Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Munshi Raziuddin Ahmad Khan: A Recollection

A Mehfil at a Musical Crossroad

"It was the winter of 1966. My father was Collector of Customs Karachi, and for some reason the Customs Officer's Association decided to hold a musical evening at the Customs Club. At his suggestion they invited a Qawwal Group called Manzoor Ahmed Niazi aur Hamnava--he had heard them and liked their music. And since my father was the chief guest it was mandatory that the family attend. I went with some reluctance, being an adolescent with a western education. I was more into the raging musical earthquake brought about by the Beatles, and I really didn't look forward to another evening of indecipherable and boring Desi Classical music. The pill, however, was sweetened by the fact that some of my cousins would be there.

"The performance started and there was this diminutive but distinctly attractive man sitting in the middle of the front row of the Qawwals, conducting the choral ensemble. His gestures, which seemed staccato and comical at first, gradually absorbed the listener with the charisma they radiated. The music was moderately boring, and I tempered the boredom by making eyes at a Norwegian moll brought along by a guest who was a prominent Karachi industrialist of the time. The attempts to gain the lady's attention were roundly unsuccessful, so the mind wandered back to the music and the spectacle of the performance. Towards the end of the concert they sang Qamar Jalalvi's Mareez-i-Mohabbat which turned out to be a terribly flirtatious Ghazal and got the audience rocking. They rounded off the performance by singing Dumha Dum Must Kalandar. The rhythmic brilliance was such that I was hooked, no contest offered by the Beatles.

"Therein lies the beginning of a forty-year association with the house of Munshi Raziuddin. In the earlier days, us kids would think that he was Manzoor Qawwal and would refer to him as such. This misapprehension was prompted by the fact that Munshi Raziuddin was conductor, lead singer and master of ceremonies of the troupe and it was only logical that he be THE Manzoor Qawwal.

"The troupe broke up in the mid-sixties. With time, Bahuddin became the most prominent. But with the emergence of Abu Mohammad and Fareed Ayaz, Raziuddin's offspring have become Pakistan's foremost contemporary Qawwals, and after Nusrat Fateh Ali's demise, the most internationally traveled. They are too classical to attain Nusrat's World Music status, but it does the soul a lot of good to see that they have a devoted audience.

Friend, Philosopher and Guide

"Munshi Raziuddin's home in Karachi, near Gandhi Gardens, is a wonderfully chaotic place in an overcrowded neighborhood that never sleeps. The home, always warm and welcoming, abounds with several children and countless grandchildren. Munshi Raziuddin had his room, at the street level, abutting a drain, where he would stay among books, manuscripts and magic potions, very much a presence in the neighborhood. One spent many an evening here, sitting in cross-legged comfort in impromptu mehfils where Razi Mian or his sons or Naseeruddin Saami, his nephew and son-in-law, would provide demonstrations of the intricacies of one or the other raaga. At other occasions time would be occupied by genial conversation covering various matters, spiritual, musical or worldly. This home has hosted many a scholar, singer or aficionado eager to steep in Razi Mian's musical tradition.

"Munshi Raziuddin descends from Tanras Khan, a major figure of the Delhi Gharaana who performed and was prominent in the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zaffar. He spent his earlier years in Hyderabad Deccan. His desire for learning and his inquisitiveness caused him to master just about any language or dialect spoken in Northern India as well as Arabic and Persian, and to travel the length and breadth of pre-partition India, as well as the Middle East. His first trip to Europe was to Paris, in the inter-war period, when he was a youth. He accompanied some Sufi with whom he was rather taken at the time. He did not visit the continent again until 1990.

"His spoken Urdu had a mellifluous beauty that is no longer encountered. His mastery of poetry enabled him to weave a tapestry of expression, combining couplets from diverse poets to create a singular poetic context. His knowledge of the raaga was absolute, and rare was a song where he would stay within the confines of a single raaga, choosing instead a medley of raagas, poets, couplets and languages to create the musical experience. He successfully resisted the urge to resort to the vulgarization of Qawwali and stayed in the gayaki as had passed through the generations of his lineage. Despite his adherence to tradition, he was intensely curious about the contemporary world. In his first visit to Vienna, one of the first things he wanted to hear was Michael Jackson, who was the rage at the time. On hearing some of my children's favourite tracks, he proceeded to try and spot the raagas that could be the root of Michael's songs.

"In addition to his domains of musical knowledge he studied and practiced Yunani medicine, and was a learned Sufi Scholar. He had that rarely encountered intellectual clarity to be able to express simple answers to the most complex problems. He was a cook of fairly fearsome proportions and had a terrific—and irreverent—sense of humour. In later years he took to distinctly eccentric forms of dress. Despite his flamboyance, he was modest in spirit. My wife, in the Indian gesture of respect, would bend down and touch his feet on meeting him, and one could see his embarrassment at being so deferentially greeted by a Saydani.

"Above all, he was a friend, philosopher and guide. His passing has left an unfillable spiritual and intellectual vacuum. He rests at the elbow of the main mausoleum of the Mewa Shah Graveyard with a prominent sign adorning the canopy over his grave. In Urdu, it says 'Hazrat Munshi Raziuddin Ahmad Khan, Qawwal', and a couplet expressing his desire to change the world with his music. A simple sarcophagus covers the grave, and visitors have draped chadars over it, in reverence to the man's memory. Weighing the chadars down are two pieces of marble with the English 'Welcome' and the Urdu 'Khush Amdeed' etched on them. A sweet, warm and naïve touch for a man who was an edifice of knowledge yet never lost his innate innocence and affection for life."

Text taken from Asif Mamu's "Notes on the Music".


Chintan Tyagi said...


I am just discovering the rich musical heritage of Munshi Raziuddin. Brilliant blog. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Allah jannat-ul-firdous me jaga ata kare Munshi Raziuddin Ahmad khan sahab ko