Culture

How Partition and the Borders It Brought Changed Hindustani Classical Music

Singers in India and Pakistan have found creative ways out of imposed silences on certain kinds of music to keep their art and repertoires alive.

Not only are a gharana's singers not located in the supposed place of origin, but a huge abyss (somewhat larger and deeper that that line on the map) separates them from the place after which the gharana is named. Credit: Mathers Museum of World Cultures/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Not only are a gharana’s singers not located in the supposed place of origin, but a huge abyss (somewhat larger and deeper that that line on the map) separates them from the place after which the gharana is named. Credit: Mathers Museum of World Cultures/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.


The khayal gharana of classical music called Sham Chaurasi gharana has an interesting story behind its name.

In the early years of the last century, in what was the undivided Punjab, a singer was rewarded by his patron with a gift of the revenue from 84 (chaurasi) villages. The singer, whose name was Sham, thereafter came to be known as Sham Chaurasi, and those who sang in his style – both his family and his shagirds (students), who comprised both Hindus and Muslims – were considered to belong to the Sham Chaurasi gharana.

The area comprising these 84 villages is now in India; in 1947, most of the adherents of its musical tradition crossed the newly-drawn line on the map to settle in what is now Pakistan.

Something similar happened with the representatives of the style known as the Dilli gharana. Several of them moved to Pakistan, while some others remained in India.

Gharanas are most often named after a place, rarely after a supposed founder. (Sham Chaurasi has the perhaps unique distinction of carrying the name of both the founder and the area.) People refer to an individual singer as having given shape to a nascent, forming style; or to other singers as having introduced new elements or re-articulated existing ones, into the gharana’s gayaki or singing style and its repertoire. But almost invariably, it is the place that becomes the identifying nomenclature of the style.

It is interesting too that the place names remain long after the gharana’s adherents shift to one or many other areas. Thus today, in India we find – and this process began probably as early as 1857 with the collapse of royal patronage – the hub of a gharana’s activity as being in a place quite different from the area of its supposed origin. For the Jaipur gharana for instance, Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur and other parts of Maharashtra are areas where one finds large numbers of singers of this style. Equally, the Dharwar region claims a huge number of singers belonging to the Kirana gharana; on the map, Kirana (or Kairana as it is sometimes spelled) is a small town in Uttar Pradesh. Equally significant is that this shift in location brings changes in the gayaki, influenced surely by local musical and linguistic flavour.

In the case of gharanas like Shyam Chaurasi and Dilli, the shifts and changes also signify something else. For now, not only are the gharanas’ singers not located in the supposed place of origin, but a huge abyss (somewhat larger and deeper that that line on the map) also separates them from the place after which the gharana is named. That abyss is not just caused by distance. It has more to do with changes in the situations singers have to live with and the social system within which they have to work.

I recall being taken as a child to listen to the brothers Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali, being amazed at their virtuosity-laden gayaki and wondering at their thumris which sounded so different from those I had heard as sung by someone like Siddheshwari Devi. The latter difference of course was one of thumri ang/gharana itself – the soft ang of Siddheshwari Devi’s Banaras gayaki as against the more robust Punjab style of the Ali brothers. But I also recall discussions where the adults around me mentioned how the brothers would choose to sing ragas like Durga in India because in Pakistan these ragas, with their ‘Hindu-sounding’ names, were not quite approved of by the powers that be. Many years later, meeting avid listeners from Pakistan, I remembered that incident when I was asked by them to sing Raga Durga because they never got to hear it.

My sense is that these injunctions, explicitly stated or unspoken, are in fact what have influenced the way music in both India and Pakistan has developed, and even shaped the ability to compensate for these obstacles in its path in a most creative fashion. In Pakistan, for instance, there was and is a reclaiming and honouring of ‘folk’ traditions and the discovery of such wonderful singers as Pathane Khan, Reshma and, following them, many other contemporary artists. Equally, ghazal and qawwali grew in importance, occupying centre stage. Ghazal and qawwali could be read (in both countries) as somehow Islamicate in nature – using as they did imagery and even, primarily, languages seen to be (and only seen to be) Islamicate.

That all these forms give importance to the poetry, as they are shabd-pradhan forms, also helped them to reach audiences less comfortable with the finer nuances and intricacies of raga music. I also wonder if the style of singing of ghazal, for instance, as it developed in Pakistan, was not also in some degree influenced by the fact of the shrinking space for khayal. (This does not mean that singers did not continue to sing khayal, nor that listeners stopped listening and appreciating it, but only to say that  khayal did not always receive the kind of official patronage needed for a form to grow and flourish.)

Could it be that the greater space accorded to a form like ghazal as compared to that accorded to khayal might be a reason why Pakistani singers of this form began embellishing their ghazal gayaki with elements not found earlier in this form? These elements would include complex taankari (not simply the meends, murkis and occasional sapat taans of  the earlier styles), and an emphasis on complex use of sargam within ghazal gayaki This shifted the gayaki from the simple tarannum style of the mushaira and the thumri-ang modulations of the tawaif’s style to a reimagined style that introduced into itself elements of the ‘classical’/khayal, satisfying the need to have an acceptable music tradition which while retaining elements of the ‘classical’ did not cross over into problematic areas. In this context, I might mention Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s essay, ‘Islam and Music: The Legal and the Spiritual Dimensions‘ where he points out the place of just such forms as qawwali and ghazal  within Islamic jurisprudence and hadith. He finds that in both cases such forms would be considered acceptable. (It is another matter that certain radical elements would disagree, as we have seen from the recent killing of a qawwali singer in Pakistan.)

When a form and its practitioners face spoken, written or suggested injunctions against a gayaki or against some aspects of the gayaki, singers need to change these aspects if the form is to survive and their lives as artists to continue. Thus, in India, at a time when thumri as a form was criticised as a somewhat lesser form and, even more sharply, as a form associated with the courtesan tradition, a form that was too erotic and had too many uncomfortable visual, dramatic and melodramatic effects, the form shifted its utterance. Its romantic lyrics were interpreted to be a metaphor for the spiritual yearning for union of the human soul with the divine. The form itself was rendered more acceptable musically. Thus, the avaratan of the taal was slowed down, khayal-like elements were introduced into the elaboration, creating a more expansive, softer, less edgy and saucy presentation. Certainly, the adaayagi and nakhra, and the dance-like elements, associated with this form were leeched out of it. Equally, the laggi portion became an exercise in taankari and virtuosity from being a play with rhythm and physical movement through dance. On the other side of the border, singers in Pakistan brought into acceptable forms such as ghazal and qawwali elements from khayal and other genres that found it harder to gain acceptance.

Pakistan Coke Studio’s bringing together of traditional styles (primarily folk and sufi-inspired forms, but also others like khayal bandishes as well) with modern sounds and arrangements might be yet another example of this response. The creation of the Coke Studio style seems to be a way that artists have responded to obstacles to the performance of their music in a manner that has led to the creation of a different group of listeners for a popular style, quite unlike any of its component parts. It has also tapped into the deeply-felt need to mark and reclaim traditions and roots, again, in a  fashion appreciated by and acceptable to a new generation.

When dispensations from above dictate what is acceptable for people to listen to or sing, when musical choices are dictated by political thinking, music and musicians have to change course or be drowned out. Certain styles, genres and bandishes cease to be performed at least in public, for want of audiences or worse, on pain of going against the grain. Faced with a lack of audiences, many bandishes about the Prophet or the Panj-e-tan have fallen into disuse in India. That we have not lost them all is a heartening fact. Faced with strictures against certain forms, ragas, bandishes, even names, Pakistani musicians have had to adapt their techniques and gayakis to fit into spaces and forms considered acceptable.

Yet the fact also remains that it is precisely at such times, when faced with restrictions, that singers both in India and Pakistan have found creative ways out of these imposed (either from outside or self-imposed) silences to keep their art and repertoires alive.

Vidya Rao is a thumri singer and writer.