The Forgotten Flute

A Fresh Perspective

on Lahore’s Musical Culture

Hassan Ali is a middle-aged musician who plays the harmonium and the bansuri (flute). His grandfather, the sarangi virtuoso Ustad Nathu Khan, taught the famed singer Farida Khanum. Though his main instrument of choice is the harmonium, Mr.Ali learnt the flute later on and enjoys its intrinsic beauty. He started playing music when he was around thirteen years old and has worked in both genres: classical and light music, often mixing the two in his work. He has performed in many concerts around the world such as in the UK and the Middle East. 

In his interview, he expresses his belief that classical music is the main juz, or ingredient, of all music. One should always learn it before venturing into other musical fields. Other genres, like pop music, are good to learn but are more like icing on the cake rather than the true base.

He also criticises the modern way of learning music, which is ever too often conducted through video courses, especially in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. In his opinion, learning face-to-face is always better, because only then can one truly absorb the teacher’s wisdom and experience. He believes that staring at a computer screen is nothing but a poor substitute for the traditional method of learning, in which the teacher can actively correct any of the student’s errors or misunderstandings.  


Alongside performing, Hassan Ali has taught several students, of whom many have adopted music as a profession. He remembers how he used to tutor them when they came back from school.

He aso fondly reminisces how his ustad, Lala Gulzar Hussain, taught him to play the harmonium by continously making him practice his pultain, or scales. Sometimes, his hand would go numb from the continuous practice! But he strongly believes that the hard work paid off and without such effort, a musician can never become truly competent.


At the end of his interview, Hassan Ali wishes to pass on a message to the future generation, urging them to carry on the ancient tradition of Pakistani classical music. He reminds them that there is nothing wrong with playing music, and dispels the common belief that music is sinful by reminding us of how devotional music like Qawwalis and Naats are also forms of music.  


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The Harmonium’s Voice

An Exclusive Interview with Harmonium Player Sahawat Ali

Sahawat Ali, a seasoned musician, has spent much of his life on the harmonium. Playing the harmonium has been his passion, skill and the only way to earn a living. But nowadays, more than ever before, he needs these skills to survive in times when Pakistan is under a Western musical invasion. He now spends most of his time teaching a few but eager students to make a living for himself and his large family. It has been a long time since he learned music from his teacher, the famous music director Akhtar Hussain Akhiyan. He has played on the radio and the televison, as well as recorded several music cassettes. He has also played at  Sachal Studios, a group working to restore Pakistani classical music by mingling it with jazz, and has worked with famous music directors Mohsin Raza, Wazir Afzal and many more as well.

Talking about his childhood and youth, he told us that he was taught music at an early age (about eight years old) by his chacha (paternal uncle), Liaquat Ali, a famed tabla player. He was then taught by Abdul Rashid, a buzurg (elder) for some time. He has participated in many musical festivals as well, such as the Jashan-e-Kabul in Afghanistan and the Jashan-e-Iran. He has toured the Middle Eastearn countries such as Oman, the U.A.E, Bahrain etc. as a part of musical groups. In his opinion, people from abroad treat music much better than Pakistanis do, which is a sad reality.

Alongside discussing his life as a musician, he also talks about how he teaches music nowadays. He tells us that he is quite optimistic about his students, who are enthusiastic about music, and hopes that they will pass on the long musical tradition that he has inherited. Yet he also expresses disappointment at the work being done by the government and other organisations for classical music, stating that ‘Laikan aisa kam nahin ho raha hai jo hona chahiye hain’ (But the work which is being done is not at the level that it ought to be).

He thinks that this decline is reflected in the condition of former classical musicians, saying that most of them have either stopped being active, emigrated from Pakistan or have passed away. In this way, the ancient traditions of classical music are being forgetten. Moreover, the young musicians replacing them are coming at too slow a pace. He repeats his claims that the government, who should have supported the former musicians in old age, did nothing for them, as it has done nothing for classical music as a whole.

In his opinion the golden age of classical music came in the 1980s, after which a general decline came. This is rather surprising as martial law was imposed in the 1980s and a general crackdown on musicians ensued. According to him, a decline occured after this time, with only a few major musicians performing nowadays, of whom Rahat Fateh Ali Khan he considers to be the best. He believes that Coke Studio and other such music shows, despite their numerous failings, are producing good music, and are helping classical music to survive, in contrast to singer and music director Tanveer Hussain’s opinion. Indeed, he believes that these shows are the only lifeline for classical music in a country where it is ignored.

In the end of his interview, Sahawat Ali wishes to tell us that he considers himself to be a musician from all the musical gharanas, or schools of music. He believes that he has been influenced by the Patiala and Sham Chaurasi gharanas, and by various musicians such as Amanat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. On a parting note, he gives a message to the young generation, emphasising the importance of dedication and quality of work.


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The Tabla

The Subcontinent’s

Rhythmic Backbone

The fingers dance in a blur of motion, whistling through the air. The audience leans in, intent not to lose a moment. A swift succession of sounds fills the air as the intoxicating rhythm pulls you in. The audience rise to their feet, swaying in time with the beat. In and out of this beautiful music the melodious harmonium weaves, complementing and decorating. This is the tabla, one of the most magical instruments of all.

The origins of this enchanting instrument itself are debated upon. Some say that it is descended from ancient Indian drums while others claim that it was carried into the Subcontinent by the Muslim invaders, who often carried sets of drums on camels and horses to scare away their enemies by the loud noise they produced. Still others insist that the tabla was created by a musician named Amir Khusrow in the eighteenth century by cutting a pakawaj drum in two. (No, we are not talking about the Amir Khusrow, one of the subcontinent’s most famous musicians). The word tabla itself comes from the Arabic word tabl, which means drum.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

While its origins are rather unclear, one thing is absolutely obvious: the tabla is the king of dynamics. Is there any drum that can be both as loud and imposing as well as soft and subtle as the tabla? The secret: it’s a hand drum. By playing with the hands, you get a very flexible instrument which can adapt itself to play many types of sounds, with this flexibility being otherwise lost in drums banged upon with sticks. (No insult intended for non-tabla drummers, but still…. You will understand the difference after watching this video).

As for the anatomy of the tabla, one should know that it consists of two drums: the dayan and the bayan. The dayan is normally situated next to the dominant hand of the musician, with the bayan being played by the other ones. Bayan means left in Urdu while dayan means right (a reference to the usual dominance of the right hand, for the dayan is more often at the right of a musician than at the left). But don’t worry, the tabla does not have a bias against left-handed people like some other tools and instruments. In fact the famed Khalifa, or leader, of the Punjab Gharana, Mian Qadir Bakhsh was left-handed. But we digress. The bayan is normally made of metal and the dayan with wood, but there are exceptions, like clay or wooden bayans. The traditional position at the tabla is to sit cross-legged in front of it, but there are many exceptions (we, for instance, often prefer wrapping our legs around the tabla for better support while playing at home).

The tabla has many different styles of playing. There are various schools of tabla playing, which are called gharanas. There are six main ones: the Punjab, Farukhabad, Benares, Delhi, Ajrara and Lucknow gharanas. The word ‘gharana’ comes from the word for household in Urdu, as the players playing in the style of a gharana normally were linked either through apprenticeship or actual familial ties to that gharana. Each has its own repertoire as well as their own playing style. These were guarded jealously and considered precious secrets. Due to this secrecy and the fact that the gharanas had very little interaction with each other, their styles were much more distinct. But now with better communication and the weakening of the tabla culture, styles are mingling much more than before.

Tabla notation is a modern invention. Traditionally, music was passed on orally using a unique system of bols, or words, which indicate which strokes to play. These bols are mainly shared only with the pakhawaj, another type of drum. Each bol stands for a different tabla stroke e.g. ta, tin, ghe, etc. These bols remain roughly the same throughout the gharanas, even though there are slight differences in the ways they are played. It is important to note that this oral tradition has in part been responsible for the demise of the tabla, since an experienced teacher is needed for proper learning and there are almost no tabla books to help a student. Furthermore, these oral lessons are much more easily distorted or lost in comparison to written lessons, which also contributes to the dwindling amount of tabla players. Yet luckily, not all is gloomy in the future of the tabla. Ustad Zakir Hussain, a tabla virtuoso, is at the moment creating interest in the tabla around the world. We hope that this will help save the tabla from the fate of the asor – complete extinction. And, of course, Save the Sitar is also trying to do its part!


Do you want to play the tabla? If so or if not, (you ought to) check out our series In the Footsteps of the Masters, where you will find comprehensive tabla tutorials for absolute beginners. The lessons are based on Ustad Keramatullah Khan’s tabla booklet The 42 Lessons for the Tabla.


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The Dying Voice of a Forgotten Civillisation

When peoplehear the term ‘wind instrument’, most people think of a flute or trumpet like instrument, which is played by a large amount of people. The borrindo, a traditional wind instrument of Sindh, does not fit this description. Played by an ever-decreasing amount of musicians, the borrindo looks more like a clay pot than a millenia old instrument. The borrindo traces its lineage back to the ancient Indus Valley Civillisation, which was located mostly in what is now Sindh in Pakistan. This instrument is played mainly while grazing cattle or some other such job which doesn’t require that much attention. It is quite easy to create, and not that hard to play, but the shifting attentions of the youth of Sindh are dooming this ancient instrument. The borrindo has survived for millenia, but it may not survive this century.

Further Information:

Geo News: Sounds of Sindh

The cover photo is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


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In the Footsteps of the Masters: Episode 2

An Eight-Matra Phrase

Guess what’s here? Our second episode in our series ‘In the Footsteps of the Masters’! In this segment we will play our first tabla phrase and will also explore some tabla theory, but don’t worry, it won’t get too boring! And remember, comments and queries are always welcomed at Save the Sitar.


Sites to Check Out

The 42 Lessons for the Tabla (Smithsonian Folkways)

In the Footsteps of the Masters (Our YouTube Playlist)

This article, including the inserted video(s), is not a substitute for the booklet “42 Lessons for the Tabla”. Please read the relevant parts of the booklet along with this article for a fuller understanding of the series “In the Footsteps of the Masters”.


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