Song and Ecstasy

Song and Ecstasy

What are the greatest verities, the greatest truths of all? Samuel Becket said he wanted to leave a stain on the silence of the universe. That is what all great artists do: leave something behind which, if they are lucky, is eternal…will last through all of time and be worthy of notice even by the Most High when, as Holy Scripture would have it, the walls come down and the final moment is at hand.


The holy books, all of them, give us a foretaste of paradise, rivers of milk and abundance of honey – although what one would do with such an excess of milk has yet to be adequately figured out – wine that leaves no after-effects (which seems somehow dull because what is imbibing without a decent hangover?) and other rewards, houris and virgins, for the virtuous faithful who through good works and abstinence will have earned their place among the everlasting shades.


But, the less virtuous are entitled to ask, beneath the tall cypresses, taller than the highest mountains, will there be no games of chance, no rolling of the dice, no cricket matches on lazy afternoons? Let us say nothing about the true faith, because we can be very sensitive about such subjects, but even the Judaic and Christian religions do nothing to shed light on these questions.


Music is another touchy subject. The religious canons, I think all of them except of course those pertaining to the Hindu faith, equate music and song with license and debauchery, things that weaken the spirit and inject languor and sloth into the upright soul. But this is hard on sinners. The eternal shades without music and song, without ragas and symphonies? For the already weak in resolve, with a level of fortitude desperately in need of assistance, this would be a tough sell.


What about the Persian and Urdu poets, say, Hafiz and Ghalib? If we take their poetry to be expressions of the divine spirit – and I think most of us would agree that all great poetry is exactly that, whether Greek or Hindu or Persian – will they not be amongst the elect, allowed entry into the pearly gates and admitted into the Divine Presence?


But once there, where will they be allowed to set up camp? With whom will they consort? What will be their company? Surely there will be some kind of categorisation along the rivers of milk and honey and the cooling streams. Otherwise imagine the confusion: Ghalib put beside portly doctors of the faith, not that doctors of the faith lack a sense of humour – not a few of them have quite a mischievous sense of humour – but there is still something to be said for congenial company.


There is a Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey for the dead. Will there be no Poets’ Corner in the never-ending gardens for the eternally living?


Somerset Maugham says somewhere that the faithful ascribe all qualities to the All-Knowing except a sense of humour. The Greeks knew better and with them there are frequent references to the laughter of the gods. The Semitic religions are more austere. In their conception of the Most High there is no room for any levity. I have tried reading the King James’s version of the Bible several times and although it is great literature – for the knowing of English one should imbibe its cadences – there is so much of fire and brimstone in it that for weak souls like mine at least it is a bit off-putting. Too much strictness, for which of course there would be the most compelling reasons, but somewhat difficult for erring souls to fully understand.


No Bach, no Mozart, no Beethoven? The armies of the faithful have been vouchsafed no assurances on this score. No Falstaff and no taverns of the night where such molls as Doll Tearsheet hold court? No raucous assemblies, no harmonium-playing, no beating of the tabla? Is it paradise we are talking about or a stellar version of Darul Uloom Deoband? These are metaphysical questions which require some examination.


One of the formative influences on the young Kundan Lal Saigal was a Sufi saint in Jammu, Salman Yousaf. Saigal was a tall, lanky, dreamy-eyed youth not particularly good at his studies. His mother, Kesar, was worried about him and took him to the saint. Salman Yousaf had one look at Saigal and told his mother not to worry: the boy would be a great singer but provided he did riyaz (practice) in a certain way. And, as legend has it, he gave a few tips.


Music was a daily routine at the dera of Pir Salman Yousaf and it is said that Saigal used to go there and join the other devotees in their singing. His mother used to sing bhajans at religious functions and Saigal would accompany her. He would also “sneak near the house of a professional singing girl in his neigbourhood (and hear her sing). This is the reason some fans find a flavour of kotha style in his rendering of ghazals.” (All this from the web thread


At age 12 Saigal almost lost his voice. Again he went before the saint and was told that he had not practiced in the prescribed manner. And he was sat down and told how it was to be done. In later life Saigal was to say, “I was reborn at the age of 12 in the hut of a saint in Jammu.”


How do we deal with the singing girl beneath whose balcony the boy Saigal stood? Would she also not be amongst the elect, with Hafiz and Ghalib and the rest of the roistering and bawdy crowd making merry in the everlasting fields? Saigal was the first singer to sing Ghalib the way he should be sung. As Naushad (the music composer) was to say, “At last the incomparable poetry got the incomparable singer.”


The history of human civilisation is very short – 5,000 years (if even this) which is but a passing moment when set against the age of our universe, there being billions of other universes of which we know not and whose extent our minds are too poor to encompass. Before the light there was eternal darkness and of what is to come we know nothing.


Yet in the short span allotted to it the human species has achieved so much. In the midst of all the flux which is the ebb and flow of history and civilisation and the march of time, the chosen of this species, the few representatives of the human race who have attained immortality, have left monuments in music and the arts which defy the ravages of time…so many eternal stains on the silence of the universe.


Homer is for eternity as are Virgil and Shakespeare and the other poets, Hafiz and Ghalib included, who make up the immortal train. Virginia Woolf in a haunting essay assures us that when the Most High is seated on His throne, to one side of Him will be Homer and to the other side Shakespeare. Our own poets cannot be too far away. Saigal and the great singers, and who knows the singing girl from whom Saigal imbibed some of his ghazal singing, will also be around. If before the Divine Presence the human race has any significance it will be because of its poets and singers, musicians and artists. (The highest science is also poetry. Mathematics is music. The internet is one of the wonders of human civilisation.)


Otherwise most of the human race is composed of idiots and shallow men, mean-spirited and devoid of imagination. It is a poor idea of the divine scheme of things to suppose that angels will be put to the task of rescuing and redeeming, and leading across the Milky Way, the hypocrites, humbugs and imposters who have constituted the bulk of humanity since the human race emerged from the trees and walked the earth.

Ayaz Amir

A Pakistani Journalist, and a Member of National Assembly in Pakistan's Parliament

  • Afnan Ahmed

    I like music. I love some of the rhythms and tunes. However, I think you had more of a decent hangover when you wrote this article!


    “I like music. I love some of the rhythms and tunes.”

    Now that’s what I call a rebellious Islam-defying resurgent spirit!

    • Afnan Ahmed

      I am not Islam-defying … not one bit. Because the mind cannot understand what the eyes cannot see, I wouldn’t want to understand everything in the minutest of details. This want of not understanding everything and still following … people call it faith. May all be blessed with it!


    Hafiz and Ghalib.

    Hafiza gur vasle khahi tu gar ba kaahs-o aam
    ba mussalmaN Allah Allah ba brahman Ram Ram

    Neend uski hai demaagh uska hai raateN uski haiN
    Jiskay shaabo pe teri zulfaiN pareeshaN ho gaieeN


    And my dear Ayaz Amir how could you forget Omar Khayam.

    “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
    A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
    Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
    And Wilderness is Paradise enow.


    And you also forgot Faiz and the his ghazal-go Mehdi Hasan who introduced Faiz “ba khaas-o aam”

  • Farhan

    what i understand of Jannat that it will make u happy, whatever the way u feel like. For Arabs short of milk and honey, it would flow streams. For Pakistanis, it means getting Zardari to Hell