Pathaney Khan, who died on 9 March 2000, was one of the most popular singers of Pakistan, a flagbearer of a tradition going back a thousand years. During his lifetime, he was the best exponent of the poetry of the Sufia saints, especially Khawaja Fareed, who lived and died in the 19th century on the edge of a sprawling desert in western Punjab, not far from the birthplace of Pathaney Khan himself. But Fareed’s was not the only verses Pathaney Khan sang; his repertoire prominently featured other Punjabi Sufi poets.
Pathaney Khan belonged to the tradition of the roving minstrels who performed over the centuries at religious and secular festivals all over the northern half of the Subcontinent. Accompanied initially by the iktara and later by other instruments, the audience was wafted into a world of music and poetry. The dominant poetical form in Punjabi and Sindhi has been the Kafi. It has been sung from a very early time, though in the absence of any documentary evidence, it is difficult to say how Kafi developed its musical form. In the poetical text of Shah Hussain, a 16th century poet, raags mentioned in the footnotes for each Kafi more than suggest that Kafis were meant to be sung. The written text of Hussain’s Kafis was discovered and reclaimed from Sindh, while the same Kafis had been transmitted orally from generation to generation in the Punjab by the large community of singers.
Pathaney Khan was tutored by Amir AH, the maternal uncle of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of the Patiala Gharana. He sang the Kafi in the classical ang, which distinguished him from those who sang with the emphasis on its compositional aspect. For Khan, the lyrics of Kafi needed more than mere interpretation, the words were a reference point for musical exploration. The musical idea and the poetic idea were thus made to merge at a higher elevation during the course of the singing. Pathaney Khan sang with full-throated ease, stressing improvisation as all good classical vocalists do. The lyrics were neither limiting nor were they totally incidental, and by playing upon the strength of both, he kept the autonomy of the musical form intact. Pathaney Khan’s particular approach had a bigger audience because it attracted both the aficionado and the lay listener.
Out of the haveli
Poetry of the Punjab and Sindh since the very beginning was greatly influenced by the Bhakti movement and its loosely defined humanism that built its worldview on the unity of existence. Bhakti emphasised the commonality of human concerns and advocated tolerance and love as the final answer to the problems afflicting humankind. Though it reached its climax in the 15th and 16th centuries in response to the growing divisions in society based on class, caste and religion, the movement seeped more permanently into the sensibility and style of Punjabi and Sindhi poetry. The two greatest exponents of the Bhakti movement were Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, and the poet Bhagat Kabir, a weaver by profession. Their verses appealed to a wide section of society, presenting a counterpoint to the poetry being written and sung in the courts and havelis of the northern part of the Subcontinent.
It is not surprising, then, that the metaphors, imagery and characters of this poetic genre were derived from the practices of the commoners, the peasant and the craftsman. Following the indigenous form of address prevalent in the region, it had for its protagonist a woman, usually a character from one of the many local tales and romances, not restricted to one area or a single language. This poetry was transmitted orally, and the minstrels who journeyed from village to village took far and wide this poetry in its musical rendition.
Pathaney Khan’s forte lay in the rendering of Khawaja Fareed’s verses, in which he was able to capture the intensely lyrical quality of the original, while retaining the sharp tinge of rusticity. When he started to sing for an urban Pakistani audience, this rusticity was obvious, but gradually it lost some sharpness. For this reason, Pathaney Khan came in for criticism from some music lovers who wanted him to maintain that ‘originality’.
It was in the dialect of Saraiki that Pathaney Khan did much of his rendition, capturing the desolation of the landscape of Western Punjab, which figures substantially in the poetry of Fareed. He came from the area of Kot Addu, a small forsaken place in the hinterland of the Punjab, and Pathaney Khan’s fame made Kot Addu a familiar name to the urban audience.
The Sufic tradition of love and fellow-feeling has been the main source for much of the writings in the northern Subcontinent. Not only in Punjabi and Sindhi, but also in various other languages, poets have drawn immensely from the pluralistic richness of this genre. The major themes of Sufi poetry are the glorification of love, tolerance and openness, as against bigotry, narrow-mindedness and orthodoxy.
Throughout his life, living simply and close to the soil, Pathaney Khan remained true to the tradition of the Sufis while reaching out with the message of compassion to an increasingly fractured land. Though the same themes and imagery are often employed in the popular media in both films and musical videos of the day it is about time that the original message was paid greater heed to. If it was ever needed, it is now.