Akhand Bharat: Music bottled in borders

Music is often the first casualty followed by cinema when authoritarian regimes rise. It’s the listener who loses

Akhand Bharat: Music bottled in borders
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Nilosree Biswas

In the wee hours of dawn on March 7th, 2021 a month after the military coup in Myanmar, a group of four musicians met clandestinely to record a song that they called ‘Headshot’.

The musicians knew how all of it was ‘hanging on the cliff’ kind of situation, and yet they recorded the song that beckoned the power of music and democracy, sitting in an abandoned house in Yangon which smelled of an untimely death by bombing.

Around almost the same time, videos and news clips of Taliban banning music and musicians shocked the world, revealing how extremists disrupted musical performances, punished singers by assaulting and shaving their hair and smashing their musical instruments. Afghanistan has been stripped of its music and may be Myanmar would just be left with only one kind of music, the one that doesn’t bother the authorities.

Music is often the first casualty followed by cinema when authoritarian regimes rise. It’s the listener who loses.

Late in 2018 September, Indian Motion Pictures Association imposed a ban on “Pakistani actors, singers and technicians from working on Indian films”. (Guardian, September 30, 2018). Like Newton’s third law – Pakistan soon pulled off all Indian content from their air including Hindi cinema that have been always so popular there.

While music knows no boundary, such bans reinforce the construct of borders and boundaries in public imagination and every such ban creates a bunch of losers – millions of audiences who are deprived of their human instincts of listening to music that appeals to their soul.

But like the proverbial Pablo Neruda lines emphasizing the inevitability of spring, music doesn’t abide by any ban. Coke Studio, Pakistan like the inevitable spring of Neruda, continues to enthrallisteners in India, despite the mindless but momentous ban imposed in 2018 by the two countries. The studio was then in its 11th Season.

Multiculturalism and inclusiveness guided the tonality of Coke Studio Pakistan, drawing its influence from various schools of music across the subcontinent like Hindustani classical, Sufi, Qawwali, all types of folks, Bhangra, rock, pop and more. The myriad strains of music broke boundaries as the programme grew more popular every year making it an awaited annual event for listeners on both sides.

A random click on the YouTube channel of Coke Studio Pakistan can be a bewildering experience with staggering views in millions and unending comments of love and appreciation from this side of the border. Also noticeable are the icons of red hearts dotting the dialogue boxes below the main window.

The adulation is not reserved for a Rahat Fateh Ali Khan or an Abida Parveen or the newer Ali Sethi, lesser known singers from Pakistan too seem to receive a similar ovation– a definitive indication of the power of music cutting across boundaries.

Meanwhile, India created its own Coke Studio India in 2011. It too, had its fair share of popularity with the best musical lineup but had not been able to create the kind of fandom that its namesake in Pakistan has built up.

But even when there was no internet, no view counts, no YouTube or Spotify and everything was analogue, in India of the 19th Century stretching from Afghanistan to the Deccan, music flourished and moved people from Lahore in Punjab to the South, from Dhaka in the East to Gujarat in the West; Music then was supported by princely states and yielded a butter ball of melody and soul food.

Multilingual music found its moorings in Sufi poetry, Hindu bhakti poetry and folk traditions. Everyone loved music, everyone had their kind irrespective of who they were – a Badshah, a king a Sufi or a common man.

Jump cut to the first war of independence in 1857 and then finally to 1940s when the royal patrons faded away, and music morphed into ‘only entertainment’ entering the fold of radio and cinema. Music had to be refashioned as the educated middle class began appreciating it. The rising nationalism meant more ‘Indianness’ (read more Hindu) because by then the process of ‘otherisation’ of Muslims was underway.


Noor Jehan, identified now as a Pakistani singer, nevertheless remained most admired across the subcontinent till she herself and others like Shamsad Begum, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan,Rajkumari Dubey, Suraiya, Zubaida Khanum, Rashid Atre, Master Ghulam Haider Amritsari (who had discovered Noor Jehan) and finally Lata Mangeshkar were forced to choose between settling on either side of the border. Like the arbitrary and artificial partition of the land, music too was somehow divided into Indian and Pakistani.

But Noor Jehan continued to rule millions of Indian hearts and so did Lata Mangeshkar on the other side of the border.

And this is how the story has been till now, accentuated by the collective identity of ‘South Asia’ or the desi in current years - isn’t it therefore natural that Coke Studio Pakistan would be much loved by indian listeners while Pakistanis would never get over a Sukhwinder Singh or a Kailash Kher or their favourite Kishore Da and his jodidar RD Burman.

There is a prominent anecdote from Lata Mangeshkar’s life acknowledging Ghulam Haider as her godfather. On her 84th birthday in 2013, the musical doyenne opened up, expressing her deepest gratitude in these words, “Ghulam Haider is truly my godfather. It was his confidence in me that he fought for me to get a foothold inthe Hindi Film Industry”. Haider moved to Pakistan after 1947 and died in Lahore in 1953.

Lata Mangeshkar’s acknowledgment came 66 years after Haider promoted her in Mumbai, the first music director with whom she debuted in Majboor in1948 a year after Partition!

(The writer is an author and filmmaker)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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