Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Dream Journey, Dec 1-8, 2014

Unlike most of the other posts in this blog, this is not a presentation of music, nor a recollection of past concerts, but the sharing of a special experience in which, you, the reader, may want to participate… do spare a moment or two to read through.

As with many such things, it all started as a Good Idea. Five friends (1) with a shared passion for South Asian classical music and Qawwali thought it would be wonderful to travel through Pakistan to capture the sights and sounds of old musicians and new, in their living environments.

Organizing the journey would have daunted mere mortals, not least due to our being spread across three continents, and the need to engage several musicians to perform over the planned 8-day trip.  As if that was not enough of an obstacle course, there was just a month available for arranging everything, prior to our congregating in Karachi for the start of the trip.

It seems that naive enthusiasm and ambition were outmatched by the blessings of the Powers That Be and everything fell into place. Most of the chosen musicians consented to be available for the scheduled times. In addition, one of Karachi’s best documentary film-makers, Mahera Omar, selflessly volunteered her time and resources to film and record the entire journey. As Musab, our young aficionado, has remarked, in a recent blog posting, it seems that the spirit of none other than Ameer Khusro blessed our endeavor.

The result of our enterprise was nothing short of exhilarating — the journey took us to Karachi, Lahore and Deepalpur. We recorded six sessions of vocal music, and a conversation with one of Pakistan’s leading Khyaal singers, all of this spanning dozens of hours. Some of the musicians are established and famous, others not so well-known, and one or two are amongst the brilliant budding talent that adorns Pakistan’s musical scene today. The music covered several forms in the Indo Pakistani tradition: Thumri, Ghazal, Qawwali and Khyaal. The kalaams that the musicians recited ranged across the whole spectrum of great poets: Khusro, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Kabir, Baba Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Iqbal, Faiz and numerous other mystic poets of India and Pakistan. The performances evoked memories of the vibrancy of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Delhi, the great aura of Ajmer, the haunting mysticism of the Great Rajputana and Sind Deserts, the fertile lushness of the Punjab, the majestic beauty of the Indo-Gangetic plane…

While each of the mehfils had a distinct atmosphere and mood, there is a common thread. We asked each of the musicians to stay close to their respective inherited musical traditions. The audiences were intentionally minimal in size, so that the interactions of the audience and musicians were on the artists’ terms, with no distraction or concession made to contemporary fashion. In some instances, the singers presented pieces that are rarely heard today.

Mahera has put together a three-minute trailer that perfectly encapsulates the mood:

We are inspired to present the entire brilliance of this contemporary Pakistani vocal musical to as wide an audience as possible, by producing a series of films that capture The Dream Journey.

Our fearless Director, Mahera Omar, spent most of the eight days in this state of concentration. 
Her serious visage conceals a wicked sense of humour, though.
Photo courtesy of Musab bin Noor.

This enterprise of editing and producing the films and making them public over a dedicated website will require financial resources that are beyond the collective capacities of the current Partners in Crime, and if the film trailer and this description inspires you to contribute, dear reader, your financial contributions will be more than welcome.

The performers and their music (in order of mehfils recorded)

Karachi Mehfils

The Prelude — Shad Muhammad and Taj Muhammad, at T2F
Photo courtesy of Arif Ali Khan.

Taj Muhammad, Shad Muhammad and Nasir Niazi Qawwals: This group of young Qawwals trace their lineage to Atrauli in UP. Ustaad Alladiya Khan (1855-1946) is credited with the creation of the Jaipur/Atrauli Gharana. The Dhurpad form, as expressed by the Dagar Bani, inspired this tradition that is one of the major schools of North Indian Classical Khyaal. Allahdiya Khansahib undoubtedly influences the Qawwali offshoot of the Atrauli gharana.

In Pakistan, the late Ustaad Moin Niazi Qawwal, the father of Taj and Shad Niazi was the prominent Qawwal from the Atrauli tradition, and attained considerable acclaim. His sons, Taj Muhammad and Shad Muhammad Nasir Niazi are emerging on their own after the demise of their elder brother, Ghaus Muhammad Nasir Niazi, who previously led the group. The brothers exude a quiet confidence and depth of musical training. Their beautifully enunciated poetry and measured performance set the stage for the rest of The Dream Journey.

The performance was held at the premises of T2F, one of the most innovative and vibrant cultural spaces of Karachi, where Sabeen Mahmud kindly lent us the premises to hold this and the two subsequent mehfils.


Qawwal Bachchay Delhi Gharaana: The Qawwal Bachchay are the musical aristocracy of Indo-Pakistani Qawwali families. These are descendants of twelve young boys trained by Hazrat Ameer Khusro (1253-1325) in reciting Qawwali, one of his musical inventions.

Of the various branches of the Qawwal Bachchay, the most senior are the offspring of Mian Sa’mat bin Ibrahim, who was initiated by Hazrat Ameer as the leader of the choral ensemble of the twelve. Mian Sa’mat’s descendent, Mian Qutub Baksh, (known familiarly as Tanras Khansahib) rose to prominence as the founder of the Delhi Gharaana and chief musician of the Darbar of Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the last Mughal emperor. He migrated with his family to Hyderabad Deccan in 1857, and his offspring were raised in Hyderabad, although some of them migrated back to Delhi and a branch of the family are the chief Qawwals of the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Hazrat Ameer’s patron saint.

Four grandsons of Tanras Khansahib — Ustaads Manzoor, Bahauddin, Munshi Raziuddin and Iftikhar — migrated to Pakistan in the early 1950s. From the late 1950s to about 1970, they formed a musical ensemble, Manzoor Ahmad Khan Niazi aur Hamnava, which constituted the foremost exponents of classical Qawwali in the sub-continent. The troupe branched out in the ‘seventies with each of the four master Qawwals attaining independent prominence and training his respective offspring in the art. Iftikhar passed away at an early age, as did his son, Afaq Ahmad.

The next three mehfils involved the offspring and students of Ustaads Manzoor Ahmad Khan Niazi, Iftikhar Ahmad Khan Niazi and Munshi Raziuddin Ahmad Khan.

Ustaad Abdullah Manzoor Niazi, the eldest son of Ustaad Manzoor Ahmad Khan Niazi, was one of the principal Qawwals in Ustaad Manzoor’s party and after the passage of Manzoor Sahib, led a Qawwal group formed with his brothers. Recently he has branched out with his sons supporting him.

The performance, held at T2F, was steeped in Khusro’s kalaam and of a rigoruos classicism. Given the youth of his sons and accompanists Ustaad Abdullah carried the performance with a command and virtuosity rarely found in contemporary Qawwali, capturing Khusro’s poetry and its musical emotionality in all its subtlety and intensity.

Reviving the memory of his legendary father — Ustaad Abdullah Manzur Niazi — at T2F 
Photo courtesy of Arif Ali Khan


Subhan Ahmad Nizami is the grandson of Ustaad Iftikhar Ahmed Nizami, the eldest member of the original Manzoor Niazi group. Iftikhar was one of the most versatile musicians of the group. His son, Subhan’s father Afaq Ahmed Niazi, was the family librarian, a specialist of Persian poetry and was proficient in classical music. After his father’s untimely death in 1999, Subhan, just 18 years old, formed his own qawwali group to continue the legacy of his father and grandfather. Subhan and his brothers are largely self-taught, not having benefited from the day-to-day guidance and tutelage of their elders. Their mastery belies their youth as much as it testifies to their dedication to the art.

The performance was soothing to the ear as much as it was captivating of the soul. Some have aptly named Subhan and his brothers the “intellectual” Qawwals.

The intellectual Qawwal, sweet, melodic, pristine expression—Subhan Nizami at T2F
Photo courtesy of Arif Ali Khan.

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad are sons of Munshi Raziuddin Ahmad Khan. They are, arguably, Pakistan’s foremost and most internationally renowned living Qawwals.

Fareed Ayyaz, the senior singer, was a prodigy who sang with aplomb as a junior accompanist, ever since he was ten or eleven years of age, in the Manzoor Niazi group. That experience and the enormous musical and poetic knowledge learned from his father allows Fareed a mastery of poetry that enables him to weave a tapestry of expression, combining couplets from diverse poets to create a singular poetic context. Rare is a song where he stays within the confines of a single raaga, choosing instead a medley of raagas, poets, couplets and languages to create the musical experience.

This mehfil was held at the home of the Qawwals, in the Qawwal Muhalla, Garden East, Karachi. The neighbourhood has five or six streets named after the great Karachi-based Qawwals of the ‘50s and ‘60s. This neighbourhood never sleeps, it is home to some 40 families of Qawwals and, like so many parts of Karachi’s urban jungle, has a vibrant, chaotic atmosphere.

The Master Qawwals—Fareed Ayyaz, Abu Mohammad and family at their home in Garden East, Karachi. 
Photos courtesy of Arif Ali Khan

The mehfil spanned some six hours and can hardly be termed a conventional qawwali mehfil. It involved intense and spontaneous conversation about music and its spiritual roots. It involved a session where the newer generation recited Qawwali in an Ustaad/Shaagird session, with Fareed providing immediate musical guidance to the newer generation emerging in its own right. It culminated with a recital by Fareed and Abu Mohammad of classic qawwali. All this and the location aroused intense nostalgia for the hours spent in Munshi Raziuddin’s company at this very home.

Photo courtesy of Arif Ali Khan

Deepalpur Mehfil

Ustaad Ameer Ali Khan’s family hailed from Kapurthala in East Punjab, and migrated to Lahore and then to Deepalpur in 1947. Borne in Pakistan, Ameer Ali Khan’s father Ustaad Rafeeq Ali Khan was a student of the great Ustaad Fateh Ali Khan and Ameer Ali Khan of his son, the legendary Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Salt of the Earth — Ameer Ali Khan and party at Deepalpur, Punjab
Photos courtesy of Arif Ali Khan

Our journey from Lahore to Ameer Khan’s home in Deepalpur took place in balmy weather, under the crystalline Punjabi winter sky, driving through lush citrus orchards and fields blossoming with vivid yellow mustard flowers. The majesty of the surroundings elevated the spirits and set the mood for the mehfil that lay ahead. Our arrival in Deepalpur was greeted by warmth and hospitality from perfect strangers, with whom we paused to seek directions, radiating the legendary salt-of-the-earth character of rural Punjabi culture.

Ameer Ali Khan is a vivacious presence with music oozing from his very pores. In our mehfil, he sang both solo pieces and conventional Qawwali his immense energy is harnessed and does not force the gimmickry that is the resort of lesser singers. There is a unique musicality to Ameer Khan’s style of recitation, matched by the complex, vocal expressions of his accompanists, the tabla and the harmonium. Few experiences can surpass hearing the poetry of Baba Bulleh Shah or Waris Shah when sung by Ameer Khan in the authentic, verdant, rural Punjabi setting… 

Salt of the Earth — Ameer Ali Khan and party at Deepalpur, Punjab
Photos courtesy of Arif Ali Khan

Lahore Mehfils

The next two sessions were Khyaal performances, held sequentially in our last evening in Lahore. They were kindly arranged by the Lahore Music Forum at the premises of Hast o Neest, Lahore, a center for learning and preservation of Sufi heritage.

Ustaad Mubarak Ali Khan ranks among the senior generation of Pakistani khyaal vocalists. Trained under his uncle, Ustaad Ghazanfar Ali Khan and considering Ustaad Amir Khan of Indore his ‘roohani’ ustaad or inspiration, Khansaheb blends the colorful musical style of the Punjab with the rigor inspired by Ustaad Amir Khan.

An old master — Ustaad Mubarak Ali Khan KMF/Hast o Neest Mehfil
Photo courtesy of Arif Ali Khan

At the LMF Session, Ustaad Mubarak Ali chose a particularly delightful set of Raagas — Shudh Kalyan, Shahana Kanara and Maru Behag — rendered in his mellifluous voice with a mastery that only age can attain. He concluded his recital with a Thumree in Pahari. A particularly amusing part of the performance was his instructional asides to two members of the audience, spirited young scions of leading singers of the Lahore/Punjab classical music scene, gently but meaningfully showing them that he could teach them a thing or two when it came to singing… 

Ahmad Raza is a budding Khyaal singer, who lives in Khanpur in Southern Punjab, and drove up to Lahore for this performance. Ahmad is the grandson of Ustaad Hussain Bukhsh Dhaadi, a disciple of Ustaad Ashiq Ali Khan.

Having received initial guidance from his father, Sakhawat Hussain, Ahmad is presently being trained under the watchful eye of Ustaad Bade Fateh Ali Khan of Patiala and Gwalior gharana’s Ustaad Fateh Ali Khan. This makes Ahmad Raza unique, embodying two of the greatest traditions in North Indian Khyaal, those of Gwalior and Patiala. On this evening, he chose to sing a 57 minute Raaga Bhopali. The complexity and confidence of his performance belies the singer’s youth. Here is a young master in the making, able to hold his own amongst the leading Khyaal singers of the subcontinent.

…And a young master in the making—Ahmad Raza at the LMF/Hast o Neest Mehfil.
Photo Courtesy Arif Ali Khan

Finally, while in Lahore, we had the pleasure of a chance meeting with Ustaad Naseer ud din Sami. Ustaad Naseer ud din is also from the family of the Qawwal Bachchay, and is nephew and son-in-law of Munshi Raziuddin Ahmad Khan, who was his main Ustaad. In earlier years, Ustaad Naseer ud din sang Qawwali with the Manzoor Niazi Qawwal group and later with Munshi Raziuddin but decided to pursue his passion for Khyaal. His musical training and single-minded devotion has elevated him in stature to one of the most respected Khyaal singers in the subcontinent, a just recognition of his effort and all the difficulties he encountered in his musical journey.
A fountainhead of knowledge—Ustaad Naseer ud din Sami.
Photo Courtesy Musab bin Noor
Ustaad Naseer was kind enough to devote some three hours to a conversation that reflects his gentle intensity as he talks of the roots of the great North Indian musical traditions of Dhurpad, Qawwali and Khyaal. The discussion and its propagation would be of great educational value for those with a passion for Indo Pakistani classical music.

So where do we go from here?

The journey was filmed on three or four cameras used for each session, yielding some 100 hours of raw documentary footage of music and conversation.

We propose to produce a series of nine volumes of international class DVDs devoted to the Dream Journey. Each DVD would be about 90 minutes in length. One DVD would be a synthesis, presenting highlights of each performance and the conversation with Ustaad Naseer ud Din. The other eight would be devoted to the individual artists.

All this translates into production financing for the documentary that far exceeds the voluntary financial contributions that we have devoted to the project thus far.

We are intentionally seeking philanthropic, rather than commercial, financial support so that we can retain the freedom to circulate and use the material in the widest public sphere, without restrictions as to proprietary ownership, and without commercial benefit to the producers and director.

Sponsors/co-sponsors will be acknowledged in the credits of the final documentary and will have the right of first use at the launch of the final product. — Asif Hasnain.

For further information:
Email :
Twitter : @dreamjourneyflm
For contributions go HERE !

(1) Vaqar Ahmed in Karachi, Arif Ali Khan in Montreal, Zain Mujtaba in Toronto, Musab bin Nur on medical duty in the North of Pakistan, and Yours Sincerely.

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