Art Inspired by Hindustani Classical Music

It’s a creativity enhancer, an aphrodisiac for art, Selma tells me about the mystic music that inspires her most recent painting of calla lilies dancing like whirling dervish.

Whirling Dervish Call Lillies by Selma Tufail
The Sabaa wind arrives; and in deep resonance,
the flower passionately rips open its garments,
thrusting itself from itself.

I am surprised that Hindustani classical music is Selma’s muse.  

I don’t recall when I began to appreciate traditional music from Pakistan myself. This music straddles the Pakistan -India border connecting music lovers from both regions sharing centuries of history. The beat of the tabla accompanying the reverb of the sitar crosses oceans with Zakir Husain and Ravi Shankar to influence the Beatles in Norwegian Wood.

The Domino Effect of Creativity

The domino effect of creativity, I suggest.

For me, it’s more than that, she elaborates on the Indian tradition of Raag, راگ, an Urdu word from Sanskrit. The repetitive melody colors my mind. The sequence, improvises and restructures. It creates a kaleidoscope unique to me.

When did this music begin to mean so much to her? Taken aback by her emphasis on its impact on her ability to create, I want to know more.

Inspired by Music

When you started painting, you were inspired by Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” . That’s what you listened to when you painted your storm at sea. When did you look elsewhere for inspiration?

Some years back.  I thought you noticed it in my paintings.  The ones in your home.

I sense an accusation.  You never mentioned anything.  

I didn’t think I had to.

Barred Window

You are a Mystery

You imprison the soul in a body,

Then place Death as the watchman.

You give wings to ideas,

Then restrict, through fate, their ability to fly.

روح کو جسم کے پنجرے کا بنا کر قیدی

اس پہ پھر موت کا پہرہ بیٹھا رکھا ہے

دے کے تدبیر کے پنچھی کو اڑانے تو نے

دام تقدیر بھی ہر سمت بچھا رکھا ہے

How had I not made the connection? A distant minaret through barred windows, an urn in Dadi Amman’s kitchen, and the two hands reaching out to each other behind the brightly colored glass window. I had looked for my own memories in them. I hadn’t thought of Selma.

After a pause, she explains.  

I look for ways to get out my head, to lose control. Coloring outside the lines, writing what’s not supposed to be read, singing what’s not supposed to be heard—Pause—Remember that song that was banned back in the 70s.

There were so many.

The movie song with the heartbroken hero who stops going to see his beloved—چھوڑ دیاچھوڑ دیا—I’ve ceased, I’ve ceased. He was singing in a nightclub and drinking alcohol. 

That’s why it was  banned?  I’d forgotten that old song we used to hum. From one of the many Bollywood style musicals, with a song and dance sequence throughout the story. Movie songs were popular on the radio as they still are. This, of course, is decades before MTV and music videos. So the insinuation of a song’s meaning was enough to ban it in the early 80s of Pakistan.

Alcohol, sex, drugs, it all needs to be controlled. Music too. It can be addictive, and who knows where that will lead? I can sense the smile in her voice. 

Abu was addicted too, I pause for effect.  I wait for Selma to respond, and then for my comeback.  She’s not up to responding, so I continue.  

to music. All kinds, but mainly classical.  That late night show on TV: Raag Rung, راگ رنگ, (Music and Color).  He waited for it all week

Selma corrects me.  Others in the family enjoyed it too, maybe not as much as he did. That’s the music that’s inspired my art for the last ten years.

Selma and I were both irritated by it in the 80s, on the family farm in Lyallpur. Now,  in a strange way, it’s one of my fondest memories of Abu imbibing his favorite music.

Raag Rung

Back then, every evening, we sit at the dining table doing our homework. On Wednesdays, at that time, from the lounge, a singer’s long drawn out improvised note announces the beginning of the TV show, Raag Rung.  I get up to shut the door between the lounge and the dining room. 

Abu, settles on the chair closest to the TV—Proximity enhances his experience— he leans back. He shuts his eyes. With a twist of his hand, he controls the tempo of the semitones from the hand-pumped harmonium.

The repetitive, restructured music squeezes through the opening under the door between the lounge and the dining room. The reverb of the sitar joins the duo transitioning to the song, a ghazal by a two hundred year old poet, Aatish. Poetry and classical music intertwine in this weekly show, and I have no patience for it.

Neither does Selma. The show’s setting is unimpressive even for those early days of Pakistan TV.  With the familiarity of a family gathering in a lounge at home, the singer and the musicians sit in the center, surrounded by the audience. In the audience are other famous singers and writers. With circular support cushions to lean on, they sit on the floor with cups of tea in front of them.  Abu’s intense appreciation confounds me. 

In Pakistan, as in India, listening to classical music and poetry  requires audience participation. Every intricate twist of music is applauded with a loud, Wah, Bravo.  Every clever phrase of poetry is accompanied with a Mukarrar(मुकर्रर/مکرر), Repeat , and the singer acquiesces. 

یہ آرزو تھی تجھے گل کے رو بہ رو کرتے /ہم اور بلبل بیتاب گفتگو کرتے

I desire to compare you with the rose/I would then share my heartache with the nightingale

Abu has memorized many of the verses and recites them with the singer.  To us it seems pretentious.

The music distracts me from my homework. The singer intrudes into my struggle to memorize for a quiz the following day. I could care less that the lover desires to confront the rose and share his heartache with the nightingale.

The song is long, too long.

Mystical Tree
Selma’s Art

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

I desire to compare you with the rose/I would then share my heartache with the nightingale


  1. i remember watching the retelecasts in the later years
    the ghazals and the environment both were mesmerising
    the audience was more impressive to me
    to look at the youthful faces of poets and authors who had become famous by the time i watched the programme
    thank you for reviving the memories

  2. I think my daughter can relate to the songs being too long. I let her play her music in the car which is K-pop, don’t even ask… but now and again I tell her its time for my music and she knows that she will have to listen to a 10 minute long poem, while I sing along and translate the words to her. May be she too will cherish it once I am gone like we all must.

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