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Aliya Rasheed is Pakistan's first and only female dhrupad singer.
The city of Multan, also known as Madinat-ul-Auliyah or the city of Sufis, resonates with paeans to Sufi saint Baba Farid (who was born here), the notes punctuated with the azaan from surrounding mosques. However, at a recent concert in Multan, a young, blind woman was crooning Aan sunayi bansuri kanha and a Ganesha vandana in front of an enraptured audience. The alaap slowly unfolded as she explored the long song of meditation, turning the notes into a hypnotic drone, and the concert into an austere experience.
Aliya Rasheed, 33, was singing dhrupad, said to be the oldest surviving form of classical music in India. The only female Pakistani dhrupad singer, Rasheed has performed at some 50 concerts in her country and outside, since 2006. She was initially averse, though, to the idea of singing dhrupad, which is essentially a form of worship that originated from the Vedas. "My first reaction was, yeh dhrupad kya bala hai? And who are Ram and Ganesha and why am I singing about them. I felt this was un-Islamic," says Rasheed, over the phone from Lahore.
Dhrupad, a genre of rendering a raga under a rigid structure and singing/playing it on a rudra veena or with a pakhawaj and tanpura, was popular under emperor Akbar until khayal took over. The downfall of classical music, especially dhrupad, in Pakistan began after Partition, when Pakistani musicians, including those who migrated from India, had to change lyrics, even the names of ragas and remove references to Hindu deities to be in sync with their country's newly-formed Islamic identity. Later, Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship ensured further tarnishing of such "un-Islamic" legacies.
But for a five-year-old Rasheed growing up in Dubai and later in Lahore, listening to Mere angne mein tumhara kya kaam hai from the film Lawaaris on a tape recorder and playing the grand piano her father bought for her to "bring some light into a sightless world", the story of dhrupad or what Partition did to it did not matter. "I wanted to learn music and its different styles," says Rasheed. The Pakistani came to India in 2001 on the suggestion of Raza Qasim, director of Sanjan Nagar Philosophy and Arts Institute in Lahore, where Rasheed was training in Hindustani classical music, and musician Shubha Sankaran. The latter thought Rasheed's voice was suited for dhrupad, especially the Dagarvani style taught by the Gundecha brothers.