Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Picking up the Sagar Veena.

4 Nov 2010


Noor Zehra Kazim is perhaps the world’s only player of the Sagar Veena, a string instrument designed for use in North Indian Classical Music, developed entirely in Pakistan over the last 40 years. I first heard of her when I found the Sanjan Nagar Institute’s website, a few years ago. News about Sanjan Nagar and the Sagar Veena has been slow to reach out to the mainstream, though it seems that even before its popular debut, the institute and the instrument were a big deal among the intellectual circles of 21st century Pakistan.

Sanjan Nagar is the brainchild of renowned lawyer Raza Kazim, who has made his name as one of the leading intellectuals in Pakistan, regularly publishing papers and tackling subjects from neurology to philosophy to music. The Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts is known for the opportunities it provides for women especially.

The Sagar Veena has been under development since the 1970s, constantly being fine tuned under the supervision of Raza Kazim and instrument maker Mohammed Riaz. The former’s daughter, Noor Zehra Kazim, has been instrumental in testing the instrument and providing her feedback as a classical musician. Together the three have created an instrument that signifies a revolution of sound production in North Indian Classical Music.

The Sagar Veena‘s is capable of producing an unparalleled range of sound timbres and pitch registers, providing the musician with the ability to take her music to new levels and directions. The unique sound of the instrument is a result of its close modeling on the sound of the human voice, in an effort to capture the emotion and intellectual depth of the vocal in an instrumental form. By separating the vibrating and resonating parts of the instrument into separate bodies, the designers have managed to create a highly clear, resonant sound. And while the instrument continues to be tweaked, it is finally stable enough to be played in the studio and in front of live audiences.

Having followed the Sagar Veena for a while, it made perfect sense for us to give the instrument a stage at TEDxLahore 2010. Sanjan Nagar was contacted, and the deal was closed. The introduction of the instrument into popular music with this year’s Coke Studio only made the hype greater.

I walked into Ali Auditorium on rehearsal day with Noor Zehra Kazim doing her sound check on the stage, it was choppy, she wouldn’t play for too long, would ask her colleagues in the back row if they could hear her, but she clearly knew what she was doing. The sound check itself was simple, it was just one microphone over the Sagar Veena, and the team got the sound it wanted over the Bose system specially installed for the event. The Veena was moved, and Noor Zehra Kazim would step off comfortably, the performance now prepared for and the day’s work done. It was the coordination of her ride home that became my first interaction with her. She is soft spoken, gentle, overwhelmingly kind and caring, a motherly figure who wholeheartedly trusted us inexperienced young lads to make sure her performance went well. You are forced to lose all your temper and smile as you talk to her, there is no sense of ill timed urgency, no barrier of experience.

The day of the event, the Sagar Veena sat elegantly on stage, as we tried to make as much use of it as possible. A presentation on Sanjan Nagar by musicologist and sitar player Beena Raza was followed by Noor Zehra Kazim’s performance. The performance itself was largely improvisational, as with most Indian Classical musical performances, which is one of the reasons why it is so hard to find good recordings of classical music in Pakistan today. But as with all performances, even with improv, an artist’s skill, and emotional connection with both the audience and the music is obvious, and Noor Zehra Kazim’s was extra ordinary. She walked the crowd through an 8 minute solo melody, no accompanying percussion, just the sitar like sound, but more pronounced and more varied.

The mood is set with a minute long alap, as the instrument is tuned an she plays an interesting rhythm to set the mood of the raag to follow. A conversation follows, a melody that begins on higher notes, that get sharper and more pronounced as the raag progresses, is put against a counter melody of bassy, richer notes, an answer to emotional laments that are perhaps meant to harness similar emotions in a slightly different manner. Even as the raag shifts from one part to another, a unity remains, with the traditional drone of Indian Classical music makes its appearance throughout, guiding the 400 strong live audience from absolute silence to a standing ovation.

In Hor Vi Neevan Ho, the Coke Studio song that Noor Zehra performs with her sons (rock sensation Noori), the Sagar Veena puts on a new avatar. Noori said in an interview that this year’s Coke Studio experience for them was largely about embedding the Veena into popular music, and the instrument takes center stage. But as behind the scenes footage shows, Noor Zehra does not normally play to a constant looping percussion rhythm, hence much of her adaptation comes from switching from free form playing to a structured rehearsed part that fits into a tradition western song structure, even though it might be in an eastern scale or musical style. For their really is no eastern structure of a song, their exists a performance, but with many popular musicians gaining their footing as western style rock musicians, Pakistani eastern classical recordings are now moulded into western song structures that are easy listening for the modern audience.


As the song begins, you notice there is no time for an alap, no mood setting, the melody digs straight in, and Noor Zehra plays a compliment to Ali Hamza’s baritone vocals, filling in a song that has limited lyrical elements but makes its mark with instrumental work and raw vocal emotion. The Veena takes a back seat as the song picks up with Ali Noor’s rockier vocal, but the tone is set, as the keyboards and drum set take over from the Sagar Veena and the dholak.

The song itself is a cover of an old private recording by folk singer Hamid Ali Bela, recorded by Raza Kazim himself, and is a soundtrack for increased tolerance and understanding, under the common theme of respecting the blessings we have, and showing our gratitude and respect by bowing our heads.

The significance of the Sagar Veena as an instrumental breakthrough, as well as a symbol of prowess of Pakistani musicians has still not been fully realized. The concert going crowd, which is already depressed due to a lack of concerts will have little to do with the Veena, and Sanjan Nagar is still, for the moment a small step in a large country full of larger problems. But even in the music business, which artists still lament is yet to become an ‘industry’, whatever you suppose that entails, there is little to suggest that this will become the popular art of this decade. It might just be however, one of the most important pieces of art and engineering to hit the music scene in a while. As for the non musical types, a meeting with Noor Zehra Kazim might give them enough nostalgia to hang on to with music.