Shakespeare opens his play with these lines and you get into the act with rapt attention. If music is indeed the food of love, the absence of music must be the opposite of love. And that is what Arieb Azhar and Jawad Sharif have shown in their captivating documentary about the dying art of folk music in Pakistan. ‘Indus Blues’ takes you through the hinterland of Pakistan where exceptionally talented musicians, singers, and makers of musical instruments reside, and live a life that suffers from intimidation and misery.
Since our young creative directors and produces – especially those who are not in the commercial mainstream – get scant coverage and encouragement, today’s column is an attempt to give our readers some insights into how our folk musicians have been targeted by bigots in our society since the time of our third military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, whose hatred for dance, drama, music, and almost all performing arts has left an indelible mark on our society.
‘Indus Blues’ tries to explore the world of music in Pakistan from Gilgit to Gwadar. Locating musicians was a challenge in itself and listening to the stories of artisans and craftsmen – who make musical instruments from boreendo and alghoza in Sindh to chardha in Hunza – is heartrending. Arieb Azhar, the second son of legendary Aslam Azhar, the founder of PTV, is the creative director of ‘Indus Blues’. Jawad Sharif, a young film editor and director has produced and edited it. Arieb Azhar is now running T2F in Karachi whose founder, our brave and courageous Sabeen Mahmud, was assassinated in Karachi for going against the tide.
It was Aslam Azhar under whose leadership PTV introduced TV audiences across Pakistan to folk singers such as Faiz Baloch, Syed Suleman Shah, Khamiso Khan, Alam Lohar, Munir Sarhadi, and many others. That was the time when classical dance was presented on PTV and Naheed Siddiqui’s performances used to mesmerise viewers. But then the harbingers of doom and purveyors of gloom gradually penetrated the entire spectrum of social and political structure, resulting in an alienation from all things that could inculcate an aesthetic and artistic sense of appreciation among people.
Now ‘Indus Blues’ has taken up the challenge to document near-extinct music and musicians. This is groundbreaking in the sense that, prior to this movie, no other director or producers had ever attempted to highlight the issues faced by our folk musicians and instrument-makers, and how they are trying to keep their art and craft alive. The film begins with a scene in which Ejaz Sarhadi (son of Munir Sarhadi) starts playing the sarinda in front of Peshawar University. The filmmakers had obtained all clearances from security officials and university authorities.
As soon as they start filming, a bunch of rowdy students from Jamiat – the notorious culture-bashing wing of Jamaat-e-Islami – appear and physically manhandle the crew and the musician. When the crew shows a no-objection-certificate (NoC) and security-clearance letters, the Jamiat goons refuse to even see the letter and say: “it doesn’t matter even if the higher authorities have allowed you. We are the authority [here] and won’t allow you to play any music”. Arieb Azhar tries to explain that it would take only a couple of minutes, but the attackers have none of it.
A last attempt is made by Jawad Sharif to explain that they would preserve the last surviving sarinda player in Pakistan, just to record the culture and heritage of Pakistani folk music. To this, the leader of the gang makes a chilling statement with a broad grin: “this is neither our culture nor our heritage, and if we allow you to play music here even for a few seconds others will follow”. Such is the level of prejudice against our own culture and music in certain segments of our society that have been nurtured by own decision-makers.
Then, ‘Indus Blues’ takes us to Zulfiqar Faqeer, the boreendo player. The boreendo is one of the oldest musical instruments in Sindh. It is made from baked clay and consists of a hollow ball that can be clenched in a fist. It normally has a big hole in the centre, with a couple of smaller holes on the side. When you blow into the big hole, the smaller holes are manipulated with fingers to produce music. Some music historians consider it to be a predecessor of the flute that was initially made from clay too.
Faqeer narrates his story and takes us to an old man, a clay-potter, who is a master at boreendo-making, but lives in penury. Both lament the sorry state of folk music and musicians in Pakistan. Their dwelling is basic and their income is meagre, but they have devoted their lives to boreendo music and its preservation.
The story then moves to Goth Khamiso Khan where Akbar Khamisu, son of the legendary Ustad Khamisu Khan, the alghoza player resides. The alghoza is also an instrument whose history goes back thousands of years to Egypt and other countries.
In Sindh, the alghoza is a woodwind instrument consisting of a pair of joint beak flutes that are of different sizes, but are played simultaneously. One of the flutes is for melody and the other is for drone (aas and dhun). In Punjab, the flutes of the pair are mostly of the same size. Akbar Khamisu takes us to Ibrahim Hajano, the wisp of an old man and one of the very few alghoza-makers who prefer a life of poverty, but keep on producing alghozas that bring them hardly enough money to survive. Sattar Jogi and Mai Dhai from Umerkot play the murli and dhol with enchanting acoustics.
Filmmaker Jawad Sharif then takes us to Mubarak Village, Karachi, where Mumtaz Ali Sabzal, the banjo player, is full of energy with his banjo by his side. The Balochi banjo is very different from the American banjo. The latter is mostly a stringed instrument whereas a keyboard also plays an instrumental role in the Balochi banjo. In Balochi-speaking areas of Karachi, especially in Lyari and Malir, the banjo is an integral part of the music scene. Perhaps football and the banjo are the two distinguishing features of Baloch life – something that isn’t commonly found in other parts of Pakistan.
Ustad Sachu Khan is one of the most prominent saroze players in Pakistan. He lives in Sui, Balochistan, and suffers from chronic ailments now due to his age and financial conditions. In the documentary, he narrates his moving story about how he was taken to other countries of the world by government authorities to showcase Pakistani culture and music. He says that nobody cares for musicians and singers after such trips. When they get old, they live a life of neglect and suffering, sometimes dying in isolation. Not even a column is devoted to them in the mainstream media.
From Muhammad Jaan, the saroze-maker, and Krishna Laal Bheel of Rahim Yar Khan to Ustad Ziauddin, the sarangi-maker, and Shafqat Kareem, the chardha-maker, the story is almost the same.
As Gulbaz Kareem of Hunza highlights in his interview, centuries-old instruments, melodies and music are fading away and nobody seems to be bothered. Zohaib Hasan, a sarangi-player in Lahore, laments that an ever-increasing religiosity has crippled the minds of our populace. Be it Nighat Chaudhary, Nabi Bakhsh, or Saif Samejo and Fakir Juman Shah, all are sad and dejected. Although they can’t turn the tide, they are striving to do whatever they can to preserve the arts that might become extinct within our lifetime.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.