Ali Sethi’s rendition of the Ahmed Faraz/Mehdi Hassan classic, “Ranjish Hi Sahih,” in Coke Studio Season 10, has polarized public opinion on social media spaces. Music criticism, as a form of serious inquiry, is a task fraught with roadblocks, considering the subjective nature of the experiential impact of a particular music piece on individual listeners, as well as the technical complexities making the naive goal of attaining absolute objectivity, close to impossible. Within those confines, however, a musical performance can become a vantage point through which popular trends and their nuanced socio-cultural causes can be gauged, for making particularistic arguments. The musical performance might also be judged, roughly, according to some technical indicators and via juxtapositions against similar performances in history proper.

Originally sung as a ghazal by the maestro Ustad Mehdi Hassan (late). Ustad Mehdi Hassan was known for his patient delivery style, improvisational prowess whilst maintaining fidelity with the “chalan” i.e. general movement of melodic phrases of a raga, and as can be observed in the modern ghazal singing style, the ability to switch ragas for dramatic impact on rare occasions within one ghazal. It would be a disservice to the legend to reduce his work to a few technical adjectives, but when Ustad Mehdi Hassan sang in Urdu, he paid close attention to the dynamics of his vocal tone, and every lyric was carefully composed, generally conforming to the ages-old raga tradition.

Whereas the mood of the ghazal in hand is one of intense longing, of a lover trying to find meaning in a setting where there are zero expectations from a distant beloved. The poet is the legendary Ahmed Faraz –a progressive democrat and a vocal critic of the military’s excesses during General Zia’s rule, who has a grand legacy of his own. The song’s film version, featuring Mohammad Ali and Zeba, a part of the 1972 hit film, “Mohabbat” owed a lot to Nisar Bazmi’s compositional genius. The ghazal became an integral part of Ustad Mehdi Hassan’s live set with Ustad Tari Khan’s intuitive call-and-response mechanisms in triplets, for this song, was also a joy to behold - appropriately energetic, yet supporting the singer’s delivery style without generating unnecessary conflict.

For the elder generation, the song is deeply embedded in the collective psyche, across divides of caste, creed and class; as an ode to love, to the nostalgia of a relatively more plural and open Pakistan. And it is still one of the most requested ghazals at ghazal evenings.

The ghazal cover tradition dates back centuries, so in that context, Coke Studio’s decision to re-imagine the song was not the first of its kind. The expectations from Coke Studio were high –as the studio is Pakistan’s primary corporate music platform, with a gargantuan budget from the soft drink’s marketing department. Coke can now boast an implicit monopoly on music dissemination in Pakistan –which, often, has deeper consequences than mere transitory social media traction. The brand directly impacts the minds and attitudes of listeners and artists, as a legitimate force of sorts –classifying and reducing historical art forms in multifaceted, and often, adverse manners.

But this year’s Coke Studio season has received sharp criticism from audiences questioning the stale nature of the show’s technical format, the massive difference between the progressive, yet “less is more” formula of the original producer Rohail Hyatt and Strings’ switch to a more popular film music inspired style, as well as the nepotism in artist selection.

It might be safe to say that using Ali Sethi’s version of Ranjish Hi Sahih as a barometer might be an injustice to the whole season, or to the young and talented singer’s own artistic journey. Ali Sethi has carved a niche of his own, with polished acoustic guitar driven re-imaginations of Farida Khanum’s “Dil Jalane Ki Baat Karte Ho” at True Brew Studios, as well as a careful take on Hafeez Hoshiyarpuri’s , “Mohabbat Karne Wale,” aptly produced by Saad Sultan, as well as popular hits, such as the religious hymn, “Aaqa” and folk number, “Umraan Langyaan” from previous Coke Studio seasons, to his credit.

Still, Ali was already taking a risk with the legend of “Ranjish Hi Sahih.” Generally, with Coke Studio songs, conventional wisdom dictates that while the cynical self might not accept renditions on the first listen, some songs tend to grow on you over time. For me, personally, this particular aggregate of music decisions did not work. Was the scale too high, forcing Ali to compensate on his vocal texture and switch away from the diaphragm? The innovation with the vocal melody, especially in the introduction, seems to conflict with the mood of Yaman Kalyan, especially the utterance of the “Ka” syllable at 00:38, which probably gets aggravated due to the usage of heavy vocal processing. Moving further, it seems in places that Ali is over-singing certain climatic falls back to the tonic, such as the “Aa” vocal run at 01:28-01.30, which sounds like a flurry of notes delivered in discomfort.

However, it must be reiterated that this is a very difficult song to sing, and Ali delivers some masterful vocal chops towards the end. It’s quite probable that mixing decisions during vocal processing in post-production made him sound more mechanical than he would’ve in the vocal booth. The musical arrangement also left a lot to be desired, with the interval’s bland and unimaginative, and a lack of empty spaces severely felt.

Yet for younger listeners, this cover provides an opportunity to delve into the rich musical traditions of the Indian subcontinent, and at least, a modern way to absorb, what is wrongly misconstrued to be, “primitive and unintelligent” local music. However, it would be a catastrophe if they mistook Coke Studio as being the sole representation of classical music forms. For that, they need to delve further into “dhrupad, khyaal, thumri, ghazal and folk” history.

Older generations were not very forcing –as Ali’s Urdu accent leaves a lot to be desired for, and the ghost of Ustad Mehdi Hassan is not an easy ghost to let go of. From Ali’s perspective, it is just another step into a bigger and serious league, as an exponent of traditional folk/ghazal gayaki, and this feat is all the more commendable because he does not boast blood lineage to any musical “gharana.” For Coke Studio, it does not really matter. The corporate platform is now a bigger monster than the sum of its parts, as it reaps the seeds of unequal and unregulated market conditions. While its quality might dwindle, the show is here to stay, fortunately, or unfortunately.