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Taking Indus Raag to the World

Malahat and Sharif Awan of Tehzeeb Foundation talk about the importance of keeping classical music in Pakistan alive

Taking Indus Raag to the World

Encased in its all-black sheath, the Indus Raag looks anything but ordinary. A music project made singular by the lack of contemporary comparable productions, this 12 CD compendium by the Tehzeeb Foundation comprises the classical music collaboration of 32 Pakistani and Indian maestros. The monochrome minimalism of its exterior and the heft of its enclosing box prepare us for the magnitude of what’s on offer: once-in-a-lifetime jugalbandis, rarely recorded artistes, historic and innovative instances of instrumental techniques are just some of the salient features of this treasure trove. All together, the CDs make up 13 hours of immense archival worth.

The compendium took three years in the making, first gracing the store shelves in 2012. Barely anyone took notice. Now, with its third edition, the Indus Raag makes history as the first Pakistani entry to the Grammys, after being accepted to vie against 22,000 other submissions for a nomination spot in the Best World Music Album category. Instep talked to the Tehzeeb Foundation’s dynamic husband-wife duo Shareef and Malahat Awan earlier this week (as they waited for the final list of the Grammy nominations) about the endeavours of their organization, particularly their ‘other children’, Indus Raag and the many music releases that preceded it.

If Pakistan’s music industry has faced challenges by rising extremism and the fall of Lollywood, then eastern classical music in Pakistan has borne the brunt of it. While all artistes have been vexed by the difficulty of sustaining their careers in the country, genres such as pop or rock music have survived due to their mainstream popularity. Classical music was never meant for the masses, and as the numbers of its niche audience dwindled, the artistes were rendered destitute. This dismal situation continues today: One sarangi player, the Awans tell us, found it more feasible to send his son to work for a tyre shop at a paltry salary than teach him the instrument. The prowess of several other seniors has been squandered due to depression and illness. The performers of the world famous Sachal Jazz Ensemble now enjoy rejuvenated careers after wasting years as street vendors. That’s where the Tehzeeb Foundation also comes in: with the Tehzeeb record label and annual festivals, the organization plays a similar role in bringing classical musicians back behind their instruments and into the limelight where they belong. The Awans not only help performers reach their niche audience in Pakistan today, but also work to develop the acquired taste for the genre among listeners.

“When we set up Tehzeeb Foundation, it was to work for the cause of culture,” says a very passionate Malahat. “Not to sound boastful, but we’re doing the work of the government. We cry about the cultural invasion on our television and music, but what have we done? Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are sold as ‘music from India’. We need to show the world that despite adversity, Pakistan flourishes with artistes. This was our conscious effort.”

While Pakistan has produced many, many musical maestros, their work remains largely unheard. Radio Pakistan, Pakistan Television, Lok Virsa and the Pakistan National Council of Arts have all recorded the legends, but have failed to publish their music. Many of the old recordings have been damaged, since preservation is a difficult, technical task. In reaction to this, Tehzeeb Foundation has been recording and releasing the entire repertoire of artistes for the past 20 years.

Taking inspiration from Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Khwaja Khurshid Anwar’s vast and unparalleled collection of classical music performances titled Aahang-e-Khusravi from thirty years ago, the Awans decided to continue the tradition of epic compilations with Indus Raag. By sourcing Pakistani and Indian classical vocalists and musicians – maestros of the sitar, sarog, sarangi, tabla, etc. – and recording their collaborative performances in top-notch quality, they produced with the aim of exporting the music. Then, they worked to meet all the legal requirements of the export; still, the process of sending physical copies of the music abroad was met with hurdles. In his first attempt to mail Indus Raag abroad, Sharif Awan was turned back by the courier company, and informed that Pakistani music cannot be sent. The process took mounds of documentation. Distributing, marketing and selling Indus Raag abroad was equally cumbersome. But the Awans persevered in the interest of boosting the visibility of the music abroad, which was also a prerequisite for its entry into the Grammys.

“Even being accepted as an entry at the Grammys is a huge deal,” tells Sharif Awan, “Until the work is not inducted in mainstream American music circles, you do not qualify to be marketed over there, and if that’s the case, then you can’t participate. I’m the only producer from Pakistan with membership of the Recording Academy of the Grammys. And the Tehzeeb label is the only Pakistani label that fulfils the requirements of intellectual property rights.”

The international exposure of Pakistani music is more important than we realise. At the recently held Pakistani lifestyle expo in Delhi, Aalishan Pakistan, Tehzeeb Foundation showcased music from Pakistan, selling Fuzon’s covers of the legends, from Reshma to Tufail Niazi, which they recorded on the band’s request. The CDs were sold out on the first day. Also, people from the neighbouring Zindagi TV stall showed great interest in the video recordings of the Tehzeeb Festival and requested for them being made into episodes to air in India.

“This shows the level of interest in Pakistani music in India,” says Malahat, “Our neighbours have no idea about the music we are capable of producing.”

When ace multi-instrumentalist Ustad Panjit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was invited by Tehzeeb Foundation to record for Indus Raag in 2010, he heard Ustad Bashir Khan play tabla for the first time. Although he brought his own tabla player, with whom he enjoyed a comfort level and had years of practise, he requested Sharif Awan to arrange for Bashir Khan to accompany him in his performance.

It’s not just our artistes whose merit is at par with their international counterparts; our production quality is also world-class. When the Awans went to the world renowned Abbey Road Studios in London for Indus Raag’s final mixing, the German producer heard all the CDs and simply pronounced ‘Mr. Sharif, I wouldn’t change a thing.’

“That was lucky for us,” quipped Sharif Awan with a laugh, “I don’t think we could afford the fees!”

Strangely enough, as the world begins to take notice, we experience a resurgence of interest at home. “When Indus Raag was first marketed in 2012, it was sold only a few copies. When we sent it abroad, not only did it register proper sales there, but also got fantastic reviews from the press,” tells Mr. Awan.

“We tend to wait for foreign validation,” observes Malahat, “Nusrat was always brilliant, but grew in prominence after Peter Gabriel recorded him. It was the same with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida jee.”

“What I foresee as a consequence of this Grammy recognition is that it should result in the revival of the music industry,” offers Sharif, “Entertainment in the form of concerts should begin again. Our musicians have no work; they have to leave the country. If they have four concerts a year, they’ll be able to sustain their careers.”

Like this year saw the revival of cinema in a big way, with people now buying tickets to go to movies instead of simply eating out on the weekend. The Awans are hopeful that concerts can be next.

One of the obstacles faced by the music industry is the fact that the concept of spending money on music is now alien to most people. The Tehzeeb Festival is free to attend and enjoys an audience of 700-800 people, but very few buy the Tehzeeb CDs that offer a better listening experience. In fact, Malaht tells us that the festival attendees complain that they haven’t been served dinner after four hours of complimentary entertainment! Given this state of affairs, an investment in the music industry doesn’t seem financially viable at all.

“We were only interested in the purpose, not how profitable it will be, so we carried on with selling our CDs for a fraction of the cost price,” shares Sharif Awan. Tehzeeb Foundation continues its work through corporate sponsorship, which takes months of angling to acquire. But the future looks brighter, ever so slightly, as alternate sources of funds come into light. Ali Zafar, for instance, has offered to waive his fee for a concert, the returns of which could be used to fund future classical concerts.

“Our vision is this: Hold these fundraisers, and keep classical concerts free,” explains Malahat, “A bit like Robin Hood, we’ll take from our (more fortunate) friends to give to the rest.”  Tehzeeb Foundation’s goals also include replicating the artist village of Ahmedabad outside Karachi, where musicians can live, perform in an auditorium and augment their income by setting up shops. Volume 2 and 3 of Indus Raag is in the works, and the Foundation wants to encourage the Ustaad-Shagird system by introducing a music curriculum to interested schools and universities.

“Our music is highly exportable,” says Malahat emphatically, “The government and corporate sector just needs to think outside of the box.” Most CSR activities are directed towards health and education, and cultural activities are dismissed as one-time events. “Our music should be heard all over the world,” adds Sharif. “We think the press, our opinion-makers, should project our artistes like the heroes and icons that they are,” Malahat concludes.

One comment

  • Thank you Mehreen and “The News” for publishing such a nice report.

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