x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Preserving Lahore's artistic traditions

A number of organisations in Lahore, Pakistan, are helping to ensure classical music traditions are not lost.

Musical institutions in Lahore are trying to ensure classical performance and instruction develop in a city renowned for its musical heritage. "Our teachers believe they are the vanguard, keeping music alive despite financial and social hardships," says Shahid Mirza, the head of the Lahore Chitrkar arts centre. Chitrkar is a classical hub, revolving around a working studio and gallery that offer a place to share, develop and exhibit artistic skills. Classical vocal, flute, tabla, sitar and guitar classes include practical instruction and discussion on music making. The emphasis is as much on theory as practical instruction.

"The Chitrkar institution is so important to Lahore," Mirza says. "It is the only privately-run institute of its kind in Pakistan. Here, our youth are becoming familiar with our musical tradition. Only then can it grow." A non-profit organisation, Chitrkar was founded by painters, architects, writers, dancers and musicians. It offers tuition with internationally renowned classical artists. Monthly classical music concerts provide an ongoing vehicle for exhibition, with those at Chitrkar keen to provide a public forum for classical music in Lahore.

Mirza says: "Classical musicians take it as a great honour to perform and be appreciated in Lahore. Classical giants like Omkarnath Thakur and Vinayak Rao Patwardhan opened music schools in Lahore even before partition." The internationally recognised Pakistani musician Arieb Azhar agrees education is key. "The brutal market economy of Pakistan is not conducive to the classical arts. The exponents of these arts feel threatened and this has caused them to become very insular in their approach.

"On a governmental level, classical music (together with its mythology) needs to enter into the educational curriculum." He warns, though, that to sustain a viable classical music scene, Lahore's musicians must have the right vehicle for expression. "Even though quite a few arts festivals still happen in Lahore, they are not as professionally organised as in Karachi and the musicians find it harder to make a living."

Events such as the Rafi Peer organisation's annual World Performing Arts Festival and the Peer Group's nightly music events at a Lahore restaurant attract a stunning array of musicians not seen elsewhere in the city. Institutions such as the University of Punjab are also establishing programmes and festivals to promote and showcase local classical talent. Nadia Khan, a student in the department of arts, says: "Classical music is part of Lahore so it is good that we have places for these traditions. It is harder these days to hold events. People are getting scared of going to concerts. We need places to keep publicising music."

Although festivals and concerts highlight the importance of music and increase public performance, Azhar says: "Often music is not seen as a serious profession like law or medicine. Musicians are often expected to perform for free, or for a minimum wage, at festivals that claim to operate on an international level." And while schools like Chitrkar can offer some practice and performance space, Azhar says more is needed. "A lack of urban music venues and funding means the most talented musicians remain outside the mainstream or are reduced to performing as session artists for pop bands."

Lahore still serves as a prominent home for the devotional qawwali music that is played every Thursday afternoon at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri; qawwali groups travel from Punjab and beyond to perform there, building rhythmic chants of Sufi poetry to harmonium and tabla (twin drums) beats. Performances last hours, attracting steady streams of devotees. Adorned with flowers, they sing, dance and clap. Audiences crowd beneath a glittering canopy of decorations and are sprayed with rose water.

The qawwali musician Ali Said says performances keep younger generations in Pakistan connected to a unique musical genre that is only found in certain areas. "A lot of this music, like qawwali singing, comes from the south, so playing qawwali in Punjab is good. It brings this tradition to people in Lahore." The Moti bazaar in the heart of Lahore's Walled City is packed with tiny workshops producing handcrafted dhol and tabla. The instruments adorn walls and hang in the small doorways. Traders report business is steady.

Qasim Shah, who runs a shop that makes tabla and small hand drums, says Lahoris' desire to embrace classical music at formal events keeps the demand for dhol drummers high. "People want to hear modern pop music but they also want Pakistani music like dhol at their weddings and parties." His comments echo Lahore's enduring love affair with Sufi music tradition and dhol drumming. Midnight dhol performances by the brothers Gonga and Mithu Saeen at the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal draw vast crowds. The crush of people gathered to watch dervishes spin to increasingly hypnotic beats is testament to the pair's popularity and artistry. Their performances on the world stage have kept dhol tradition in focus.

New and ongoing projects designed to develop music are also bolstering classical arts. The new forum Lahore Sudhar, run by the Chitrkar school, encourages Lahoris to become involved in planning and developing projects and to provide a public arena for debate. Pages for schools such as Chitrkar on the social networking web sites Facebook and Twitter also give the younger generation a way to follow classical music development online.

Teachers at Chitrkar say artistic tradition should be encouraged through local bodies and not seen as something cemented that needs no further development. Azhar agrees: "I think the place for preserving tradition and folklore is in the museums and libraries. But everyone should aspire to build a culturally conducive and unbiased environment where music, which is evolving on the streets, can find its way into the media and mainstream festivals.

"Lahore has still got a vibrant culture because it was the cultural hub during the Moghul and the Sikh period and because its multicultural tradition has attracted artists, writers, poets, dervishes from across Pakistan." The future of classical music development may rest partly on outlook as well as practical effort. Azhar says that success may lie in a change of focus and acceptance of the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Pakistani music.

"After 60 years of Pakistan, we are unable to accept all the history, mythology or folklore that is or was within our borders. As Pakistanis we need to have a sense of pride in not only our Islamic tradition, but also our Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Parsee and Pagan traditions."