It is midsummer in Pakistan, and for the last decade, that has meant that television screens and social media spaces are filled with the customary onslaught of corporate music shows. Coke Studio released their yearly promotional number, a hopscotch rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s legendary poem, ‘Hum Dekhen Ge’, featuring the whole cast of this season as per the norm. Hue and cry was raised for the right reasons in the right corners against the naive decision to omit a verse from the radical poem, but those familiar with the producers adherence to the technical format would not have been too surprised. With Coke bottles lurking in the background like seductive monsters and a gargantuan advertising budget propelling it all further, what was completely lost in the whole process of cheap imitation was the revolutionary zeal of the poem – only superficial trappings of rebellion could be observed under a garb of a mean profit-accumulating logic of capitalism. If we allow ourselves to think about Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s first death anniversary celebrations in Lahore, celebrated singer Iqbal Bano’s performance of the same poem at the event in 1985 cannot be overlooked. Music, that night, was a medium for a grander spiritual and political arena – a highly charged crowd that was resisting Zia’s martial law’s oppression of progressive narratives, and the left-leaning PPP party sympathisers who were facing the brunt of the authoritarian regime’s inhumane manoeuvres gathered at Railway Ground (after the avenue was shifted after murmurs of an attack by the regime’s security forces), and as Iqbal Bano kept on repeating the choruses, the filled arena erupted with the audience’s passionate claps and chants. There were massive barriers to freedom of association in public spaces and the event provided a respite and a moment of hope for the citizenry, and the fact that Iqbal Bano stood up during the final phase of her performance, something that went against the general decorum of a ghazal singer, signified that the moment was grander than a typical conventional rendition. The omitted verses, “jab arz-e-Khuda ke Kaabe se, sab buutt uthwae jainge, hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-harm, masnad pe bethae jaenge, sab taaj uchale jainge, sab takht girae jainge” roughly translate to, “from the abode of God, when icons of falsehood will be taken out, when we, the faithful, who have been barred out of sacred places, will be seated on high cushions, when the crowns will be tossed, and when the thrones will be brought down” possibly represent the most revolutionary movement in the poem.
The sphere of art can tie together different subcultures and provide an arena for protest, although that is not the only function of art. In contemporary times, in the Pakistani music industry, it seems like the entertainment function of art has taken over as the sole function. In the process of doing renditions in a supposedly modern and ‘aesthetically’ pleasing manner, the historical meaning as well as the original composer’s and arranger’s craft is reduced in hopeless manners to crass commercialism and technological gimmickry. As much as reimagining art from years gone by is important and a necessary requirement for contemporary times, there has to be certain careful considerations taken in repackaging such an iconic piece. The right kind of deference only comes with maintaining fidelity with the soul of the original art piece, and that is an uphill task. Too much was happening in the Coke Studio rendition including unnecessary movements away from the original melody form and the tempo, in my humble opinion, too high. Younger audiences, probably, might find the chanting by rappers, interesting. Camera angles and colour toning was as slick as always. Most importantly, the decision to incorporate transgender artists struck a positive chord and should be lauded. The purpose of the exercise of music criticism is to allow for positive dialogue regarding art, and creating the right kinds of grounds for a healthy conversation to take place. In a cultural setting where we are increasingly partisan on religious, sectarian, ethnic and ultimately, political grounds, the sphere of art can provide a potential ice-breaker. But there’s more to a conversation about art than how emotionally moving a piece was, or the mere sensory experience. Art pieces are situated deeply in historical contexts, and sometimes greater analytical purchase about them can only be sought when we look back while trying to evaluate them, to the limit that it’s possible.
On the other side of the spectrum, season 3 of rival cola brand Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands competition is also being broadcast on the airwaves. Competition in art performance is a purist’s nightmare and adversely impacts the autonomy of performing artists, almost in a dehumanising manner. The performing bands could counter argue that the show is a means to an end – it helps to give them exposure and the winning prize is grand. Understanding that avenues for budding artists are very limited and there is a glaring lack of a real concert culture, which was in play during the late 1990s and early 2000s due to a vibrant underground rock music scene, these sorts of shows help to generate some sort of mass interest for the viewing public. Whether it gets translated into the formation of cult-like followings for the bands past the transitory social media traction remains a question in history, and based on the performance of the featured bands in last year’s competition, the prospects seem a little dim, in the grand scheme of things. Good music has come out from last year’s show including Kashmir’s haunting pop-rock rendition of Mera Pyar by Aamir Zaki which was memorable and arranged very thoughtfully, as well as Badnaam’s hard rock renditions of Kala Jora and Bismillah Karan with their signature Rob Zombie-esque groove game. After a careful glance over this year’s competitors, it can be said that Tamasha’s high energy performances, Xarb’s Sufi vocal renditions and Bayaan’s compositional maturity have been the high points. Whether these bands manage to tap into a greater mass following which transcends boundaries of class and creed and build financially sustainable models remains a question in history. And history is a great judge, often, cruel, in the Pakistani music industry scenario. One feels a sense of cultural alienation, however, with most of the band performances, and some of the artists almost seem passive receptors of the technical format of the TV show, as opposed to being proactively participating in creating their own narratives. If the level of musicianship is compared with the first Pepsi Battle of the Bands, where you had Mekaal Hassan Band, EP and Aaroh competing for the honours, amongst others, the skill level has genuinely dropped. Practice really makes perfect and there are no shortcuts in music. The scene yearns for the rise of a great band – one that is tastefully embedded in local culture, and has a great story to go with it.
The author is a freelance columnist.