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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

Friend in Pakistan always music to my ears

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - The war in Iraq and the steady obliteration of Iraqi resistance has cast a pall in this northwest corner of Pakistan as it has elsewhere in the world - with the possible and notable exception of a few world capitals. There are protest marches against the United States and Britain all across this country. They are in support of the Iraqi people and not necessarily in support of Saddam Hussein, even though his presumed ignominious end has garnered some measure of sympathy for him also.

Last Tuesday a general strike called by the religious political parties shut down all businesses and paralyzed the entire country. The strike did not have the support of the government, but in a tight-rope balancing act the government cannot afford to lean too much in one direction. To escape from the sensory overload of war coverage I went to a place of solace and tranquility even if only for a few hours.

For a number of years now, I have visited a friend in this city of my birth who lives in a nondescript home tucked away in one of the narrow labyrinthine streets of this ancient city. Once I step off the street and into his courtyard, the world and its problems are left outside. Here I enter into an enchanting world of music.

Meet Allahdad Khan.

Mr. Khan, a wiry man in his mid-60s, has been collecting Indian music - classical, semi-classical, and also musical scores and songs from the movies - for 50 years. His collection of Indian and Pakistani music is perhaps the largest private collection in the subcontinent. The bulk of his collection consists of 14,000 78 rpm records, some of them in mint condition. In addition he has a large video library of vintage Indian and Pakistani movies.

It all started when he was a boy in his teens. He would often skip school in the afternoon to catch a matinee of a new Bollywood release from Bombay. One thing led to another and, after acquiring a used His Master's Voice gramophone, he embarked on his lifelong quest to collect music. Along the way, he dropped out of high school as well.

He worked as a draftsman in the city government but never allowed the inconveniences of every-day life to interfere with his favorite pastime. Even after he got married and had a family he continued to spend part of his meager income on music, often forgoing some of the luxuries that a bit of extra cash could provide. As his collection grew and word spread, it became easier to acquire rare records to fill in the small gaps in the collection. On occasions he has also received gifts of music records from other private collectors in India.

And what a marvelous collection it is. Stacked in cardboard boxes, a dozen records to each box with each box properly labeled and each record still in its protective cover, it is a sensual reminder of a bygone age. It is also a chronological history of Indian music. Starting from 1905 he has an almost complete record until the 1960s.

The oldest is a record from 1905 in the voice of Gohar Jan that was cut in Calcutta a thousand miles to the east of here. She came from a village close to Peshawar and had run away to Calcutta to pursue fame and fortune, and she found both. In the collection there are my all-time favorites from the 1940s and '50s that I grew up with. And then there is the enchanting devotional music, Hindu and Muslim, that can still move one to tears and ecstasy.

Allahdad Khan reminds me of the postal worker from New York City who for more than 50 years collected contemporary art and in time amassed a fabulous collection worthy of a prestigious museum. That collection did end up in a special gallery in the national museum in Washington. Mr. Khan has had no such luck. His collection is still waiting to be preserved for posterity.

So last Tuesday as the cluster bombs were raining havoc in Baghdad and the crazed mobs were protesting out on the streets of Peshawar, Allahdad Khan helped me escape to another world, even if for a short time.



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