About half a kilometre from Karachi’s famous Banaras Chowk, to the left side of Banaras Nullah, stands a tiny old shop. The exterior is far from impressive; the interior even less so.
A small space has been cleared out on the floor to provide seating; two old exhaust fans are tied to the roof in place of ceiling fans and all the remaining space is taken by musical instruments, stacked in the corners, hanging from the walls and piled up wherever there is an inch to spare. Some are finished and ready to play; others are broken and need to be fixed.
This is the famous Shaheryar Musician House owned by Sohail Muhammad, the sole rubab maker of Karachi.
The Pakhtuns who came to Karachi seeking their livelihood brought many of their traditions and customs with them. One beautiful tradition is that of the majlas; a gathering of professional and amateur singers and musicians who take this opportunity to perform, earn their living and provide a few hours of entertainment to the appreciative audience. While other musical instruments also make an appearance, the rubab is considered the essential piece at such events.
In Karachi, however, the character of the majlas is a bit different from those held in the villages; due to a dearth of professionals, amateur singers who spend their days toiling at hard labour shed their cares and revel in traditional folk poetry accompanied by the melodious strains of the rubab.
Enthralled by the idea of participating in one of these majlas, my younger brother, a business student aspiring to get enrolled at the National Academy of Performing Arts, made up his mind to learn to play the rubab, which took me on a journey to Shaheryar Musician House.
“My father, Gul Muhammad, opened this shop in 1965 after he retired from the army. He had learnt the art of making music instruments from my uncle Shad Muhammad Sitari, who was a professional sitar player at Radio Pakistan.
“He started making sitars on order; the instrument was very popular in those days. The rubab was not that common as only professionals were able to play it. However, with the passage of time, the sitar lost its place to the rubab and my father started getting orders for rubabs”, says Soahil.
After learning the art from his late father, Sohail took charge of the shop in 1996; and in keeping with tradition, the shop is named after his elder son, Shaheryar.
Asked about the growing extremism which has threatened people associated with various forms of art, Sohail has no complaints.
“Alhamdulillah, I have never been threatened because of my work; in fact, thanks to the rise of media and TV channels, the image of people associated with music and art has actually improved; the younger generation, especially, now treats us with awe and admiration for our art, unlike the old days when people often used derogatory terms for people associated with singing and music.”
Talking about the viability of his business, Sohail explains, “making a rubab is very time-consuming; it takes a whole month, while cost depends on the material used. Usually we use wood of the plum tree as it’s cheaper and a rubab made from this can fetch around Rs6,000-7,000. People who are willing to pay more insist on using wood of walnut or mulberry trees; rubabs made from those go for between Rs12,000 to 14,000.”
Due to the hard work and low profit — as compared to the investment in time — the few boys who had learnt the art from him haven’t adopted it as a profession, as one can hardly support one’s family by rubab making alone. Sohail Muhammad also practices a side profession which helps him generate additional income: that of a roadside physiotherapist. During the time I was at the shop, many people came to him to get their sprained ankles, wrists and strained muscles treated; Sohail applies oil to the strained muscles and dresses with plaster.
We continued our conversation even while he was attending to his patients, talking over the cups of kehwa which made an appearance at intervals. Sohail was happy about the fact that with the rise of the electronic media, Pakhtun singers are making it to the mainstream. Various new bands using traditional instruments like the rubab have also emerged and the demand for rubab is no longer restricted to Pakhtuns. Hopefully this trend will mean greater scope and prosperity for rubab makers.
“I now get many orders from Baloch customers as well as customers from Gilgit Baltistan; rubab and chardah are used in the traditional music of various parts of Gilgit Baltistan and the Baloch place orders for the rubab and another local instrument sazinaa,” Sohail said
“Over the last two years, I have received plenty of orders from Gilgit Baltistan. A customer informed me that they have an academy of arts which offers courses in various arts including music theory, vocals and instruments; hopefully they will place an order for stringed instruments in bulk. I have also been promised by a music teacher friend in Karachi that he will help promote the rubab as an instrument in the academy he is associated with,” says Sohail.
I asked him about the local Pakhtun community’s level of interest in learning music. Sohail lamented the rise of various form of drugs like charas, heroin and the new scourge of crystal meth and how it has affected the youth and taken them towards criminal activities. When I mention the rise of militancy, inclination towards madressah education and religious orthodoxy, Sohail interrupts me by saying, “We have no problem if parents get their children enrolled in madressah, but what we complain of is their lack of interest in their children; they don’t even know whether their child is regularly attending the madressah or whether he has been spending his time somewhere else”.
Sohail is a very expressive person, not shy about airing his opinion on everything under the sun; he was very critical of all political parties but interestingly he has photographs of former prime minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto on the wall behind him. Noticing my interest in those photos, he said, “I have no love for the PPP, but I love this woman, she was a brave leader and I am fascinated by her”.
“Bas khwakha mey da, nor darta nasham wayaley che waley” (I love her, though I can’t express the reason why), Sohail sums up in his native pashto.
At the end of this long session, he took one of his handmade rubabs tuned it and played a melodious Pashto song. Then he invited me to a majlas in the nearby Elahi Colony, which I fully intend to attend.