Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Afghanistan mourns Ghazal King Jagjit Singh’s passing and the loss of its own musical excellence

Naheed Esar Malikzay 8 min

On Monday 10 October 2011, Jagjit Singh, a legend of Indian music, passed away in Lilavati hospital in Mumbai. Hearing that heartbreaking news, Afghans have expressed their condolences and sorrows in different ways. After receiving several sympathy messages from friends and relatives, AAN’s Naheed Esar Malikzay reflects on how his music specifically and Indian music, generally, has influenced Afghans and Afghan music.

Very soon after Jagjit Singh’s death was made public,* I received a message from my sister saying ‘I heard Jagjit Singh passed away, that is really bad news. I am so sad.’ I had never received such a message on the occasion of a singer’s death. And that was just the beginning. In the hours after Jagjit Singh’s demise, besides constant Afghan media reports about the topic, me and my colleagues received condolence messages through facebook and by telephone. Many Afghan facebook users put Jagjit Singh’s photo as their facebook profile picture. A facebook message said ‘oh nooooo, It is a big lost [sic]. He has a big family around the world, specially in Afghanistan.’ Other facebook messages announced a week-long mourning for his death. Last but not least, some of the most famous songs of the Ghazal King were uploaded in some facebook profiles.

But why was Jagjit Singh so popular among Afghans? Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, director and founder of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, explains that ghazal**, as a light classical music form, was the most common form of Indian music entering Afghanistan, not least through the songs of Bollywood movies. And, of course, Jagjit Singh was the recognized king of that genre, and lent his voice to a number of movies which are still cherished memories for many Afghans.

The influence of Indian music and cinema does not only capture the fancy of ordinary Afghans, but it seems to affect Afghan politics as well. President Hamid Karzai sees Indian media as a cultural influence on the very foundation of Afghanistan. ‘Ask any Afghans, they would tell you about [Indian actor] Shahrukh Khan and [late Indian actor] Shammi Kapoor’, he said on 5 October 2011 in his speech during an official visit to New Delhi (for the full report see here).

The influence of Indian music on Afghan music is by no means a new phenomenon; there is a history behind that. It started when in the 1860s king Amir Sher Ali Khan brought a number of Indian classically trained musicians and singers to perform in his court. He settled them in Kucha-ye Kharabat (see our previous blogs here and here), where they and their descendants have lived for over a hundred and fifty years. As a result, Kabul became a centre for North Indian (also called Hindustani) music in Afghanistan, and the roots of Afghan classical music are deeply connected to that of North India. Rag and Tal are the two main aspects of North Indian musical tradition which play a major role in Afghan classical music as well.*** Dr. Sarmast notices even deeper historical connection between Indian and Afghan music. He said that ‘the Indian-Afghan musicians exchange has at least a 300 years-old background. Some evidence illustrates that Indian musicians first travelled to Afghanistan during the kingdom of Timur Shah’ (1773-1793).

The exchange between the Afghan plateau and the North Indian plains was not always unilateral, however. Some Afghan musical instruments, such as the rubab and the delruba, made their way deep into India. The rubab is not only played in its original form in many regions of northern India (especially in Kashmir), but it also developed into the sarod, one of the instruments more directly identified with Indian music by the world public (the other, the sitar, developed partially from the Persian setar that too reached India through Afghanistan). In more recent times, the example of the fame that Ustad Sarahang (a renowned Afghan classical vocalist, also famous for his ghazals) enjoyed among Indian masters, was seen by many musicians as an example of Afghan music’s influence in India.

But what worries many Afghan musicians is how the Afghan-Indian musical exchange recently became one-sided. Some of the musicians claim that until the 19th century the Afghan-Indian musical exchange was balanced. But the scale was upturned in recent times, when Afghan musicians started mainly adapting or copying Indian music. Dr. Sarmast sees the last two or three decades as the worst times for Afghan music, adding that now more than 60 per cent of TVs and radios broadcast Indian music, movies and serials.

Many musicians blame the government and the private sector for not supporting Afghan musicians. Obaid Ali, a student of Afghan classical music, notes that ‘the deterioration of Afghan music in the last decades is a danger for our culture’, adding that ‘it is not only a matter of the flooding of the market with foreign music, but also that Afghan musical production has failed to keep its excellent past standards’. He believes that it is not fair to only blame the lack of government support, as ‘most of the musicians have changed their approach to music to satisfy the demand of a public which prefers to listen to songs copycatted on “Western” disco motives and stuffed with “modern” sound effects. The overall result is a decreased quality of the songs, often produced hastily and without deep musical knowledge. This phenomenon happened in India first, and it is in fact this new type of Bollywood songs that affects the Afghan public most’.

Similar comments could be made for other countries whose music is popular in Afghanistan and that are witnessing a standardization of their own musical production. The wonderful ability of artists like Jagjit Singh to blend their classical erudition with a distinct sensitivity for commercial ‘fruition’ is rare.

This is particularly true for Afghanistan, where the untimely death or departure of many artists has left the new generations of musicians exposed to ‘cheap’ foreign influences and fashions. Ultimately, according to many Afghans interviewed, what is disturbing is not so much to see Afghan music being influenced by Indian music, but to lose a brilliant tradition of Afghan musical excellence, which has existed for centuries.

* Jagjit Singh was born on 8 February 1941 in Rajasthan, India. In order to improve his singing career he moved to Mumbai, famous for its cinema and music industries, in 1961. In 1970, he married Chitra, herself a famous singer, which proved also a turning point in his career, as they became a celebrated artistic duo. For more information about his biography see here. To listen to a famous hit from Jagjit and Chitra Singh click here.

** Ghazal originates from a medieval Persian poetic form which turned into a music genre in South Asia. Nowadays, ghazal’s language of choice is Urdu, and its best artists come from India or Pakistan.

*** Ragas are sequences of notes which, unlike scales, can be different in their ascending and descending order. Rag execution is subdivided in precise movements, and each rag is attributed to a time of day, a mood and sometimes a colour. Talas are rhythmic cycles composed of a specific number of beats, which inform the percussionist playing.

On Monday 10 October 2011, Jagjit Singh, a legend of Indian music, passed away in Lilavati hospital in Mumbai. Hearing that heartbreaking news, Afghans have expressed their condolences and sorrows in different ways. After receiving several sympathy messages from friends and relatives, AAN’s Naheed Esar Malikzay reflects on how his music specifically and Indian music, generally, has influenced Afghans and Afghan music.

Very soon after Jagjit Singh’s death was made public,* I received a message from my sister saying ‘I heard Jagjit Singh passed away, that is really bad news. I am so sad.’ I had never received such a message on the occasion of a singer’s death. And that was just the beginning. In the hours after Jagjit Singh’s demise, besides constant Afghan media reports about the topic, me and my colleagues received condolence messages through facebook and by telephone. Many Afghan facebook users put Jagjit Singh’s photo as their facebook profile picture. A facebook message said ‘oh nooooo, It is a big lost [sic]. He has a big family around the world, specially in Afghanistan.’ Other facebook messages announced a week-long mourning for his death. Last but not least, some of the most famous songs of the Ghazal King were uploaded in some facebook profiles.

But why was Jagjit Singh so popular among Afghans? Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, director and founder of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, explains that ghazal**, as a light classical music form, was the most common form of Indian music entering Afghanistan, not least through the songs of Bollywood movies. And, of course, Jagjit Singh was the recognized king of that genre, and lent his voice to a number of movies which are still cherished memories for many Afghans.

The influence of Indian music and cinema does not only capture the fancy of ordinary Afghans, but it seems to affect Afghan politics as well. President Hamid Karzai sees Indian media as a cultural influence on the very foundation of Afghanistan. ‘Ask any Afghans, they would tell you about [Indian actor] Shahrukh Khan and [late Indian actor] Shammi Kapoor’, he said on 5 October 2011 in his speech during an official visit to New Delhi (for the full report see here).

The influence of Indian music on Afghan music is by no means a new phenomenon; there is a history behind that. It started when in the 1860s king Amir Sher Ali Khan brought a number of Indian classically trained musicians and singers to perform in his court. He settled them in Kucha-ye Kharabat (see our previous blogs here and here), where they and their descendants have lived for over a hundred and fifty years. As a result, Kabul became a centre for North Indian (also called Hindustani) music in Afghanistan, and the roots of Afghan classical music are deeply connected to that of North India. Rag and Tal are the two main aspects of North Indian musical tradition which play a major role in Afghan classical music as well.*** Dr. Sarmast notices even deeper historical connection between Indian and Afghan music. He said that ‘the Indian-Afghan musicians exchange has at least a 300 years-old background. Some evidence illustrates that Indian musicians first travelled to Afghanistan during the kingdom of Timur Shah’ (1773-1793).

The exchange between the Afghan plateau and the North Indian plains was not always unilateral, however. Some Afghan musical instruments, such as the rubab and the delruba, made their way deep into India. The rubab is not only played in its original form in many regions of northern India (especially in Kashmir), but it also developed into the sarod, one of the instruments more directly identified with Indian music by the world public (the other, the sitar, developed partially from the Persian setar that too reached India through Afghanistan). In more recent times, the example of the fame that Ustad Sarahang (a renowned Afghan classical vocalist, also famous for his ghazals) enjoyed among Indian masters, was seen by many musicians as an example of Afghan music’s influence in India.

But what worries many Afghan musicians is how the Afghan-Indian musical exchange recently became one-sided. Some of the musicians claim that until the 19th century the Afghan-Indian musical exchange was balanced. But the scale was upturned in recent times, when Afghan musicians started mainly adapting or copying Indian music. Dr. Sarmast sees the last two or three decades as the worst times for Afghan music, adding that now more than 60 per cent of TVs and radios broadcast Indian music, movies and serials.

Many musicians blame the government and the private sector for not supporting Afghan musicians. Obaid Ali, a student of Afghan classical music, notes that ‘the deterioration of Afghan music in the last decades is a danger for our culture’, adding that ‘it is not only a matter of the flooding of the market with foreign music, but also that Afghan musical production has failed to keep its excellent past standards’. He believes that it is not fair to only blame the lack of government support, as ‘most of the musicians have changed their approach to music to satisfy the demand of a public which prefers to listen to songs copycatted on “Western” disco motives and stuffed with “modern” sound effects. The overall result is a decreased quality of the songs, often produced hastily and without deep musical knowledge. This phenomenon happened in India first, and it is in fact this new type of Bollywood songs that affects the Afghan public most’.

Similar comments could be made for other countries whose music is popular in Afghanistan and that are witnessing a standardization of their own musical production. The wonderful ability of artists like Jagjit Singh to blend their classical erudition with a distinct sensitivity for commercial ‘fruition’ is rare.

This is particularly true for Afghanistan, where the untimely death or departure of many artists has left the new generations of musicians exposed to ‘cheap’ foreign influences and fashions. Ultimately, according to many Afghans interviewed, what is disturbing is not so much to see Afghan music being influenced by Indian music, but to lose a brilliant tradition of Afghan musical excellence, which has existed for centuries.

* Jagjit Singh was born on 8 February 1941 in Rajasthan, India. In order to improve his singing career he moved to Mumbai, famous for its cinema and music industries, in 1961. In 1970, he married Chitra, herself a famous singer, which proved also a turning point in his career, as they became a celebrated artistic duo. For more information about his biography see here. To listen to a famous hit from Jagjit and Chitra Singh click here.

** Ghazal originates from a medieval Persian poetic form which turned into a music genre in South Asia. Nowadays, ghazal’s language of choice is Urdu, and its best artists come from India or Pakistan.

*** Ragas are sequences of notes which, unlike scales, can be different in their ascending and descending order. Rag execution is subdivided in precise movements, and each rag is attributed to a time of day, a mood and sometimes a colour. Talas are rhythmic cycles composed of a specific number of beats, which inform the percussionist playing.

Tags:

Music

Authors:

Naheed Esar Malikzay

More from this author