Uncovering Pakistan’s Sitar Story

The Context of Ali Ayub’s Sitar Thesis

Legend has it when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb banned music, his court musicians decided to appeal to his sense of mercy to save their livelihood. One Friday, as Aurangzeb was going to the mosque, he saw an elaborate funeral procession being carried by the musicians, who were ‘crying aloud with great grief, and many signs of feeling’. Upon Aurangzeb’s questioning, they answered that ‘the king’s orders had killed Music, therefore they were bearing her to her grave’. Unfazed, Aurangzeb calmly told them to make sure to bury Music well!

While Aurangzeb’s alleged “burial of music” is supposed to have spanned his (admittedly long) reign, classical music recovered and developed to reach new heights. Today we can see history uncannily repeat itself more than three hundred years later as the absence of a ruthless monarch does not hinder classical music’s miserable and final decent to the grave: we have lamented the destructive forces of pop music, cultural intolerance, governmental inaction and corporate commercialism many a times on this website. These economic and cultural forces have forced musicians into unemployment and to leave their art to die; a lucky fraction have gained employment as pop musicians or other low-paying jobs like kulfi sellers.

With the imminent death of Pakistani classical music, what’s worse is the lack of written material that would have forever captured this art in the form of words on a paper or bits on a hard drive. To quote Albert Camus, classical music’s impending fate is that “when [it] die[s], [it] die[s], and nothing remains”. However, there are a handful of researchers out there who are playing their individual, but invaluable role in the documentation of their terminal patient. Ali Ayub is one of them.

Ali Ayub is a researcher and musician whose graduation dissertation, “Sitar Music in Pakistan”, is a detailed analysis of the histories and styles of the country’s major sitar gharanas. Having interviewed the foremost exponents of the sitar and completed arguably the most extensive fieldwork the discipline has ever seen, his work’s significance is hard to put in words!

So let’s come to Ali Ayub himself. Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, his first exposure to music was not classical in the least: he discovered progressive rock as a teenager, began playing the guitar with his friends and even formed bands and did gigs. However, the turning point in his musical journey came during his years as a student in commerce college, when he stumbled across a CD of performances by Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar. Undaunted by its “heaviness” on the ears, Ali Ayub was astounded by its sheer beauty and stylistic novelty. He realized his true calling in life and resolved to learn the sitar, despite the absence of precedent in his family. The lack of any reliable financial and academic resources did not hold him back and he began taking classes at NCA in 2005.

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An eye opening experience followed. Apart from learning the sitar, Ali Ayub attended performances by the likes of the great Wasifuddin Dagar and was exposed to the arts of Pakistan like never before. He learnt about everything from South Asian history to the philosophy and analysis of music from national treasures like educationist Arfa Sayeda Zehra and polymath Raza Kazim. His voracious appetite for knowledge led him beyond the classroom and to the library, where he discovered the overwhelmingly disproportionate focus on India in classical music academia. The lack of a consistent cultural policy in Pakistan had led to security issues for foreign researchers and a pitiful dearth of resources for local ones. Inspired by the work of University of Pennsylvania professor Allyn Miner and horrified by the lack of academic work in Pakistan, Ali Ayub resolved to conduct unparalleled fieldwork and research on Pakistan’s under-documented sitar-playing tradition.

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In his quest to document the five major sitar gharanas found in present day Pakistan, Ali Ayub travelled across the country, from Lahore to Karachi via Hyderabad. Most sitarists refused to share their knowledge, offering excuses ranging from busy schedules to deaths in the family (of which we assume a fraction must have been genuine). This “gharana mentality”, i.e. jealously guarding musical knowledge from outsiders, continues to this day. Even when gently persuaded to share what they knew, sitarists of the same gharana would often give inconsistent information, forcing Ali Ayub to painstakingly corroborate each fact. This labor of love cannot be praised enough, but the ever modest researcher credits his success largely to his mentor Dr. Lowell Lybarger, a student of tabla maestro Mian Shaukat Hussain. Dr. Lybarger taught Ali Ayub the art of developing a bond of trust with musicians during his years at NCA when they would visit and interview musicians on weekends. The apprentice would assist the expert with his equipment, keenly observe his every action and follow his lead during delicate rituals like the bestowment of nazar (the money given to show one’s appreciation of a performance).

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Sadly, Ali Ayub’s research paints a grim picture of the current condition of sitar music in our country. While we may talk sentimentally of preserving our classical heritage, artists have to put bread on the table. A heartbreaking majority had resigned themselves to a fate of taking their art to the grave and hoping for a better future for their children in some other profession. Not too differently, Ali Ayub is devastatingly pragmatic and has low expectations from his research: it might help other researchers or encourage some individuals to explore classical music.

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Does a spark of hope remain? On one hand we see inevitable cultural and economic doom steadily encircle its limping prey while on the other hand are a few individuals tirelessly dedicated to the preservation of classical music. Perhaps this metaphorical anecdote can shed some warm light on today’s bleak situation: when Ali Ayub visited Ustad Abid Khan in Hyderabad, the former sitarist was selling kulfis in the street to make ends meet. His son, Shahid Khan, was going to leave the sitar for a financially safer profession but Ali Ayub tried to convince him otherwise. The result: today Shahid Khan enjoys a reasonably successful career as a sitarist.

So let’s do our best to ensure that the classical music survives this dark night.

دل ناامید تو نہیں ناکام ہی تو ہے 
لمبی ہے غم کی شام مگر شام ہی تو ہے
(فیض احمد فیض)
I haven’t lost hope, but just a fight, that’s all;
the night of suffering lengthens, but it is just a night, that’s all.
(Faiz Ahmad Faiz)

Save the Sitar is a website dedicated to promoting and preserving Pakistan’s classical music. Join our growing community to help further our cause!

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