It’s a shabby dry-walled apartment with the smell of boiled rice and rain. I’m seated on a partially ripped sofa that makes too much noise. Chand is lying on a floor mattress with one leg on top of the other. Suraj sits with his back against the wall opposite me but distracted by the television playing Pakistani soap operas. It’s near eight o ‘clock in the night and they are eager to discuss their form. In this damp setting are two legends of a fading art. They are Chand and Suraj Khan, fourth generation from the Patiala and Samchaurasi Gharanas families, sons of the great Ustad Hussain Khan, and masters of the classical forms.
The classical music of Pakistan is based upon the traditional music of South Asia, which has created subgenres such as the Klasik and Hindustani classic music. Classical music has been around since empires ruled the region. Today, the fusion of western music with classical instruments and mystic variations plays an important part in their music. The Pakistani classical music is usually synonymous with Sufi mysticism. Sufism is described as the refining of the core teachings of eastern religions into a way of living in harmony with the universe and the divine. The many families of classical music have inherited their music from their forefathers and ancestors. Chand and Suraj Khan are two brothers who are in this limited category.
Chand explains his early experiences with his family’s music. He says, “We’re from Lahore and the area we are from was quite a backwards area. The school I went to, the kids would call me different names, they would say ‘oh my god, we can always hear the sound from their house, always somebody is singing, I don’t know what sort of people they are’. I hate these types of slogans. I just made up my mind; I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to learn classical music.” He explains how his mother encouraged his father to teach them the craft nonetheless and continue the legacy. It was then, the brothers saw how respected their father was. Chand says “I saw lots of big people, famous musicians bow down to my dad, and touch his feet, lots of people around him, always asking him questions, and then I decided this is what we belong to”. Suraj would meet famous musicians who they had previously only seen on Television bow to their father. “My father is sitting on the sofa,” he says “and everyone else is sitting on the floor and I was wondering who the hell is he, that wherever he goes, he gets respect”.
They began to compose when they were in eighth class and were taught the techniques of the craft even before that. While Suraj continued his studies, Chand had his first tour with his father in 1999, where they traveled to India, Germany, France, and England. He expresses his fondness of those memories. He remembers his father telling him that duet singers have disappeared in the world and that he wished for them to continue their legacy. Chand continues “My preference was to be a great classical musician. And, by the grace of god, nowadays me and my brother, we had made a little name in our hometown. Whenever they talk about classical music and Sufi mysticism, by the grace of god, they will also mention us.”
Chand and Suraj carry on their conversation, explaining to me the rules of classical music. They point out that there are two main principles, sur which is the musical note and lai which is the rhythm. The arrangement of the rhythm into a circle is known as a taal. The systematic organization of the musical notes into a scale is known as a raag. There is traditionally a twelve note scale, however unlike western music, the base frequency of the scale is not fixed and inter-tonal gaps may also vary. Common instruments are Sitar, Tabla, Harmonium, Sarangi and Santoor. Nowadays the musical forms, instrumentation and texts are often adjusted to satisfy the tastes and expectations of modern international audiences. However the spiritual essence of the music remains. Improvisation plays a major part as well. For this reason and the technicality, Pakistani classical music has said to have been the Middle Eastern answer to jazz. Suraj says “We have specific types of scales, and we call them something else and they call them something different”. Chand adds “Music has its own specific language, anybody can judge and anybody can enjoy it also”.
With a new era, audiences for this underground art form have altered. They have had interesting reactions from audiences in the west. Chand states “What we do is rare. So when we meet other artists, it makes a good impression with them and with the audiences.” He also states that in some cases, they do find it superior as well. Suraj adds that they are always invited to festivals, invited to share their classical art with them. “Western audiences like reality.” he says, “They become invested in something different and they go all over the world to learn the classical music.” They have been performing for ten years with international audiences being invited to embassies, festivals, and events. They recall one of the most recent ones. Celtic organizations invited them to perform in the Commonwealth Games in July 2014 where they performed with Scottish musicians. They proudly state their joy at the audience’s reception. They were honored with a five minute standing ovation. He says that the audience would not let them leave the stage. They also had the pleasure of meeting the director of the festival who said he attends fifteen concerts every day for over three years and that their performance has been the greatest one of them all.
They continue to emphasis the importance of classical music. They believe that its practice is essential whether it’s pop or folk. In the past, there were periods of classical music when audiences were strong, the styles and techniques were evolving for the best and legends such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan were prominent. Chand states “if we ignore classical music, then we are ignoring culture. Without classical music, all forms of music are incomplete.” They speak about being the ones who have to maintain these traditions. “That’s our responsibility, being part of this big family. If there is no prosperity in the country, then what place is there for music? If there is no love and peace then what place is there for music? Because music is happiness”