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Sur and the theological world

A look at amateur renderings of religious texts, mostly a spoof on film compositions, which have become a part of popular culture

Sur and the  theological world

It was reported that when the Prime Minister was welcoming and feasting with the cricketers who had won the Champions Trophy at the Prime Minister’s House there was demand from the ‘august audience’ present there for the recitation of a naat by the captain of the victorious team. Lo and behold, Sarfaraz Ahmed obliged instantly.

The naat was based solely on a film composition made by Naushad in his famous film Baiju Bawra. The captain of the victorious team was only mouthing a trend which has become widespread, mostly reflected in the religion-inspired popular culture.

It has been noticed in the past three decades or so, around streets corners, mosques in mohallas and those in the villages, naats and hamds are recited aplenty on popular film compositions. The lyrics are changed from those in the film number and are transplanted by the lyrics of hamds and naats and then these are held forth at full volume. On occasions like one of purely religious intent, these are recited ad infinitum. On other normal days, which are shrinking every year, these are recited on a regular basis preceding or following the saying of the azaan.

One wonders whether this was how things were about three decades ago, for one recalls hamds and naats being part of Indo-Muslim culture recited but never on the stolen or derived compositions of either a film number or any one which had become popular. It was as if there were particular compositions made for the purpose in which the hamds and naats were recited and it was never a badly-tampered copy of a number sung by Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi or K.L Saigal.

In other forms of recitation like the marsia, noha, soz and salaam, the compositions were either traditional or purpose-made for the occasion keeping the functional impact of solemnity and spirituality of lyrics.

The rigid ideological strictures have been tempered to negotiate with essential human concerns like literary and musical expression. In history, one has seen many levels, more interpretations than one, rightly so, exemplifying a more pluralistic approach to the same problems. Recitation was kind of a halfway compromise. Those who bitterly opposed music and refused to call it music settled instead for recitation and insisted that these be rendered without the accompaniment of musical instruments. The local expressions have not thus been ‘azaan gana’ but ‘azaan dena’, ‘qirat karna’, ‘naat ada karna’ or ‘hamd parhna’. Similarly it was ‘marsiya-khwaani’ or ‘soz-khwaani’ or ‘salaam kehna’, differentiated strictly from the act of singing or gaana. In qawwali, where the use of musical instrumentation was grudgingly permitted it was always ‘qawwali karna’ and never ‘qawwali gaana’. The main bulk of the qawwali repertoire consists of mustanad kalam in mustanad compositions. Actually it is the familiarity of the kalam and composition that helps in building a communal ecstatic mood.

Recitation was kind of a halfway compromise. Those who bitterly opposed music and refused to call it music settled instead for recitation and insisted that these be rendered without the accompaniment of musical instruments.

Again the same distinction has been maintained which may appear a little amazing and befuddling to those who define music or singing as something that employs the sur and not merely instrumentation or the ample use of alankar or musical graces. Recitation is supposed to be straightforward not meant to deviate and beguile the listener or ‘sa’ame’ from the pointed purpose of lyrics. The magic of music, gana or sangeet had to be distinguished from the more directed comprehension of the lyrics rendered.

Our whole history of negotiating with the arts has been based on such subtle differentiations which may appear to be no more than sophistry to an outsider. But without getting into the debate about the place of music within the theological worldview, it must be said that nobody can argue that what is being recited or being rendered should attain a certain aesthetic level. It is quite painful to hear all kinds of amateur renderings of religious and quasi-religious texts, mostly a spoof on film compositions, which are also difficult to escape, blaring away in the streets or on the omniscient media. There can be no religious reprimand or objection against rendering something pleasantly, and that can only be done if the aesthetic concerns that govern music, basically the proper application of the note or sur is carried out. It could be that in the name of serving a worthy cause or expressing a noble sentiment, more disservice is being done to that cause or the sentiment.

One way that the present world is different from the past is that there was much greater respect shown to professions or professional integrity. Some tasks or works or professions were meant to be dedicated to castes and classes who were the repository of those arts/crafts. It was their responsibility to maintain its standard and integrity. With a more democratic dispensation now, every person carries a birthright to do whatever he or she likes with no one armed with the social or the legal authority to put an end to. Well and good, if this is what the democratic dispensation is all about, then it should not cultivate dabblers, amateurs, half-baked individuals who think that what they are doing is something that has never been done before and use other means like their position in society to be admired and eulogised.

The same democratic freedom is exercised to the full in recitations, and various platforms are made readily available. In the past, for texts like hamds and naats, special compositions were made and it was rendered in an ang that was different from that of a film song. Ang is probably a term that is most difficult to verbalise but it is intonation or the application of a sur that determines the quality of the rendition.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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