Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Aural Bandage: Reviving Music in Afghanistan


Perhaps it is that one cannot attribute any absolute meaning to it, or that its vibrations awaken within us senses that are otherwise dormant, but music has, for centuries, united communities, expressed woes, retold history, sparked great social movements and more intimately, restored our own inner balance. “Religion and music are the main anchors of any society. You take either away, and you get chaos,” says Samir Chatterjee, a teacher of Indian Music in New York. Pandit Chatterjee has been working passionately to revive musical traditions in Afghanistan–a nation wounded by decades of conquest–after the Taliban banned all art in 1996.

Most musicians fled to Pakistan while others found in possession of musical instruments were imprisoned or put to death; their instruments buried. Contrary to the Sufi belief that music is a link to God, the Taliban interpreted music as the language of god, and therefore impermissible to humans. Their threat reverberated in the stark desert landscape: “those hands that played music will become devil’s hands.” As a result, there was a rapid decline both in musical masters as well as skilled students to carry forward this complex art form. The spirit of the nation deadened as its silent streets gave way to sounds of artillery, gunshots and bombs when it was invaded by the US in 2001. Humayun Sakhi, master of the rubab, (a triple-stringed, double chambered lute and the national instrument of Afghanistan), says, “To make music, you need silence, which didn’t exist anymore”.     

After waiting four years for the government of Afghanistan to sponsor him with no avail, Pandit Chatterjee realized that time was running out. Assembling his own resources, he embarked there himself. There, “[he] witnessed people struggling. They knew what they needed, but didn’t know how to get it.” With the support of the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan (which has taken significant steps in revitalizing music), Pandit Chatterjee formed an organization called Chhandayan, which aims to restore musical traditions by collecting instruments, books and recorded music and re-introducing them into school and university curriculums. Chhandayan will also adopt musically inclined orphans to enroll in the conservatory that they plan to inaugurate on the 21st of March, for up to 1500 students. “This will also prevent them from joining the Taliban,” Chatterjee says, “If you don’t care about them, they rebel and the result is violence, the opposite of music.” This past December, he performed with two musicians, Shirin Agha on the rubab and Fateh Ali on vocals at the studio of the National Television of Afghanistan. Shirin has studied under Ustad Urfan, Director of Program, RTA and Fateh Ali was initiated under a local teacher after which he has been studying under Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan and Ud. Rasid Khan of India. "Our efforts are to bring their own music back to them so that they don't have to travel abroad, on the contrary they will soon be in a position to accommodate outsiders interested in their music".

Afghani music is characterized mostly by ghazals, Persian poetry sung above a variety of instruments, primarily the rubab and harmonium rhythmically accompanied by tabla or dhol. It is filled with mood: it is emotional and reflective of the nation’s sorrows and triumphs. Chhandayan aims to foster “spiritual hearing”, and in its earnest goals, has received generous donations from individuals in the United States and India. A few have been especially motivated after observing President Obama’s trajectory: political hope lends itself to artistic upheavals. “No one can live without music, not even the Taliban,” says Pandit Chatterjee, “art is a reflection of society.” It is when we stop creating art that we know that the human kingdom has met its end.

A ghazal is a form of poetry that originated in pre-Islamic Arabic verse around the 10th century. Several Indo-Persian poets utilized the structure of a ghazal in their writing, amongst whom, the poet, Ghalib and Gulzar are masters. It consists of five to twelve rhyming couplets and a refrain. Sans enjambment, the ghazal is a lyrical and lucid poetic medium that traveled throughout Asia due to richness of its content and the brevity of its form. Though each line must have the same meter, the ghazal progresses from expressing a deep sorrow over a loss of a divine or earthly love and transforms into finding the beauty in pain, the beauty finally resting in the act of singing the song itself.

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