Lahore Music Forum seems to have nine lives. It functions at a frantic pace and then goes dormant for sometime. It appears that like so many other flyby night organisations, it has been put to rest forever, but, then, it springs back again, as it did last week with a concert of Rustam Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Ashraf Sharif Khan, held at the Punjab Institute of Language and Culture.
This could well be Rustam Fateh Ali Khan’s first concert since the death of his father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. He may have performed at some of the programmes held to pay homage to his father in the last couple of months but not in a concert held independently for him.
Many years ago he was seen as a promising youngster in the family of Patiala Gharana vocalists as he ventured forth on public stage with his father, and one has seen with varying concern his progress since. But as long as his father was alive, he was seen through a translucent screen that he still had room for improvement. It is always the case for when the elders are alive, the assessment is seen in relation to their looming presence, but once they are gone, the swords and knives of brutal and unrelenting assessment come out openly.
Rustam Fateh Ali Khan’s performances will be seen in this light without any caveats extended or alibis offered, and he will be judged as the inheritor of a musical tradition. Even all the excuses that have been furthered, like lack of patronage, shrinking audiences and change in the taste of music, will pale and be set aside in judging his performance. Whether he is living up to the high standards set by his elders will be the bar he will have to scale.
It was refreshing that Rustam Fateh Ali made an appearance on the public stage after the death of his father, for there have been fears that he was to abandon singing the classical forms of music for something more in synch with the current taste. It was even rumoured that he was to give up music altogether. He had involved himself with other businesses which may on the surface seem harmless but within the ethos of professional musicians can be seen as too distracting — holding negative implications in terms of one’s art.
It is generally assumed that the total and unifocal dedication to an art form, particularly music, shields one from worldly distractions and material gains.
Perhaps, the onus on him is greater because the other members of his generation have been involved in looking over the shoulder to other avenues of expression. Initially Asad Amanat Ali Khan and then Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan, and later Nayab Ali and Inam Ali all have been seeking openings in the popular forms of music in the past decade or two. If he sticks to the traditional forms, it will involve a Herculean effort. Even their uncle Hamid Ali Khan (much younger to Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali) has had to switch over to more popular forms, like lok geets and ghazals in addition to kheyal and thumri to survive.
It is perhaps a legitimate artistic concern that how much the traditional forms of expression should change with changing realities or subsequently changing sensibilities. The same problem has been encountered by our poets, as they, too, had to grapple with the inherited forms and modes of expression, and then align them with the demands of changing sensibilities.
This dilemma was probably not faced by prose writers, as there was very little historical baggage to carry — for prose was not valued as much as poetry neither developed as much. The realism of the short story and the novel did not pose that great a challenge for the future writers but in case of poetry that was highly evolved in its stylised forms and expressions, awkward barriers had to be crossed. There were some, especially in the 19th century, heavily influenced by the colonialists that wanted the expression with it the rhythmic patterns and specialised imagery to be modernised drastically to express the changing realities ushered in by the onset of colonial rule.
Similarly, in music too, the scale and then the changing intonation too resulted in the same kind of pressures. It was the shelter provided by the princely states that allowed the traditional and particular forms to save its interiority of expression and given sufficient space to adapt and mould rather than be totally wiped out under pressure from the top colonial artistic leadership. In literature and visual arts, too, princely states furthered and patronised the forms. Rampur, Bhopal and Hyderabad Deccan supported poets and writers and many states particularly in Punjab kept the tradition of miniature painting alive.
Ashraf Sharif Khan also performed at the concert last week, and the added value to his performance was the accompaniment of Shahbaz on the tabla. Many years ago, Shahbaz was a regular feature in Lahore. Then he went abroad and has been a part of the group and other activities in which Ashraf Sharif Khan and other subcontinental musicians have been involved. The understanding between the two was very good, and it gave a certain freedom to Ashraf Sharif Khan to further embellish his recital.
In the last few years many have shared the vision of Lahore Music Forum by offering their venues like a private hotel, National College of Arts, Alhamra, Punjab Institute of Language and Culture, Hust o Neest and Nairang Galleries. The only organisation in Lahore which has been consistent over the last 50 years in its pursuit of the promotion of music has been the All Pakistan Music Conference.
Lahore Music Forum has in the past years made its presence felt and the classical vocalist and musicians will be the saddest if it winds up, as they always looked forward to these concerts.