Musical explorations along the Persianate corridor


The title of my application contains the word Persianate, which refers to the regions stretching from Anatolia in the west to Bengal in the east, historically split between the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires. I came across this term in a book by historian Sunil Sharma, about a 12th century poet-mystic-courtier in Delhi, known popularly as Amir Khusrau. Khusrau was born to an Indian mother and a Turkish father, and lived within and between cultures and languages, and played an integral role in bringing together the various worlds he occupied. Khusrau’s India, of the 11th and 12th century, was multicultural and diverse, home to artists from all over and receptive to different traditions.

Growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, there was always a feeling of being trapped within its borders; of being isolated from the rest of the world. Pakistan was drawn in lines of conflict, surrounded by “enemy countries”. It felt like an island, since one couldn’t just cross the imaginary lines and discover the rest of our region without extensive paperwork and prohibitive cost. When I discovered that we weren’t always isolated, and there were actually routes and flows that linked our cities and histories and music and food to other cities and countries in Central Asia, I was moved almost to tears.

Loss of language also fundamentally disconnects and isolates. Less than a century ago, Persian was a major language in South Asia, especially in Northern India and present-day Pakistan. In his book about Amir Khusrau, Sunil Sharma explains “[Persian] was the literary and cultural language of the the eastern Islamic  world and the literature written in it circulated in a large cosmopolitan literary world often described as Persianate, which extended from Anatolia and the Caucasus to Bengal at this time.” By my generation, Persian has almost entirely disappeared from our collective consciousness. This is tragic because some of our greatest poets, writers and historians, including Amir Khusrau and Mirza Ghalib, wrote mostly in Persian, and with the loss of  this language, we have lost a large portion of our culture. When Zeb and I chose to re-create Afghan folk music, some of which is in Persian, many people were perplexed at why we would choose such a “foreign” and “alien” language to sing in, but when the songs were released, the reaction from the listeners was visceral and full of a nostalgia.

Personally, I also have a similar reaction when I listen to Uzbek, or Azeri, or Turkish music. This is partly because what is now known as Pakistani culture is actually a syncretic blend of knowledge and traditions from around Central Asia. In another part of his book, Sunil Sharma continues, “The Mongol foray into Central Asia and Iran in the early 13th century had set forth a large wave of migration: many scholars, poets, artisans and religious figures left for India and settled in and around Delhi, which as a place of refuge had come to be known as the Dome of Islam. These emigres brought with them their skill, institutions and religious and literary traditions, which came into contact with local cultural practices.” I want to explore these linkages further through music. 

My family is from Peshawar, which was once known for being a historical hub where many artistic and musical traditions merged because of the steady stream of goods, people, and ideas that travelled along the historical Silk Route. Now Peshawar is seen as a stronghold of religious extremism and as a “cultural wasteland”. There are times I think of the multiplicity of cultures that inhabit Toronto as a throwback to what Peshawar used to be, and perhaps could be again. I have benefitted immensely from the diverse people, musical traditions, and forms of artistic expression Toronto has brought me into contact with and wish to use my ability and experience to give something back.

On a much more basic level, I find music to be an honest and direct mode of communication. When I started composing and writing songs, I was amazed to find how precisely my listeners tuned into the emotions encoded within the compositions, or what I was trying to say through a song. Music helps me communicate emotions directly, with no mediation through language or any other tool of exclusion. For this reason music  always seems to have a much wider reach than I ever expect it to. Through my work I seek to highlight historical narratives that connect rather than divide.