By Noor Jehan Mecklai
The Friday Times : 15 Dec 2017
Noor Jehan Mecklai is enthralled by Saffia Beyg’s magnificent new publication on the Subcontinent’s classical music tradition
Saffia Beyg, one of the foremost in the promotion of classical music appreciation in Pakistan, has recently launched Sampurna, a magnificent and comprehensive volume on the classical music of the Indian Subcontinent. With its arresting front cover, and its wealth of invaluable information, diagrams and pictures on semi-glossy pages, it is certainly a collector’s piece. It sets out clearly and simply the history and salient points of this art, mentioning also many famous exponents from Amir Khusrau and Tansen to the present day, concluding with an illustrated chapter on the instruments used in the performance of this type of music. And we are rewarded with a complete and easy-to-follow presentation of the author’s method of teaching classical singing. Although there is a glossary at the end of the book, it’s a pity that there is no index – though it’s no punishment to leaf through the wonderful pages to find what you’re looking for!
At the launch, Saffia Apa, as she is affectionately known, received many plaudits from her past and present students of classical singing, including the renowned Tina Sani; from noted performers like Sheema Kirmani; and from the Goethe Institut Director, who remarked that having seen the book, he at last knows what a raag is, “after searching high and low.”
Saffia Apa has given practical advice on the method with which she taught herself singing after her ustad passed away
Saffia was born in Myanmar, and came to Pakistan via Bombay, where she had ‘many encounters with music,’ especially at the home of her cultured father-in-law, who often invited distinguished musicians there to perform. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s voice “completely blew me away,” she says. “His singing touched me so deeply that it developed in me the urge to engage wholeheartedly in this style of music.” But wasn’t till the age of 44, some years after moving to Karachi with her husband, that her “independent journey in sub-continental classical music” began, with lessons from Ustaad Valayat Khan. Then finally she met her mentor, Ustad Hamid Hussain, who taught her until he passed away in 1982. From then on she taught herself, evolving the method with which she has taught many to sing, particularly the young – for whom she established the Academy of Performing Arts, inviting performers from abroad such as the Chris Lauer Quartet from Germany and the Long Island Youth Orchestra from the U.S.A. When the academy was closed down by the government in 1988, nothing daunted, she then established ‘Sampurna’ (literally the seven notes of the scale), which she ran from the safety of her home, with the aim of creating awareness of, promoting and preserving classical music, since it is “an inherent part of our culture.”
There followed invitations to perform in local shows, to give workshops, lectures and demonstrations. And, as well as holding performances by outstanding local artists for Sampurna members at her elegant home, she invited distinguished musicians from across the border – by this means raising their awareness of our rich musical heritage. Support was also given to artists languishing in the doldrums, while the ‘adopt a child musician’ scheme was launched, along with other public-spirited gestures.
While writing of the history of Subcontinental classical music, Saffia pays tribute to “the three great exponents of music popularly admired to date,” though, naturally, she also mentions that “there have been highly skilled singers and instrumentalists across the subcontinent in every period.” Amir Khusrau is mentioned as having, among his many achievements, introduced the qawali style of devotional songs, and having worked on the three-stringed tritantri veena until it became the modified sitar. He also brought into being new raags such as Kafi, Zilaph and Sarfada, and compositions such as Yaman, still popular today. He was “one of those creative Indians born into Hindu and Muslim society who invariably contribute to the composite flowering of culture …” Meanwhile Tansen has inspired several legends, but “one of the most useful services that [he] rendered was [the] sorting of the tangled skein of ragas and raginis that had grown in mass over the centuries. He discarded many that were loosely framed or overlapped, pruning some 4000 down to a manageable 400.” Then it was Swami Haridas, “a 16th century yogi and a musician who taught the technique and art of raag – alapana druvpada (words of truth) – and sang along with all the secrets to his favourite disciple Tansen.”
The book follows a very logical order. Firstly, as to the art of singing, the author begins by describing briefly the 13 points of voice production, the first 12 being essential for both singers and speakers. The first point, of course, is breath control, since breath is the basis both of life and of pleasing utterance in song and speech – though it requires a much more delicate control in singing. Mouth shape is another point, absolutely essential to correct pronunciation.
Excellent advice is given on the scale (saptak), showing how to identify notes – shudh (natural), komal (flat), Ma Tevar (sharp), higher octave and lower octave – while a comparison is given of the Indian and Western notation and of the Western, Hindustani and Carnatic scales. We are also treated to information on how the shudh notes correspond with the 7 basic elements of the body, also to the colours assigned to them by some Sanskrit authorities, whilst others relate them to the cries of various animals and birds, among them the peacock’s cry, the goat’s cry and – wait for it – the elephant’s trumpet!
As to the raag itself, the six factors that make up a raag are given, along with an explanation of the nature of the raag. Then follows information on the three aspects of rhythm, i.e. taal, laya and maatra – taal being the most important aspect of classical music – and the bols that go to make up the various taals, starting with the much-favoured Tintaal. As one goes through the book, with its thorough presentation, one cannot but admire the uncluttered layout, which certainly makes for easier understanding and points both to the author’s generosity and to the graphic designer’s sensitivity.
The book is, in the words of eminent musicologist and sitarist Deepak Raja, “a rejection of the despair and cynicism that are endemic to our classical music community today”
Based on her own diligent study, practice and listening, Saffia Apa has given, in the chapter titled ‘Learning Classical Music Today’ full and most practical advice on the method with which she taught herself singing after her ustad passed away. She explains some realistic ways of executing and understanding a raag, along with key techniques required to come to grips with the basics of classical music, including the ingeniously simple point of looking repeatedly at the keyboard diagram for each raag, showing the notes to be employed. Meanwhile her notes on the various raags and thaats are most informative. And for serious aspirants she recommends two hours daily of the vigorous and increasingly demanding scale exercises given, these being most productive in terms of vocal and mental agility. Actually, two hours go by very quickly if one is practising an art with full dedication.
Concerning the publication of thousands of compositions and the formation of the Ten Thaat Theory to categorise Hindustani raags, we are indebted to the celebrated Vishnu Narayan Bhatknde, a musicologist of comparatively recent times. These 10 thaats make up the attractive Circle of Thaats on page 77, presented with a website on which one can listen to them. The thaats given are Kalyan, Bilawal, Khamaj, Kafi, Asavari, Bhairavi, Bhairon, Tori, Purvi and Marva. Much of the book is devoted to the raags derived from each thaat, along with keyboard diagrams. Where possible, Saffia tells us who composed the thaats and where the currently used name differs from that found in the aforementioned circle – as in the case of Raag Todi, now known as Raag Bhairavi.
Following this comes information on the gharaanas – what a gharaana is, how they differ in style and photographs of famous exponents of each: “…talented musicians who have played a great role in popularising classical music all across the world.” So amongst them we read of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Rais Khan and Bhimsen Joshi who sang until a very advanced age. We also learn about Bismillah Khan, Roshan Ara Begum, Begum Akhtar Ravi Shankar and other notables.
Concluding with an illustrated chapter on the musical instruments used in the Carnatic and Hindustani styles of classical music, the book is, in the words of eminent musicologist and sitarist Deepak Raja, “a rejection of the despair and cynicism that are endemic to our classical music community today. Anyone would appreciate that this [all-inclusive volume] is a labour of love … [Saffia Beyg’s] commitment and tenacity are worthy of admiration.”
Noor Jehan Mecklai lives in Karachi. She devoted 17 years to classical Kathak, has been writing about books and art for many years and is a student of Tibetan Buddhism.