Celebrating the life of Noor Zehra Kazim and the Sagar Veena
Image copyrights: Saarey Ltd.
In 2021, Noor Zehra Kazim’s Raag Aiman Kalyan was the #1 most played track in the world on Saarey Music (www.saareymusic.com). This live performance was recorded at the All-Pakistan Music Conference in Lahore in 2014. Saarey Music is the world’s first music streaming service that shares Pakistani classical music with the world. It has now been downloaded in 119 countries.
Image copyrights: Saarey Ltd. Photo credits: Fatima Arif. Clicked at Faiz Ghar, Lahore in 2021.
Noor Zehra Kazim
Noor Zehra Kazim is the only living practitioner that plays the string instrument, the Sagar Veena. This is a modern Pakistani version of the ancient South Asian veena.
“First you have to communicate with yourself, and then with others. If it is not emotionally and spiritually stimulating, then it is not music. The process of producing music cannot be accelerated. It requires a certain holistic input. It is how focused you are in yourself. The instrument challenges you all the time. Makes you work all the time and produces more than what you think you can. This requires a lot of time and focus”, says Noor Zehra Kazim.
Noor Zehra’s first exposure to any form of formal training was when she was 14 years old under the tutelage of Master Nisar Hussain Khan who played sitar in films. This initial hobby of learning the sitar and the surbahar gradually converted into serious learning under the watchful eyes of her father Raza Kazim, who wanted to “rescue” his children from western pop music. Noor Zehra was always inclined towards the Alaap. She was drawn to the unique tones and resonances of the surbahar (a pumpkin-based string instrument), which naturally complemented the Alaap and allowed one to dwell and expand the structure of the raag and express emotions more deeply. Seeing this, her father encouraged her to move from the sitar to the surbahar.
One of her earliest performances was on the Kachwa (a wooden version of the surbahar) at a music competition at the WAPDA Auditorium in 1970 in Lahore. Coincidentally both Dr. Ghazla Irfan, Secretary General of the All-Pakistan Music Conference, and Noor Zehra played Raag Des.
During a visit to Lahore by the Vichtr Veena player Ustad Rashid Ali Khan, Noor Zehra’s father invited him over for dinner. During the dinner, Noor Zehra at 15 years of age, picked up the veena and started playing it. This was her first exposure to a veena and this incident was enough for Raza Kazim to order a Vichtr Veena for her. He asked Master Nisar Hussain Khan to ask Sher M. Khan who used to sit in Lahore’s Gawal Mandi to make one for her, a process that takes 6 months. Not wanting to wait this long, he used a foot ruler to raise the head of the Kachwa, removed the frets and created a makeshift Sagar Veena out of her Kachwa, which was the prototype of the instrument she would dedicate her entire life to. The first version of the Sagar Veena arrived in August 1970.
Noor Zehra’s first attempt to fully explore the possibilities with the Sagar Veena was in 1971, where she was to learn from Rajeshwari Datta, head of the Indian department at SOAS in London. However, she was unable to find time to teach Noor Zehra, despite earlier agreed to it with her father. She stayed in London from August 1971 to May 1972 in the hope to be able to learn from her, but there was no learning. The stay, however, did lead to her meeting Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
When Noor Zehra was 17 years old, she got a chance to meet and share the Sagar Veena with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a Sarod player she idealized, in London. After a performance of his that she attended, she asked him if she could show him the Sagar Veena. He agreed, and after listening to her in his hotel, he said “You have promise, but you’re just beginning. come to my school in California”. The college consisted of 150 Americans and 8 Indians, but no Pakistanis. All the students were dropouts who had turned to Hippi-ism. Noor Zehra felt it was the wrong place for her. She stayed there for 2 terms, but then, after seeing it was very difficult for her to learn there, and fearing a disintegration of her character due to the culture, she decided to come back to Lahore.
It was when Noor Zehra was 19 years old that she found Ustad Sharif Khan Poonchwala, who she says was the only real teacher she had in her life. He started teaching 6 days a week, for hours each day and this continued for 2 years. Veena to Veena. This was an intense creative process. The ‘sahih sur’ was taught “He was honest and pure” she remarked about him. “Agar tum larka hoti to phir sahi sikhata (If you were not a female, I would have taught you right)” he used to say to her. Alas, Noor Zehra shares that she could not cope with the pressure with the intensity of the experience. She says “I got scared. I felt I would lose my mind. It was too much. He (Ustad Sharif Khan) never found that out.
Noor Zehra’s relationship with the Sagar Veena is a complicated one, with periods of intense work and then some of complete distance. Over time, she realized that Ustad Sharif Khan’s technique, which was 20 years in the making, which her body, nerves, bones, limbs all aligned, were inadequate for the demands of the instrument. She felt that the instrument started speaking to her, telling her that there are valuable resonances which demanded exploration, which connecting with her mind. The endeavour to find the correct technique to play the Sagar Veena, to unlearn and relearn has taken 10 years and she still considers it a work in progress.
Instrument: Sagar Veena – created by Raza Kazim. Image copyrights: Saarey Ltd. Photo credits: Fatima Arif. Clicked at Faiz Ghar, Lahore in 2021.
The Sagar Veena
The Sagar Veena is a modern Pakistani version of the ancient South Asian Veena. It is the brainchild of the lawyer and music enthusiast Mr. Raza Kazim, Noor Zehra’s father. Raza Kazim worked on this instrument, along with Noor Zehra Kazim for more than 50 years to bring it to where it is today.
Noor Zehra shares that the development of the Sagar Veena was not by plan, design or reason. Raza Kazim simply felt that his teenagers were being “abducted by western pop music” in the 1960s. That is something he could not accept emotionally. A laywer by profession, he took this up as a case that he needed to fight out. Who knew that this ‘fight’ would consume his entire lifetime? Unlike other instruments that have evolved through centuries, the Sagar Veena is born out of the concept of the expressive power of emotional communication through a musical vessel within one lifetime.
The prototype Sagar Veena was made in 1969, when Raza Kazim removed all the frets from the Kachwa and raised its head on a foot ruler. Surprisingly, it sounded much better than the Vichtr Veena, deeper and more resonant. That piqued Raza Kazim’s interest that there is the possibility of an instrument to connect at a far deeper level with the human mind and emotions than any other known instrument, that the magic of the voice may be found in an instrument. This prompted Raza Kazim to order a custom wood based veena, and this first version of the Sagar Veena arrived in August 1970. The 2nd Sagar Veena came into existence in May 1972, which used to put everyone, including Raza to sleep. In 1994 the 1st form of the current (4th) version of the Sagar Veena came into existence, the design for which only stabilised in 2000. From the 1st version to the last, Raza Kazim worked on the Sagar Veena for hours every day for over 50 years to bring to life the sound he had in his head. The name Sagar Veena was given by Master Nisar Hussain Khan. All versions of the Sagar Veena are available at Sanjan Nagar in Lahore.
The Sagar Veena is radically different from any other musical instrument and is an engineering marvel. This instrument is divided into 2 parts according to the functions. The 1st is the vibrating part. The 2nd is the resonating part. Steel rods reinforce the frame, which take the tension of the tense strings and transfer it to the resonating part. The main instrument is screwed to the frame. The Sagar Veena contains titanium, steel and concealed wood. The Sagar Veena looks conventional, but there is nothing conventional about it. The design material, connections, all belong to the future.
Noor Zehra humbly states that her only contribution to the Sagar Veena was only to play it for him. This couldn’t be farther from the truth since the Sagar Veena could not have existed without Noor Zehra Kazim. Her father Raza Kazim built it for her and she would spend hours and hours playing it for him every day.
Raza Kazim said, “Unless we connect with our music, a basic part of ourselves will remain undeveloped and handicapped. The power of emotional communication through music only lay in the archetypes of Pakistani classical music.”