Sunday, 12 February 2017

Allahdad Khan: A tribute to the Music Man of Peshawar

Allahdad Khan: A tribute to the Music Man of Peshawar
S. Amjad Hussain
Published September 2004

A few weeks ago Allahdad Khan passed away in Peshawar. His untimely passage from the scene went mostly un-noticed because his life and his accomplishment had remained hidden from the public at large. It was only in recent years that some people in our hometown had started to take note of this remarkable man.
He was a connoisseur par excellence and an ardent collector of Indo-Pakistani music. At the time of his death he had collected close to 14000 (it is fourteen with three zeros) 78 rpm records of Indian and Pakistani music dating back to the very early days of music recordings in India. His is a fascinating and interesting story.
Allahdad Khan was born in a lower middle class family in Peshawar. As a young lad he was more interested in movies and music than in studies. He would often skip school to catch a matinee of an Indian movie at one of the theatres on the cinema row in Peshawar. Along the way he started collecting music records and movie memorabilia. He did that, he once told me, to help keep the movie scenes fresh in his mind. He dropped out of high school in the early fifties and somehow landed a job in the city government as a draftsman. He acquired an old Motorola gramophone and embarked upon a life-long journey that was still in progress when he suddenly died of a heart attack at age sixty-eight.
As a young man he did a lot of financial juggling to balance the needs of a growing family and his passion for collecting music. On a limited fixed income of a draftsman he managed both rather well. As his reputation spread among other private collectors, some of them in India, a bartering system developed between them where extra copies of records were exchanged to fill in the gaps in their individual collection. Many of those collectors also sent him unconditional gifts of music that he reciprocated. All told at the time of his death, in addition to the massive collection of 14000 records, he also had hundreds of videos of old Indian movie, songbooks, movie posters and other memorabilia. In time he became a walking encyclopedia of Indian movies and music.
Our paths crossed about 10 years ago when on a visit to Peshawar I heard of the man and his collection. I called him with some trepidation for I was not sure he would allow a stranger into his secluded world. He turned out to be a typical Peshawari who could (and did) ‘inflict’ his hospitality to the limits.
My first impression of seeing his collection was no different than of a kid in a candy or toy store. The shelves and cupboards in his hujra were stacked high with cardboard boxes bearing names like Saigal, Kamla Jharia, Jag Mohan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Miran Bakhsh, GM Durrani and hundreds of other singers.
We sat Peshawari style on the carpeted floor with bolsters and cushions and he played my favourite music on an old electric record player. He knew his collection well and could, had I asked, find a record from his collection blindfolded. As he played music he would tell me about the particular score, the year that record was cut and interesting anecdotes about the singer. He played for me the very first record cut in Calcutta in1905 by Gohar Jan who incidentally was from Peshawar and had gone to Calcutta in search of fame and fortune and had found both. He also played a rare and now almost forgotten early 1940’s song Allah Allah Hosla Hai Quaid-i-Azam Tera by Sitara Kanpuri. She was the one who had sung the immortal song Pardesi Kyun Yaad Aata Hai.
Next day he came around to my place and left cassettes of the music we had enjoyed the previous day. Thus started a rather special friendship between us that lasted for the remaining days of his life. A sitting with Allahdad Khan became the highlight of my periodic visits to Peshawar. Every Friday afternoon he would open his hujra for his friends and even strangers to enjoy, over tea and refreshments, the offerings of forgotten melodies from the past.
Allahdad Khan reminded me of another connoisseur of art, in this case visual art, who single-handedly collected a vast array of minimal and conceptual art. Herbert Vogel, a salaried employee in the post office and his wife Dorothy, a reference librarian in a public library in Brooklyn, New York started collecting modern and contemporary drawings and sculptures in the early 1960s. They became interested in art because of their friendship with a then obscure artist by the name of Sol Lewitt whose work they patronised. In due course they also started adding the works of other budding artists to their collection. Along the way came the works of Robert Mangold, Donald Judd, Christo (famous for shrouding buildings and monuments with fabrics), Carl Andre and dozens of other artists. Since they could display only a small portion of their collection in their rather small apartment the bulk of the art remained crated and unopened. Their collection, according to art historians, surpasses in range, complexity and artistic quality that of any known private collection of conceptual art in the world. A few years ago the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC acquired part of the collection and housed it in a special gallery named after Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. The museum is committed to acquire the remaining collection as well.
I look at Allahdad Khan’s single-minded devotion to collecting and preserving music in the backdrop of a bizarre spectacle I witnessed 56 years ago in the lawn of Radio Pakistan, Peshawar. A huge pile of music records was being smashed to smithereens by a number of peons. It seems some hare-brained official had ordered the destruction of the fabulous music collection because at the stroke of mid night on August 14, 1947 most of that music did not fit in the new order ushered in by the partition of India. In the post-independence xenophobia the arbiters of a new cultural order had embarked upon constructing a new cultural highway by destroying the vestiges of the shared traditions of the old. Perhaps the bits and pieces of the smashed records were to be used to pave the fictitious new highway. From that day on Saigal, Jag Mohan, KC Day, Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mahmud and Muhammad Rafi were banished forever from Radio Pakistan. I consider the brutality of Hulagu (we call him Hallaku in Urdu) in destroying the fabulous library of Baghdad in 1258 or the absolute ban on music by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the same category.
And while this brutal onslaught on our music heritage was being waged by our new cultural custodians at Radio Pakistan and elsewhere in our new country, the wiry Allahdad was busy preserving what he could and what he preserved, and here is an oblique parallel with the Vogels of New York, boggles the mind.
In the past years I had been talking to Allahdad Khan about the future of his collection. The plastic records have a finite life and when left to the wild temperature swings of Peshawar they would eventually deteriorate. I suggested converting the entire collection into digital format and then preserving the original 78 rpm records somewhere in a museum, library or archives. He was agreeable to the idea and in preparation one of his good friends Haji Aman Durrani had already catalogued the entire collection. But it was not to be. The fatal heart attack got to him before he could see the project off the ground.
Like art music has no geographic boundaries. It transcends all barriers - cultural, religious and ethnic - and depending on individual tastes effects the very inner core of our souls. In the end heritage is not preserved by the politically correct nationalist or emotionally charged religious zealots but by eccentric visionaries like Allahdad Khan who are able to transcend racial, political and religious barriers to achieve something that others are either incapable or unwilling to achieve.
S. Amjad Hussain is an op-ed columnist for the daily Blade of Toledo, Ohio. He is also professor emeritus of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at the Medical College of Ohio.
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