Broken Strings

An Interview with Tanveer Hussain: Lahore’s Musical Decay

Tanveer Hussain, better known as Khan Sahib, is one of the few remaining classical musicians in Lahore.  His family has been playing classical music for seven generations.  Khan Sahib was a music director and used to sing, play the tabla and harmonium and compose music.  In his youth, he has played with famous classical musicians such as Noor Jehan, Mala Begum and Pervez Mehdi.

In his interview, Khan Sahib highlighted the destruction of an age old classical music tradition. He attributed this to many factors such as the advent of pop music, the lowering standards of academies, etc.

According to Khan Sahib, pop music ‘ready made hai’  (is ready made), meaning that it does not have any effort behind it. He believes that pop music ‘kaam nahin hai’  (is not [proper] work).  Pop music, being easy on the ear, is virtually the only type of music listened to nowadays.  Its popularity has resulted in the decimation of classical music, with no one listening to it any more.

The introduction of Western instruments has also been very detrimental.  As Khan Sahib puts it, ‘ye kab hui jab vo English saaz aagaey’  (This[decay] happened when those English [Western] instruments arrived).  The arrival of guitars, drum kits, etc. have been damaging, but the most destructive has been the electronic keyboard.  Electronic keyboards have the (dis)advantage that they can replicate a wide array of instrument voices.  Khan Sahib explains how they have robbed classical musicians of their jobs; meaning that fewer and fewer musicians can make a living by playing classical music.

Fewer classical musicians result in fewer listeners, which in turn result in even fewer musicians.  This vicious cycle of decay means that classical music is being abandoned by both the musician and the audience.  Khan Sahib sorrowfully recounts how his children have left the seven generation old family tradition of classical music. Except for one son who plays the electronic keyboard at a local hotel, none of his children have a job related to music.

The government has not taken any steps for the preservation of classical music or encouragement and benefits of musicians of this genre.  Khan Sahib compares the Pakistani government to the one across the border, the Indian government. He believes that good music academies are non-existent in Pakistan, while the Indian government has both created new academies, and honored musicians, resulting in a thriving musical culture. He considers the so-called music academies which exist in Lahore not as places to learn, but as places to perform.  Neither classical nor pop music is taught there. Students simply come to sing a few pop songs and then leave.  They do not train at all, Khan Sahib maintains.  He contrasts this to his rigorous classical training as a child under the old teaching style.

Khan Sahib reminisces how the musicians of the Old City (the home of classical music in Lahore) used to practice for hours at a stretch in the sweltering Lahori heat without a punkha (fan).  In the following video, Khan Sahib reproaches the lack of professionalism in musicians nowadays.

With no proper training in music, be it classical or pop, most of Pakistani musicians have reduced music to a shoddy replica of Western pop music.  As an expression of his discontent for contemporary music, Khan Sahib has written a poem in his mother tongue Punjabi in which he criticises the culture that worships pop music at the expense of classical.

He ended the interview by giving us a unique tabla rhythm called dotaal, which his family had guarded from outsiders for many generations. It was a touching gesture.

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7 thoughts on “Broken Strings

  1. This is a remarkably candid interview! The poem at the end is the cherry on top.
    I wish the Government would take up this important issue and help our culture regain its glory of classical music. Thousands of classical musicians have suffered the same unfortunate fate as Khan Sahab’s: unemployment and poverty.
    This blog’s efforts to bring light to the problems of the classical musicians must be appreciated. I will eagerly wait for your next post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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