Samina Hasan Syed always wanted to be a vocalist, a classical vocalist at that. The opportunities were limited in the sense that the classical music forms like the dhrupad and kheyal were being listened to less and less by the emerging middle classes in Pakistan. In the few forums that were extant, she was recognised very early on as a significant new voice in the world of music.
She was initially tutored by Feroz Nizami who was a very perceptive musicologist, a good vocalist and an original composer. Though he is more known for his film compositions like in Jugnu and Dupatta, he was a properly-trained classical vocalist of the Kirana Gharana. He was educated by Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan of the Kirana Gharana who lived in Lahore for quite some time in the 1920s and ’30s and influenced not only musicians here but all over the subcontinent especially by his very meticulous use of the various shrutis. Since these can only be done in the vilampat lai, many of the musicologists credit him with the extended elaboration of the raag in the vilampat lai especially during the first half of the twentieth century.
Feroz Nizami was also influenced by the styles of the exponents of Delhiwale and that of the Rampurwale. In the mid-1950s, he formally became the shagird of Ustad Sardar Khan of the Delhi Gharana.
Nizami also wrote on music both in Urdu and English, and in Pakistan he was probably the first one to start writing about the significance of music in our society and history. He was also instrumental in starting music classes at the Alhamra and in the old ramshackle structure on the Mall. Samina Hasan Syed too availed this opportunity and became a shagird.
But her longest period of apprenticeship was with Ustad Chote Ghulam Ali Khan. In the very long and arduous music lessons that were held, one was witness to the very difficult and complex method of a personalised transfer of musical knowledge. In those lessons, it was clear the tone has many shades and nuances, and it was the enunciation of that particular shade or nuance that was significant in creating the rus of the raag.
It was really a very difficult assignment and one was instantly drawn to know the reasons why so many had not really been able to make it. After the passing away of her Ustad, which made her very crestfallen initially, she also took lessons from Tufail Narowali, Bhai Chela, Tufail Farooqi and Ustad Faiz Khan, all in quest of learning more about the intricacies of this arcane art form.
She joined her alma mater, the College of Home Economics, and taught music there for decades. To her credit, she persisted and established the department. It may be stressed this institution was the only one that actually held formal music classes on campus and students could appear in the examinations. Though the subject was offered by the Board and University, it was not taught formally in any academic institution till the musicology department was established at the National College of Arts decades later.
Other than teach by example, she also had to design the curriculum and plan the entire academic programme, not an easy task in a discipline that had no models to emulate in the country.
More than four decades ago, meetings started being held in her house on Punjabi literature and culture. Hosted by Najm Hosain Syed, it were basically the classics that were read, and interpreted but contemporary poetry and current artistic issues too were often on the agenda. In these weekly meetings, usually young poets and aspiring writers interested in Punjabi participated. The awareness about Punjabi literature and the significance of mother tongue was inculcated in people who gathered almost religiously at the rendezvous.
For many it was their first, especially Punjabi as a language, let alone literature. They were amazed to find and discover treasure troves of literature and a richness of language after being dismissed in their very own Punjabi homes as being a street language meant only for the uncouth.
The end of the session was usually wound up with the singing of either the poem that was being interpreted, discussed or some other work. The compositions were also purpose made and the lead voice was joined in by all those present. It was also to assert the relationship of the word and sur which has been so endemic in our folk traditions.
Many a young musician or aspiring vocalist took part in those meetings and attempted to present themselves as virtuosos. For some, it was their first exposure to the actual happening of composing and singing at such close quarters.
They suddenly realised they could not sing or singing did not mean what they had picked up in the street. It all did not end up in a hopeless wreckage but left a lingering possibility of being able to learn music and singing. It was a happy mix of hope; expectancy and justification of one’s own cause. Samina Hasan Syed often joined in and rendered the kaafis. Her presence uplifted the entire musical level and from lay crooning of those present, it appeared to be suddenly more enriched. The bland rendition was added value with musical depth.
The singing of the kaafis were the highlight of the evenings and most went home satisfied with the proceedings, even if there was some nagging reservation regarding their interpretation.
It is very painful and almost impossible to write about a person whom one has been very close to. As I struggle to complete this piece, let me state that as a person she was extremely loving and caring, and it is difficult to recall if anyone was turned away from her door when in need. These qualities of caring and wishing well for others were showered on many and I count myself among those who benefited the most from it all.