The weather-beaten concrete walls of the two-storeyed building of what is now the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, in Debori near central Kabul, a few metres from Kabul University, are not used to the notes of raga Kaafi.
The weather-beaten concrete walls of the two-storeyed building of what is now the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, in Debori near central Kabul, a few metres from Kabul University, are not used to the notes of raga Kaafi. A relatively new raga from the portals of Indian classical music, it conveys the shringara rasa, its notes featuring frequently in the horis and tappas of the Banaras gharana in India. The snuff-coloured walls are more used to bullets and ballistic missiles, having been a witness to the Taliban, which considered music as haram or un-Islamic. Through the ’90s, the assault on fine arts continued, particularly on music, when tapes and musical instruments were burnt as fuel and musicians were beaten up by men who were not given to moderation.
In the same building now, 15-year-old Nagina, who lives in a nearby orphanage, plays a difficult slide on the sarod in raga Kaafi, making an effort to prevent the vivadi (dissonant) swaras. Her guru sits listening, the surprise and pride palpable in his voice, as he speaks to us over the telephone of the great turnaround he has been a witness to. “Forty years of war is no joke. People here have gone through a lot. She is extremely sensitive. But all of them, including Nagina, are very talented and eager to learn. In a short span they have taken to music like fish to water,” says Ustad Irfan Muhammad Khan, Nagina’s doting guru and the torchbearer of Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana. The family has produced eminent sarod players like the legendary Ustad Enayet Khan.
Khan joined the academy a couple of years ago and has been teaching a host of string instruments to the students since. As he gives out instructions in fluent Dari, Nagina tries a different slide but ends up with the wrong notes. “It can’t be tuned into Mishra Kaafi, not unless I use the vivadi notes,” she says in broken Hindi, her head swathed in a headscarf. “The purity of the swaras is to be maintained. That’s what my guru taught me,” she says, as 17-year-old Farshad accompanies her on the tabla.
Nagina used to sell chewing gum on the streets before she came to the academy two years ago. Her parents live in Kunduz and don’t have jobs. Now the sarod, a difficult instrument not attempted by many women even in India, is her constant companion. The teenager, like several of her classmates, hopes to master it well enough to teach it to others. “Their childhood has been tormented and insecure. The only thing that can heal their souls is music. And I am glad that I am helping,” says Khan.
The school opened its gates nearly two years ago, when Dr Ahmad Sarmast, a musicologist from Afghanistan, who had migrated to Australia, returned to his native land to establish an institute to promote music education. The students are also taught other disciplines, but the special focus is on music. It was Sarmast, who roped in Khan for the Indian classical strings section. “He wanted me to come and help revive music, especially the sarod, in Kabul. I was in Afghanistan in the ’80s and had taught some students. It had been a wonderful experience. Back then, Afghanistan had a glorious musical tradition. Now, it’s like starting from the beginning. The Afghans are, and always were, a music loving people. Slowly, things are getting back to normal and you will now find a musical instrument or two in every other house,” says Khan.
His students are avid Bollywood followers and, in between classes, Khan says there are raging discussions on Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the two favourites.
Nineteen-year-old Fazillah, who is fluent in Hindi and learns sarod under Khan, says that music gives her a certain calmness, that had been missing from her life. “It has been four years since I began learning from guruji and these have been some of the finest years of my life. I want to teach other girls and make them independent,” says Fazillah, who adds that the training is quite rigorous and lasts for three-four hours every day. She is determined to put the country’s dark past behind her. “I don’t want to look back,” she says.
The school has 180 students and they can choose between western and Indian musical traditions. “It is a perfect rehabilitation tool for a country that has gone through so much. I felt this institute was necessary,” says Sarmast. The school is equipped with some of the finest instruments and best facilities to make sure that the students get the best opportunities.
India and Afghanistan, says Khan, have shared musical sensibilities, in more than just obvious ways. “Not only does the sarod come from the Persian instrument rabab, the biggest name in Afghan music, Ustad Sarhang, learnt from Ustad Ashique Ali of the Patiala gharana. Sarhangs’ ancestors too migrated from Kashmir. But to make the right political noises, we prefer to call it Indo-Afghan music at the institute,” says Khan, who plans to tour India in November with his students.
Seventeen-year-old Gulalai, whose father passed away in the bombings some years ago, is learning sitar from Khan and wants to tour the world. In a country bowed by repression, music comes as a reprieve, a small blessing that encourages the children to dream again. “Gulalai just finished raag Bhairav and wants to play it all the time. Music has given these children laughter, a camaraderie so contagious that when they play together, this place becomes more than just a school,” says Khan.