Ghazala Irfan – The Unrelenting Philosopher


IMG_20151122_195149Dr. Ghazala Irfan, is a professor of Philosophy and the Secretary General of The All Pakistan Music Conference. She has taught at many leading institutions and is currently teaching Philosophy at Forman Christian College, University. To many it will come across as a strange combination but breaking stereotypes is second nature for her.

A pure Lahori, both her parents belonged to the Old Walled City and lived near the renowned Wazir Khan Mosque. They also happened to be neighbors and relating the incident of their marriage Dr. Ghazala shared that given the close knit architecture of that areas, the traditional wedding procession deliberately had to take a round of the area to arrive at the bride’s house.

Music was originally her father, Hayat Ahmed Khan’s passion. A businessman by profession, he had learned to play tabla from inside the Wazir Khan Mosque. 

Eldest of the four sisters, Dr. Ghazala was born sometime before the subcontinent’s partition. As clichéd this might sound but their father raised them like sons.

“We had all the freedom to do anything that we wanted and he encouraged us more than generally people would.”

In addition to being a supportive father, Mr. Hayat also had the ability to realize his daughters’ different potentials. Once he recognized their talentsbooks he went out of his way to help them nourish those talents. It is because of him that all four sisters opted and excelled in their choose professions as a professor, painter, doctor and lawyer from eldest to youngest respectively.

Growing up under the shadow of her father’s passion for music and being the eldest child, Dr. Ghazala learnt to play sitar at a very young age. Additionally, she studied music as a subject in her matriculation, intermediate and undergrad degrees. On her path of self-discovery she realized that her playing sitar was not who she was, rather it was her attempt of copying her father. She was no doubt interested in music but not in this direction; that was the day she closed her sitar for good.

When asked what was her true calling, if not music she responded that she never had anything but academics in her mind. Her inspiration was her Queen Marry College’s British principal, Ms. Clayton.

“I used to say that when I grow up, I will be the principal of Queen Marry College. However, the institution has deteriorated since then and I didn’t want to be an administrator.”

Once she completed her graduation, she got an offer from the Pakistan Television (PTV), the State run and at that time the only television channel, to work as a producer. While she was contemplating whether to take up on this offer or to continue with her studies, it was her father who suggested that she first get a Master’s degree before entering the professional world and she followed his advice, and went on to complete Masters in philosophy where her MA dissertation was on Music.

Talking about her not so conventional choice of subjects, Dr. Ghazala said that philosophy wasn’t considered odd but music was.

“My father faced all the taboo about the fact that I was studying music. I did not do any breaking of the taboo because he had already done that. We had him as the anchor and our shield.”

After her Masters she experimented with teaching for a few months and loved teaching. However, she wasn’t fond of the institution itself and IMG_20151017_151019therefore, decided not to continue there. Meanwhile, she got married and didn’t pursue a professional career as such but started helping her father in his business but soon realized that she was not cut out to manage numbers.

Someone who cannot be sitting idle, she felt that she was going to rot if she stayed at home. So she went to the chairman of her department where she had studied philosophy and told him that she will go mad if she stayed at home and needed help getting a job. This is how she re-entered the teaching profession after a gap of seven years. It was the year 1977 and as they say, rest is history.

For someone who has seen the Pakistani society undergo some key transitions that have led to its current state, we asked Dr. Ghazala’s take on it and does she see a future where people can share their opinion without having second thoughts.

“People generally think that we are an ultra-conservative people, I have noticed and this is coming after a lot of experience that if you talk to people rationally they are willing to accept it, it is not that they will close their minds like a windowless room. A lot depends on how you present your ideas. You have to first create that atmosphere where people are willing to dialogue and then you can talk to them and they will be rational. Of course we have lots of biases, so do I. There are so many prejudices that we grow up with but that does not mean that we shut everyone out.”

When asked, if she faced challenges as a teacher of the much discriminated subjects such as philosophy, she explained that she had never faced any resistance from anyone, except only once, while teaching logical positivism. The students protested against the teaching of this school of thought and the case was brought up to the chairperson of the Institute. However, when she shared both sides of the philosophical argument, the students didn’t have any more issues. 

IMG_20151122_195135She also shared that there are two main reasons behind our current state, one is politicization and the second is changing our academic structures, referred to as the Islamization of knowledge. Specifically in Zia-ul-Haq’s era, they used to go in libraries and tear out pages with the slightest mention of Marx, Darwin and Freud. 

Dr. Ghazala admits that she has had a protected teaching experience in the terms that she mostly taught Masters students in a very academic atmosphere where the majority are open to dialogue. She never had to go out and argue with the social milieu. 

My Voice Unheard is a strong proponent of the idea of ‘critical thinking’ and it was not possible to not touch upon the subject in the presence of such an eminent academic. Her take on critical thinking is that is not just something that is extremely important but also something that is applicable to every subject and field we pick. It’s an activity, a method and an attitude all combined in one. And if it is incorporated in our system, then radicalization won’t have a chance of survival.

IMG_20151122_195107Even though she closed her sitar a long time ago, music has been an integral part of her life. In 2005 before leaving this world her father handed over his brainchild, the All Pakistan Music Conference to her. He served the association as its secretary for forty eight years. During his last days, he was really concerned as to who would take his efforts forward. He asked his eldest daughter to step in and not to let the music die. It all started with the concert that was about to happen but he himself couldn’t be here as he was getting his medical treatment in Chicago. Once she finally agreed and it went successfully, the rest of the members said that they too trusted her with the responsibility. Javed Ahmad Qureshi, who also served as the President of the conference asked her to join forces and ensure that the legacy continues and it has.

People really cooperated with her, and all her apprehensions faded soon enough. Some of the artists also performed for free at times, or happily accepted the amount that was given to them. They trust the management as they have never made personal profits, whatever is earned is distributed among the musicians fairly. The primary objective of the association has always been to promote pure and authentic folk and classical music. We don’t accept any fusion music. The Eastern music is based on Raag (melody) while the Western music is based on harmony. The mix of these two results in a strange mix. The organization follows and wants to continue with a purist form of music only.

“Fusion is parasitic on folk music, it does not create any original stuff. There is no creativity. It is just like modern day research which is mostly cut paste. So you basically cut paste with a little bit thrown in. There is no authenticity.”

IMG_20151122_195007The association provides a platform to both instrumental and vocal artists. The concerts are a mix of amateur and experienced singers. Next generation of the musical houses (gharanay) who are still developing their skills are given a chance to perform as well. There is a misconception that people are no longer interested in this sort of music, specifically the younger generation. Dr. Ghazala said that anyone who has these ideas need to just attend one of our events. Our audience sits through the performances for some nine to eleven hours, five days a week and they do it respecting all the norms that we are trying to keep alive associated with the pure classical and folk music.

“We only have live concerts. Our music has always been outdoors in tune with nature, the way the Raags are meant to be experienced. Music is defined differently everywhere and that diversity is important, we don’t want uniformity.”

The organization has a membership base as the focus is to engage people who are really interested. However, the door is never shut on anyone. One can attend and if interested the individual is welcome to join in. This strategy is something that she uses as a professor as well. In her opinion both philosophy and music can’t be forced on anyone and if they are they don’t have an impact.

“Providing an alternative voice, narrative and perspective is very important. In some way you have to be vulnerable to learning and if you are not then it’s a shut window, it is pointless. Creating that stimulus for people that helps change their worldview is very satisfying for me.”

IMG_20151017_150711Dr. Ghazala’s latest book, not yet published, was put together when she got a Fulbright grant to go and teach Muslim Philosophy in Mississippi. She put together a reading pack for the purpose, and thought that it should also be published. She added three major paradigms of Muslim thought with regard to classical thinkers including several people from the subcontinent since she was actually representing Pakistan. The main idea behind publishing the reading pack was that in modern times, writings with a diverse but personal view are more highly appreciated as compared to textbooks. The book has been submitted for publishing and will hopefully be available soon adding the feather of an author to her cap.

In conclusion, Dr. Ghazala said that we need to own our rich legacy. We have been denying this amazing part of ourselves for a very long time now and start our history from a particular era only. Mohenjo Daro is one of the oldest civilizations of the world and we have our roots in it. Even if we just look at its language and script, it goes from left to right then right to left, no jumps. Even though that script is not fully deciphered it hints on speed reading and logical thinking.

“We were pretty civilized people until we became savage.”

For a future in the right direction we need to embrace our past and diverse identity and find our way forward.