even the forms. Many in order to look and search for a cultural icon started to attribute everything to Amir Khusro. This tendency gained greater momentum when the Muslims lost political power and suddenly realised that they were a minority with an uncertain future.

It is also a little difficult to say what forms were these compositions sung in. Possibly as dhrupad raged supreme, these bandishes were sung in the dhrupad form. Then, as the kheyal gained ascendancy in the nineteenth century, these were sung in the kheyal style. Many were sung in the qawwali ang and now some of the same are being sung in the geet or the pop ang especially after the Coke Studio episodes.

In a living tradition as it was conceived during the pre industrial era, there was no fetish or sensitivity about who created what and there was no obsession with copyright. All that was there, created by whomsoever, was the raw material for the cultural consumption of the present, and by working anew the contemporaneity was addressed by the more outstanding poets, or musicians or painters of the times.

This was an expression of an organic world. But as man started to alienate himself from nature in the post renaissance Europe, he became an isolated figure and a lonely voice — a cry in the wilderness. This dichotomy was felt most severely during the Romantic period when Nature and civilization were perceived to be two different poles. Man abandoned the cardinal value of abiding by the potential of nature; rather he wanted to conquer nature, not only to conquer nature but to also design it and hence improve upon it.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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