Monday, March 24, 2008

Calligraphy at Lodhi Gardens

The Bara Gumbad (Big Dome) and Sheesh Gumbad at the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi have the most breathtakingly beautiful calligraphy engraved on their walls. This past July I was in Delhi. I had to meet someone at the India International Center but had a few minutes to spare. The Lodhi Gardens are right behind the IIC. I took a stroll there and even with my amateur photography skills took shots below (click on the picture to enlarge). I presume these are Quranic inscriptions, but I am not sure. Perhaps someone visiting here could help with that...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Little Qawwali Traditions

So there is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saahib, there are the Sabri Brothers, the Warsi Brothers, Aziz Mian, Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, Nizami Brothers, and on. Qawwali ("ecstatic Sufi chanting" or "Islamic Devotional" as it is sometimes known in the West) is now an internationally famous art-form. It has been rather successfully "concertized", if I may coin a clumsy verb. To "concertize" a type of music is to render it suitable for performance in modern concert-style, which as its own particular aesthetics, acoustics, performance-logic etc. Musical tradition after musical tradition has been transformed from its pre-concert performance context (I hesitate to say "original context"). The story of how Stradivarius violins turned out to be more suitable for large concert performances in the early 19th century because of the superior "throw" is well known. As is the rise of virtuoso solo performers (like Paganini) that was closely linked to the increasing popularity of concert performances. A concert institutes a strict separation between the musician and the listener. It is less intimate and it usually demands a more "polished" performace, more rehearsed, less homely, perhaps. I am only presenting a laundry list. This is not a rigorous analysis of the aesthetics of the concert. Of course traditions such as jazz and qawwali stretch the limits of "proper" concert behavior. Perhaps this is a topic for another entry.

The point though, is that the Qawwali is not really concert music, though the concert has made it widely available out of its more traditional performance venues of Sufi shrines, private assemblies etc. Even the rather polished performances of Nusrat, Sabri etc. retain an element of spontaneity (which to me seems crucial to the qawwali experience). There are however, many less known qawwals in South Asia and it is to them that this blog entry is dedicated. By less known I only mean less known internationally, or less known as judged by CD labels etc. You Tube the great leveler has some videos by such qawwals. One less known internationally but rather famous in his own milieu is Murli. I provide the links to two of his videos on You Tube, below. When you see the little stool with the microphone on it in front of the improvised stage, which itself seems little more than a khaat (a wooden cot), you will know what I mean by "little qawwali traditions."


Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Lesser Known Ghalib(3): The Mirror of Imagination

The next installment in the series of lesser-known Ghalib verses follows. Click here for my other Ghalib posts. I thought I would pick a Farsi (Persian) verse this time. Ghalib wrote many more verses in Persian than he did in Urdu, though understandably, in India his Urdu divan is far more popular. The story goes that Ghalib himself considered his Farsi ghazals to be far superior to his Urdu ones. I don't know how true the story is, though his opinion seems reasonable for a time in which mastery of Farsi was considered superior to mastery of Urdu. But of course in classic Ghalib style, this opinion of his mentioned above, is subverted somewhat by his own Urdu verse:
jo kahe yeh ke rekhta kyunke ho rashk-e-farsi
gufta-e-Ghalib ek bar use padh ke suna, ke yun!

For the one who asks, how can rekhta (Urdu) be the envy of Persian
Recite to him just one, Ghalib's poetry and say, this is how!

Anyway, after that long preface, here is the verse that caught my eye.

غالب چو شخس و عکس در آینہ خیال

با خویشتن یکی و دوچار خودیم ما

Ghalib chu shaks o aks dar aainah-e-khayaal
ba khveshtan yaki o dochaar khudim ma

Ghalib, like the person and the image in the mirror of imagination
With ourselves we are one and we confront ourselves or
I with myself am one and I confront myself

Although the farsi "ma" is translated as "we", if Farsi like Urdu allows the first person plural to be used by individuals (as in "hum" and "hamara") then probably me and I would be better translations and would make it more effective.

This seems yet another instance of Ghalib's fascination with paradoxes and counter-intuitive assertions. If the first line is taken without any punctuation, he seems to be saying, I am one and yet I also confront myself (in my thoughts), just as a person confronts his image of himself in his own thoughts. Perhaps not too too interesting.

But if we add a comma between "aks" and "dar", then maybe it becomes a little more involved. Or at least then a persons' self-image in the mirror of his thoughts is being compared to his reflection (in a real mirror). A thing and its reflection are two different things, yet they are also the same thing, and if they were not "the same", they would not exist as different entities. Similarly, we ourselves and our mental image are two different things, they confront each other, and yet, they both exist because they are one. Another way to say this is, "if you are the person thinking about yourself then why should there be a confrontation/encounter? The answer is that its like a person and his reflection. Aren't they the same? Yes they are. Aren't they also confronting each other? Yes they are."

Any other takes on this?