Friday, July 30, 2010

"Islamic Art Belongs As Much To The Present As To The Past"

Titus Burckhardt

"For the contemplative man a lesson can be learned from everything." (Sufyan al-Thawri)
The art of Islam is essentially a contemplative art, which aims to express above all, an encounter with the Divine Presence.
The origin of Islamic art has often tried to be explained through tracing it back to some precedent in Byzantine, Sassanid, Coptic or other art, yet what is lost sight of, is the intrinsic and original unity of Islamic art and thus the 'seal' that Islam conferred on all borrowed elements.

In order to understand the essence of Islamic art it is first necessary to realise the different conceptions of art itself. From the European point of view, the criterion of an artistic culture lies in its capacity to represent nature and even more in its capacity to portray man. From the Islamic point of view, on the contrary, the main scope of art is not the imitation or description of nature - the work of man will never equal the art of God - but the shaping of the human ambience. Art has to endow all the objects with which man naturally surrounds himself - a house, a fountain, a drinking vessel, a garment, a carpet - with the perfection each object can posses according to its own nature. Islamic art does not add something alien to the objects that it shapes; it merely brings out their essential qualities. 

In traditional art, beauty and use go hand in hand; they are two inseparable aspects of perfection, as envisaged by the Prophetic tradition: 'God has prescribed perfection in all things.'

 It is connected with the concept of ihsan as set forth in the Hadith of Gabriel, whereby the religion rests on three fundamental principles: Islam (submission to the Divine Will), Iman (faith), and Ihsan. Ihsan may be translated as 'spiritual virtue' or simply virtue, and includes the ideas of beauty and perfection. More exactly it means inward beauty, beauty of the soul or of the heart, which necessarily emanates outwards, transforming every human activity into an art and every art into the remembrance of God. 

If we consider inward beauty and outward beauty, we find the latter has its origin in the former. To the extent that human activities are integrated into Islam, they become a support for beauty - a beauty which in fact transcends these activities because it is the beauty of Islam itself. This is particularly true of the fine arts, as it is their role to manifest the hidden qualities of things. The art of Islam receives its beauty not from any ethnic genius but from Islam itself and just as Islamic science has its roots in the Qur'an and hadith, so the typical forms of Islamic art are rooted in the spirit of Islam. 

Challenging the notion that works of art from earlier centuries need to be studied as historical 'phenomena'...for the Muslim, the great mosques of Kairawan, Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan, Herat and so on belong as much to the present as to the past, insofar as it is possible to realise the state of mind of those who created them, and thus what is timeless in the art of our spiritual ancestors is the roots in Islam itself.
An important lesson that Islamic art provides is in challenging the notion that works of art from earlier centuries need to be studied as historical 'phenomena', which belong to the past and have very little to do with the future. Against this relativistic point of view, for the Muslim, the great mosques of Kairawan, Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan, Herat and so on belong as much to the present as to the past, insofar as it is possible to realise the state of mind of those who created them, and thus what is timeless in the art of our spiritual ancestors is the roots in Islam itself.

(Burckhardt T, Mirror of the Intellect, Suhail Academy) 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Classical Instrument Sarangi

Sarangi and Tabla

"Sufism has made significant contributions to Islamic civilization in music and philosophy, dance and literature." The Garden of Truth, Seyyed Hossein Nasr 

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Classical Music Heritage of Islamic Thought

There is no historical knowledge how music was presented in the social setting of ancient India

It is, however, obvious that during the medieval, the so- called ‘Muslim’ period music acquired a respectable place in the set of entertainments which rulers, princes and rich people made available to themselves, In this setting, Dhrupad gave way to a lighter form of music which came to be known as Kheyal. Kheyal is an Urdu word meaning ‘emotion.’  In other words, the song or the poem became an important element, unlike Dhrupad where the chain of sounds was the main frame. The Kheyal is the mainstream classical music as performed today

Kheyal starts with alaap, in lower sounds and in slow motion. This is intended to unfold the ‘face’ of the Raag, its swaroop. The song has two alternating parts, sthayi (stable) and antara (higher). Sthayi is the resting level where the singing must return every time after having covered the ascendancy of the antara.

The whole performance of Kheyal is embellished by frequent taans, presented either in terms of the swars as pronounced, that is Sa, Re, etc., or just as vowels at the same sound levels. As for rhythm, after alaap the singing stays at a normal rhythm, but it gradually speeds up until we reach a crescendo which is presented as tarana. The consonants and the vowels which make the ‘words’ in tarana are without meaning - as in a mantra - and to make this a true representation of the Raag requires some skill.

 Jugalbandi, or a duet, is one of the interesting ways in which classical music is presented. The two performers may not be of the same class, although there are two famous cases of brothers, both vocalists, performing together, Nazakat Ali- Salamat Ali of Pakistan and Rajan Mishra- Sajan Mishra of Varanasi

 For the purists, ‘light classical’ or ‘semi- classical’ is an area of controversy. This class includes Thumri, Dadra, Tappa and Holi. The Thumri developed in about 18th century and was practiced mainly by courtesans for the entertainment of the rich. Varanasi and Gaya came to be known as the most prolific centers of Thumri. The practitioners of this genre do not accept its designation as ‘semi-classical’. It is pointed out, with good justification, that if Raag and Taal are both being adhered to, nothing else is required to name it ‘classical’. 

Poetry is the main component in a Ghazal. In fact, ‘ghazal’ is the name of a particular form of Urdu poetry, which is generally romantic, and sometimes devotional. Ghazal need not incorporate any Raag and is not contained within the discipline of Taal. The Ghazal singer needs only a light support of Tabla. Quite frequently, instead of the performer adhering to the framework of Taal, it is the Tabla player who adheres to the way the singing takes place. Understandably, the eminent Ghazal singers have used the lyrics of great Urdu poets, such as Zauq, Ghalib, Meer, or Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The words of the poem sometimes contribute much more to the listener’s pleasure than the music through which it is presented. Not being bound down with Raag and Taal, Ghazal singers are able to display great originality and innovation is the frills they provide.

Qawwali emerged as the musical expression of Sufi thought. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, arose in Arabia and Iran about 9th century, as a philosophical movement within Islam which places man in a passionate, emotional relationship with God and ultimately in union with Him. As far as is known, the musical presentation of Sufi experience as Qawwali was not developed until about 15th century when Sufi orders arose in different parts of India.
Undoubtedly, Amir Khusro, prince, poet, musician and Sufi, was the one who developed Qawwali in 15th century as a combination of mysticism with music. Qawwalis are presented at important Muslim shrines such as Salim Chishti in Ajmer and Nizamuddin in Delhi, as Kirtan is presented in Hindu temples. With several singers participating in a Qawwali, an orchestration of human voice rises, wave after wave, and when the poetry is deeply devotional, it casts a spell over the listeners. Great Qawwals have reasonably good classical training and they provide such inputs as aalap, tan, and even tarana, making a powerful presentation of rich music. A number of the songs still being presented are the compositions of Amir Khusro himself. Since such mystic experience is human rather than scriptural, the poetry employs images, metaphors, even stories taken from both Hinduism and Islam, and has a philosophical, rather than a communal flavor.

The word gharana, literally meaning a household in Hindi, is used in classical music to refer to a lineage of masters and disciples that have evolved a common style. The many gharanas of Indian classical music offer their own unique flavors and nuances, which are quite recognizable to the trained ear. Gwalior gharana is considered to be the fountainhead of all gharanas from where other vocalists learned classical music from their gurus and migrated to other locations if they were of extraordinary merit.

The gharanas were never based on the name of these ustads but the places where they had settled. Thus we have Agra gharana (not the Faiyaz Khan gharana). Following this convention, there are Patiala gharana, Kirana gharana and, of course, Gwalior, Jaipur and Indore gharanas. These came to be known as the principal ones. These gharanas had a distinct flavor of their own.

Indian classical music, never written and, therefore, never distributed to aspiring musicians, is learned at the feet of one's master. Ustad Allauddin Khan, when learning his craft, even worked as a domestic servant in his master's home.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chai: From China to Europe to India and Pakistan

The Chinese Emperor Shan Nong - 2737 B.C. - had a habit of boiling his drinking water. 

One day while he was in his garden a few tea leaves fell by chance into his boiling water which then gave off a rich, alluring aroma. The Emperor, upon drinking this brew, discovered it to be refreshing and energizing. He immediately gave the command that tea bushes to be planted in the gardens of his palace.

The Chinese originally called it “Kia”. As far as is know it was during the course of the 6th century AD that the name evolved into "Cha". On its arrival in the West it became Té which is still the name for tea in many countries.

Tea arrived in Europe via Dutch and Portuguese sailors at the beginning of the 17th century. British companies established for the importing tea, such as "The East India Trade Company" introduced it commercially in India. Although research shows that tea is indigenous to eastern and northern India, and was cultivated and consumed there for thousands of years. 

Today, in Pakistan drinking tea - known as Chai - is a cultural experience! The tea leaves are traditionally boiled in milk - doodh patti - and sweetened with sugar or gur. It is a leading beverage in Pakistan!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Tradition of Quilts or Ralli of the Indus Region

Women in the Indus Region of the subcontinent [Pakistan] have traditionally been the harbingers of the historical tradition of producing beautiful textiles as the “Ralli” quilts. Adorned with bright colors and bold patterns, the quilts are also called rilli, rallee or rehli derived from the local word ralanna meaning to “mix or connect”. 

Quilt making is an old tradition in the region perhaps dating back to the fourth millennium BC judging by similar patterns found on ancient pottery. Muslim and Hindu women from a variety of tribes and castes in towns, villages and nomadic settings make the rallis in the southern provinces of Pakistan - including Sindh, Baluchistan and the Cholistan desert - as well as the provinces of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India.

Rallis are made from scraps of cotton fabric dyed to the desired color. The most common colors are white, black, red and yellow or orange with green, dark blue or purple. For the bottoms of the rallis, the women use old pieces of tie-dye, ajrak or other shawl fabric. Ralli quilts have a few layers of worn fabric or cotton fibers between the top and bottom layers. The layers are held together by thick colored thread stitched in straight lines. The women sit on the ground and do not use a quilting frame.

The number of patterns used on ralli quilts seems to be almost endless, as there is much individual expression and spontaneity in color within the traditional patterns.

The three basic styles of rallis are: 1) patchwork made from pieces of cloth torn into squares and triangles and then stitched together, 2) applique made from intricate cut out patterns in a variety of shapes and 3) embroidered quilts where the embroidery stitches form patterns on solid colored fabric. A distinguishing feature of ralli patterning in patchwork and applique quilts is the diagonal placement of similar blocks as well as a variety of embellishments including mirrors, tassels, shells and embroidery.