An Introduction to Pakistan’s Classical Heritage

Journeying through the Old City of Lahore, the heart of Punjab, you are bombarded by an assortment of noises and smells. The calls of vendors in the bazaar, the smell of fresh-cooked naan, the clink of coins as they are dropped into the merchant’s hand, they all lure you out on the street. Yet in this colourful background, something is missing. What, you may ask. It is the rhythmic beat of the tabla, the melancholic song of the sitar, the strong, throbbing melody of the rubab. These instrument were a means of livelihood and entertainment to all. Now they are gone. Save the Sitar is a blog with one mission: to spread awareness about the disappearance of these instruments and help save them. For these are not only sources of livelihood or entertainment, these are parts of our culture.

This page is meant to introduce the absolute newcomer to some classical instruments. It also includes a description of Lahore’s Androon Shehr, or Old City and the present state of classical music.

The Instruments

The Sitar:

The sitar is a stringed instrument that is played throughout the Indian Subcontinent.  It is known to be extremely hard to play, with only a few master sitarists alive at present.  Traditionally the sitar plays melancholic music and is played with other instruments such as the tanpura or tabla.  It became vastly popular in the 1960s, when Ravi Shankar and his work gained international recognition.

For more information, go to our post on the sitar.

The Tabla:

The tabla is a pair of drums played in Indian Subcontinent, and Afghanistan.  It consists of the bayan (left) and the dayan (right) drums.  The tabla has a head of stretched goatskin and is played with the musician’s hands. The tabla normally provides rhythm to the raag or song being played by the other instrument, with master tabla nawaaz playing variations on the current rhythm.

The Harmonium:

The harmonium was introduced by British missionaries during the British Raj. Initially, it was hated by classical musicians; Rabindranath Tagore proclaimed it to be the ‘bane of classical music’.  However, its rich mellow voice made it an instant favourite, and it was soon adapted so that it could be used in classical music.  It is operated via a hand pump and played with a keyboard. Often it is used to support the singer or as a replacement of the sitar.

For more information, go to our post on the harmonium.

The Rubab:

The rubab is a wooden lute originating from Afghanistan, which is played in Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.  It is known for its powerful and energetic music which have made it very popular, especially in Afghanistan.

For more information, go to our post on the rubab.

The Androon Shehr

The Androon Shehr (literally ‘Inner City’) is the old city of Lahore which was built about one thousand years ago.  It is notable for its historical heritage, with ancient buildings such as the Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque and the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh.  The classical musicians of Lahore have housed here for centuries.  Prominent musicians from the Androon Shehr include Ustad Allah Rakha, Mian Shaukat Hussain and Noor Jehan.  The densely packed Androon Shehr is also home to a thriving bazaar where you can get everything from Khussas (traditional shoes) to mithai (sweet meats). 

The Androon Shehr

Classical Music Nowadays

Classical music in Pakistan is now practically nonexistent.  Out of Pakistan’s once thriving musical culture, only a handful of aged and financially strained musicians survive to remember the good old days, when audiences would flock to classical musicians’ performances and classical music was pop(ular). The danger of the complete extinction of classical music is real and century’s worth of knowledge and skill is being sacrificed to pop music.  Classical music is an integral part of Pakistani culture and is irreplaceable. The government itself has done next to nothing for the preservation of classical music, with the result being the decimation of a six centuries old classical music tradition. That is why Save the Sitar is trying to spread awareness about this, so that nobody can ignore such an important part of Pakistan’s culture.

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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