Outside in

Our anthem as a symphony

By Shahbaz Ali Khan

Shahbaz, a former Industry relations and PR professional, has spent the past 8 years experimenting with the frontiers of professional competence by insisting on not specializing in anything but thinking, communicating and writing.  


Symphonies tell stories. It is a universally accepted truth. Beethoven’s 9th tells the story of a life of angst and frustration expressed by a genius. Wagner’s Bridal Chorus invokes visions of sun-rays glimmering off the white robes of the bride to be; similarly his more ‘militant’ works may have moved his fervent Nazi patronage to their extreme limits of blood-thirst. Unlike modern music (or music originating out of the popular mainstream demand), the symphonies of the Western greats had the tale encapsulated within a rigid tonal parameter, relying on the assemblage of the orchestra to enthrall audiences. Precious few words were needed, no nuance was verbally expressed and no image was overtly shared. The classical composition, be it Eastern or Western, relies on the imagination of the listener entirely. It is no real surprise that cutting edge theory on human consciousness relies heavily on the human response to music.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a crisp, clear and orchestral version of our national anthem. Long ago, I was once a public school student. When the anthem was played, we had to maintain our rigid straight frames and bow at the end. I realize today that this was not only acceptable, it was a rite of passage for our young fresh minds; music teaches what words and actions cannot. So, after a long time, I got the chance as a more mature listener to reflect upon the composition. I let my senses flow freely and closed my eyes. Where I thought I would expose myself to a base, immature and wholly faith oriented sense of respect, I actually found a story.

Our anthem goes through various ‘stanzas’ and the tempo is one of liberation and hope (I will, I hope, be pardoned for my amateurish usage of the terminology here, discerning music enthusiasts may admonish me, however I am not necessarily interested in being technically correct, just clear enough in my expression). It was written, I can only guess, not as a commission for entertainment but as a pure exposition of the opportunity that new nations bring. It starts with a high roll of drums, bringing a calamity to its head and turning it into an event of change. When the ‘roll’ ends, the new ray of enlightenment and freedom appears in the form of the main chorus. We will be a people, we will create a nation, and we will fight for our land. So the story goes.

This story was composed with fervor, passion, and genuine belief. The same can be said of the first few (just a few) years of our history. When this passion cooled, the belief became misguided and the symphony reflects that. It is here, at the second initiation of the chorus, there comes an unmistakable trough (of sorts); this is where we find ourselves today. This ‘sub-plot’ cannot be missed.  It is a tune of unique sadness, expressing a very sudden and near impulsive feeling of national depression. The composer, it seems, knew that the 90’s and the new millennium would bring unparalleled despondency and flux. Somehow, the ‘author’ of our anthem foresaw our current turmoil, and translated it via the most moving and spirit shaking part of the entire work. Listen to it again and again, and the hallmark ‘dip’ will become part and parcel of the greatness of the composition.

This passage has unimaginable value within it. Perhaps it was written with the sacrifice of Muslims (Hindus, Sikhs, everyone) in mind. Maybe the composer felt he needed to express the basic and fundamental tragedy of a rapture of people, a division of community and displacement of microcosms. Perhaps it was written with none of the above and happens to be a mere accident of circumstances, a technical requirement of all such compositions. For it is followed by some measure of triumph and the war-like feeling of an opponent met and bested. A euphoric ending to match the incremental happiness of the first ‘tone’ (or stanza, or ‘chorus’, whatever it may be called).

Viewed thus, I hope that we can take some comfort in our years to come. If the anthem is anything to go by, it has been remarkably accurate on a decade-by-decade basis; its notes reflect accurately and quite stirringly the story of Pakistan. It should, when heard (and played) like a symphony, capture our imaginations once more and perhaps breathe some life into the otherwise stiff and inactive ethos of our freedom. Maybe (and this I write with the same sense of apathy you are reading it with) it may even remind us of what it means to be ‘free’. The first band, orchestra or musicians who played it certainly knew the meaning of this fragile, intangible melody of a word.

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