Road Stories: The Wedding Fair

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Country fairs such as this one are common throughout Pakistan. Unlike the American travelling show which moves from town to town and is its own reason for being, most melas (fairs) in Pakistan revolve around the mazar (tomb) of a local pir (saint).   Mazars are areas of perpetual activity throughout the year as the local inhabitants come to offer prayers, seek guidance from the pir’s descendants (spiritual and familial) or simply seek the shade of a grove of trees nearby.

 

An attractive aspect of mazar culture is that secular activities are not just allowed but welcomed. This is never more so than on the occasion of the annual ‘urs’. Literally meaning marriage the urs signifies, in the Sufi tradition, the union of the pir’s soul with his divine bride. The urs is a time of intense and prolonged joymaking, eating, dancing, smoking, drinking, fainting, laughing, singing, ogling and of course, praying.

 

The urs of Syed Abdul Latif Qadri ‘Bari Imam’, a 17th century miracle worker and scholar is a 5 day extravaganza on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Around the green domed mazar itself malangs (wandering holy men) recognised by their green robes, kohl lined eyes and abundant bling smoke hashish and guide pilgrims in the niceties of ritual. The strains of qawwali emerge from a tent enveloped in a cloud of dust as hundreds of feet stomp and dance through the settlement. Cooking fires smoke and blaze all about the mazar and mosque enclosure as distribution of food to the hungry is an essential part of urs.

 

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Hazrat Abdul Latif Qadri “Bari Imam’

 

A network of alleys spreads out across the bumpy ground to form a buzzing temporary bazaar cramped with fried food and milky sweets of a thousand varieties, glasses of fresh mango and pomegranate juice, watermelon rinds and brittle clay pots, fortune tellers, henna designers, block print makers, and hawkers of topis and colourful nalas.

 

Here are tents and millions of loudspeakers each blasting a different tune. Dancing girls from Lahore perform on a hidden stage, while lewd skits entertain the overflow crowds outside. Burly mountain men from Murree and the Frontier take aim with toy air rifles at rows of small yellow and pink balloons. A makeshift photo studio is crammed full of young men who pay Rs 20 a piece to have their own image spliced on to a postcard of an Indian film star. Freak shows promise a prize of Rs 10,000 to anyone able to prove the snakelady is not real. Ferris wheels cut silently through the spring air moving nervous villagers up and down and up and down.

 

The biggest attraction of all is Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). A large rickety balti-cum-velodrome shakes and creaks as first a motorcycle, then a small car climbs the interior wall and races around and around perpendicular to the earth. Hijras (transgenders) work the crowds by gyrating, whistling and chasing the rupee notes that float down from the crowds lining the top of the wooden bowl, like so many autumn leaves.

 

The festivities ring on all night and into the early hours for nearly a week. In the end the pomegranates have all been juiced and dancing girls have returned to Hira Mandi. The Well of Death is taken apart. The huge cardboard cut outs of pretty actresses lie face down in the dust waiting to be packed up and taken to the next urs.

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Lost Heiress: Mehnaz Begum

Mehnaz, my latest favorite South Asian female singer!

Harmonium

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Some of you may know that I am currently writing a book on Lollywood, the not-very-original sobriquet for the movie making industry of Pakistan based in Lahore.

As I continue to dig and uncover more information about this rather unknown industry and cultural enterprise I am discovering all sorts of new singers, composers and musicians.* Or re-discovering some that I knew a bit about previously but hadn’t necessarily associated with filmi music.

Mehnaz Begum is one such artist and it is a great privilege to share with you some of her wonderful singing in this post.

Mehnaz Begum was born (1950) into a family which had a very particular musical heritage. As the Mughal Empire began to weakened after the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir, who exhausted its authority with incessant expansionary wars in the Deccan, smaller principalities and ‘kingdoms’ across the subcontinent began to exert power in their regions. One…

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A new blog! Lolly Pops

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As part of my ongoing research into the Pakistani film industry I have launched yet another (!) blog. This one is called Lolly Pops and is focused solely on the music made within and for the movies.

I will post mainly music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s the Golden Age of what is now known as Lollywood.  I will discuss just one song per post.

The inaugural post can be found HERE.  Each post will also appear on Harmonium, my blog dedicated to South Asian musical culture.

I hope you enjoy it!

Grace and Flow: Mehdi Hassan

Mehdi Hassan, undoubtedly, Pakistan’s greatest ghazal singer of the modern age

Harmonium

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A little New Year’s gift for all the dear followers of Harmonium.

This album claims to capture Mehdi Hassan live in concert in New York. I find that to be a somewhat dubious statement as each track has a very ‘studio’ feel to it. Clean, sonically level and with none of the rough edges and spoken asides that accompany all live performances.

But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Regardless of the veracity of the album’s title, the music is top quality. Mehdi’s tenor is suave and unforced. He delivers each ghazal with the panache of the supremely accomplished, hardly breaking a sweat. That doesn’t mean he is simply running through the material passion-baghair. Rather, he is at the top of his game. In the flow and full of grace.

And that seems to be a good attitude to possess as one year ends and another is soon…

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The Voice of the Golden Age: Noor Jehan

Fresh musings on 1971, war, generals, films and the stellar voice of Noor Jehan.

Harmonium

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1971 was not a very good year for Pakistan. Fighting their third war with India, the Generals, who had grabbed power more than a decade earlier, managed to lose half of the country’s territory and nearly half its population in a matter of a few weeks.

1971, on the other hand, was a very good year for the fledging country that emerged out of the debacle, Bangladesh.

Away from the battlefields and political humiliation that saw the military pushed back to the barracks and the capture of tens of thousands of prisoners of war, the Pakistani cinema industry had been enjoying a pretty neat run.

Indian films had been banned several years earlier which, regardless of your views on such policies, had enlivened the local, Lahore and Karachi based industry. A Golden Age had dawned. Between 1968 and 1971 the country was releasing over a hundred films a year, many…

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Rare Pressing: Mehdi Hassan

The first LP from a collection of old Pakistani and Indian music that came my way out of the blue1

Harmonium

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It just so happened that a friend and former colleague messaged me one day. Her father was getting rid of his music collection and there was quite a bit of vinyl of old Indian and Pakistani music. Should she bring it down to Melbourne next time she was in town?

The gentleman in question, who has so kindly gifted these records to me, is a Sikh from the Chakwal area of Punjab in modern day Pakistan. At the age of 11 he was forced, like nearly every other Sikh in that part of the world, to flee with his family to India. The biggest transaction of human capital and one of the biggest human, not to mention political and cultural tragedies ever to visit any country was underway in the form of the Partition of British India.

Our hero studied agriculture in India but left for Australia to pursue graduate…

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The Spirit Can Never be Killed

My tribute to the Sabri qawwali tradition in Pakistan

Harmonium

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The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:

Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai

[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]

The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the…

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