sunday sounds

Interview: Meet the Lahore lawyer, philosopher and activist who also invented a musical instrument

Raza Kazim, 87, a true renaissance man, speaks about creating the Sagar Veena and how music and philosophy interconnect.

There is an elderly gentleman residing in Lahore who is a ­lawyer by training. Though he enjoys practicing law, he says it holds no real interest for him.

He’s a former Congress Party and Muslim League activist and communist, but renounced politics for philosophy and has, over the years, developed his own philosophical theory.

He is also a patron of the arts and has invented a musical instrument. He’s photography enthusiast too, and his photographs have been exhibited internationally. Plus, he runs a charitable foundation that provides free education to girls from poor families.

He has spent multiple years in Pakistani prisons because governments fear his mind.

The name of this radical individual is Raza Kazim. His journey of “rejecting ugliness and pursuing human happiness” began in undivided India in Uttar Pradesh, as an activist with the Congress. But in 1947 – by when he was involved with the Muslim League – he left Lucknow for Pakistan, filled with hopes of helping build a just, humane and enlightened society.

By his own admission, however, the new country was derailed from the very beginning. Disillusioned, he left the Muslim League and joined the Pakistan Communist Party. That dalliance too, was short-lived; he resigned in 1951 and has been a consistent critic of every Pakistani government – civil or military – ever since.

Though a successful High Court lawyer, Kazim philosophical bent demands that he fearlessly call a spade a spade, regardless of the hand that’s holding it.

As a result, he has been regularly carted off to jail, doing time during the governments of Liaquat Ali Khan, General Ayub Khan and ZA Bhutto. He’s best remembered, however, for his alleged financial support to an ill-fated military plot against General Zia ul Haq in the early 1980s.

Disappointed with politics as well as Marxist teachings, Kazim took it upon himself to craft a philosophy that bridges the contradictions that other philosophies and "isms" have been unable to. Evolutionary Mentology, as he has named it, is an “attempt to address the issue of human happiness in the light of the explosive progress in science and technology and developments in Brain Sciences, Astrophysics and Particle Physics”.

A true Renaissance man, Kazim has also contributed immensely to South Asian music.

He has been promoting and developing this philosophy from the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts, established by him 21 years ago, which is also a platform to foster his love for the music and the arts. The institute is complemented by the Sanjan Nagar Public Education Trust, which provides free education for working-class girls in Lahore.

But in the midst of all this, he’s also developed a musical instrument – the Sagar Veena.

Kazim was kind enough to share some thoughts with Sunday Sounds from his home in Lahore.

What is the secret of your longevity? Your life is so full – law, music, philosophy, photography and social work. Are you slowing down at all?
The answer lies in your statement within the question. I think self-centred agendas have a corrosive tendency upon the biological systems of man. And the reason, in my opinion, is that the inherent sensitivity and emotional software is distorted somewhat and its pitch is queered. My innings so far, in its 87th year, is not unnaturally prolonged. I do not exercise or take "health food". Instead I have been smoking 50 to 60 cigarettes a day for the last 60-70 years and do not miss an opportunity to be happy when I can.

In 1960-70, you made some recordings of Pathane Khan, the mighty Seraiki folk singer. Are those recordings, which many consider to be Khan’s best ever, publicly available?
Yes they are publicly available, as far as I am concerned. I must have given 100 CDs for the asking. The copies were made in the institute’s post-production section. If and when there is a decent publisher, I will happily give permission to do so (publish the work).

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Kafi of GhulamFarid, Pathane Khan

How did you come to know Khan? What is it about him and his music that excites you?
[I came across him] entirely by chance. And then, we remained friends until he died. I can’t say why exactly he approved of me. On my part, I realised that despite his decaying and neglected body, he had a strong and elaborate grasp on the substance and subtleties of his lyrics, based on the works of Khawaja Ghulam Farid, the famous Sufi poet for the most part. And his emotional freedom and sensitivities were a fine match to his understanding. I also found him to be a good human being. He had much less feelings for himself and far more for his sensitivities.

In Sanjan Nagar Institute there are three streams of learning: music, photography and philosophy. How do these complement each other? And what are the special aspects of music that elevate it to a level equal to that of philosophy?
I am not sure about my photography. My wife is a prolific and persistent photographer – still as well as video. I have been doing black-and-white photography and processing and printing in the dark room and prefer to work in the large format rather than medium or 35 mm. I guess my part of photography has just managed to find a place for itself on the fringes. But music and philosophy are better connected. I used the method and tools of philosophy (including history) to rediscover and redefine music, particularly for this part of the world. And then the work in music seems to lend itself as a stimulant for the further development of the work in philosophy. Another bond between these two was that those who were seeking a career would stay away. The special aspect of music, which you mention, in my opinion is that my work in philosophy hitherto is seriously concerned, inter alia, with the nonverbal mental processes of man – and musicality also operates in the same nonverbal area.

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MedaIshqViTu, Pathane Khan

Kazim’s recordings of Khan are treasured as an outstanding example of audio engineering. Reproducing sound so it falls lightly on the ear is a project that has blossomed into the production of high-end amplifiers and speakers, marketed under the Bhulley brand, developed by the Audio Engineering department of Sanjan Nagar Institute.

Another long-standing project, stretching from 1970 onwards, has been Kazim’s invention of the Sagar Veena. A classical instrument that adds to the veena family, it is nevertheless instrument. Although it looks like the double-gourded veena, the instrument represents a radical departure in terms of design and construction. Kazim claims his instrument in unequalled in range of timbres and pitches, which give an unusual depth of richness and clarity to its sound. His daughter, Noor Zehra, has mastered the instrument and performs around the world.

How is the Sagar Veena developing? Has it reached a mature stage as an instrument? Has there been much of a reception for the instrument?
Yes. As far as I am concerned, at the end of my 45 years of work on the veena, I think it has reached a mature stage. Probably, most instruments have evolved over time. And if the Sagar Veena is not a victim to infant mortality, it will have its own evolution. I don’t think new students are taking it up. Clearly there has not been “much of a reception” for it. By the way, there are two versions of it – a larger and a smaller one. The smaller one is tuned to one-and-a-half to two notes higher.

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Sagar Veena demonstration, Noor Zehra

Can you share a bit about how you fell in love with music and what it means to you?
The falling in love that you mention, chronologically, happened at about the same time that I fell out of love with Marxism. I need to say that my disconnection with Marxism was not reactive. I had been studying and doing Marxism for 22 years (since I was 18). But the revolution and explosion in the field of science and technology, the beginning of which happened in and around the ’60s, led me to the conclusion that Marxist thought, in all its departments – which grew out of the knowledge platform of the latter part of the 18th century – was now hopelessly dated. And now, man would have to rethink again. Which I was obliged to undertake at my meagre level.

If your love of music began at the same time as your separation from Marxism, is it fair to say that music has replaced politics in your life? And that the appreciation of music as a greater truth than political philosophy is a natural evolution? Should we pity politicians because of their profession?
Music has not replaced politics or philosophy for me. Each of them are important things in their own right. They have their distinct territories. Thereafter it’s a question of who does what and how.

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Shudh Shringar, Noor Zehra

What drew you to the veena in terms of innovation? Rather than the sitar, or sarangi, for example?
As far as my understanding goes, Indian music historically has been principally a vocal music and the Indian instruments had a mere supporting role. Therefore, there was no serious attention given to instruments or their development. In my time and my opinion, Indian music had been stagnating for centuries and there was a contemporary need to rediscover it dialectically and not mechanically. I got involved with the Sagar Veena partly because I felt the need for a greater musical space and scope than the existing voices of decaying Indian music, and partly because I couldn’t sing a single note in tune to save my life!

What is the state of musical culture – especially classical music – in Pakistan today? From a distance, there appears to be a flowering of art, a revival of the film industry, new TV channels etc. Has this created a new space for music and musicians?
Yes, there are appearances of flowering. But not really. As yet, no substance or thought has emerged to steer the flowering you refer to. I imagine the revival activity marks the death of the past and the early pregnancy of the future. And the space thus created is not real.

Is it dying out?
I do not see the Indo-Pakistan music traditions dying out in Pakistan. I believe that these traditions are due for a rebirth. You will agree that musical traditions are a product of social history and culture. Perhaps you will also agree that society in Pakistan is fundamentally going through a period of darkness. During the Dark Ages in Europe, there was a great deal of glitter and glamour and social activity, but there was darkness in the intellect and sensitivities of the European people. In my opinion the Renaissance in Europe was neither the first nor the last. Contemporary music, classical as well as popula, has, in my view, no substance and only a skeleton of form. This situation in the field of music is consistent with the general character of society and the times.

So culture and music are victims of history?
In my opinion, we have to bide our time till the seeds of a new Renaissance are sown here (in Pakistan) and then inevitably, the roots of our musical thought and form of the early period will sprout and flower out in accordance with the values and criteria of our cultural and musical rebirth. I maintain that music, arts and culture are a product of a historical situation – be it Renaissance or decadence.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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