Pakistani music hits a low note: extremism at home, extreme nationalism across the border

Is the internet the final refuge for artists caught in the political crossfire?
Pakistani music hits a low note: extremism at home, extreme nationalism across the border
Pakistani music hits a low note: extremism at home, extreme nationalism across the border
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By Miriam Chandy Menacherry

“Imagine there’s no countries

 It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

No religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…you

May say that I am a dreamer

But I’m not the only one”

_ John Lennon

Lennon is one of the most famous exponents of transcendental meditation and yoga to the West after his stint with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. This is when he is said to have written no less than 48 songs with the rest of the Beatles band members in a matter of weeks.

So when he imagines a world where there is cultural exchange, enrichment and collaboration, it is a credible alternative to the banality of everyday politics. This borderless world that John Lennon sings about in his most popular and best-selling single “Imagine” always existed – interconnecting the lives and experiences of musicians around the world to create new genres of music. These are the citizens of the creative common: call it Imaginary Land if you must.

All this is before the invention of the mighty internet that brings so many imaginary landscapes into the throbbing reality of cyber space, something that Lennon never quite imagined. This landscape is dotted with buzzing hotspots throbbing with rhythm and netizens passionate about music unrestrained by political borders: a virtual world of shared beliefs and cultural complexities pulsing with the audacity of youth.

This is the world I stumbled upon when I discovered the music videos of underground artists in Pakistan five years ago. These videos were going viral. Popular, saucy and satirical, they lampooned politics, the army and the clerics: the very list of things that one could never imagine because of the many myopic stereotypes that abound of Pakistan.  Yet Pakistan has had a rich tradition of resistance poetry – of Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Habib Jalib who had public readings amidst thousands to make a statement against dictatorship.

But why are these young Pakistani rock stars not claiming their spot in the arc lights or a rock show, at least, given their following? Why are they, instead, part of an underground movement?

The answer lies in the fact that with the rise of extremism in Pakistan, musicians have been targeted and public performances threatened. The space for public performances has been steadily shrinking and so this type of music has squeezed its way into cyberspace and reached new and unexpected audiences.

Some of these music videos were banned in Pakistan but not before they had found a huge following not just in their country but in India too. Eventually, when YouTube was banned in Pakistan because of a cartoon about the Prophet, the netizens already had a healthy system in place. From social media to proxy servers, every bit helped to keep this movement of borderless music alive and thriving.

This is the type of audience that follows Coke Studio in both India and Pakistan. It is interesting to read the comments column for the music shows – with users almost unanimously rating the Pakistani version the best in Asia. Many Indian music fans even blame the Bollywood dream factory for dictating how music is produced in India, creating an almost homogeneous mass culture. It is no wonder then that some of the best Bollywood producers have roped in independent talent from Pakistan.

What then is the legitimacy of a political party that won 1 seat out of 288 constituencies in the last Maharashtra State Assembly elections to issue a diktat to all Pakistani artists to leave the State in 48 hours?

They say that the context is that of a brutal cross border attack by terrorists in an Indian army camp in Uri. The rational thought would be for the Sena to live up to its name and dispatch a set of warriors to the frontline but instead, it reacts by lashing out at a bunch of guys with guitars instead of guns and face paint instead of war paint!

We are now talking about a vote share of 3% in the State bringing to its knees the stalwarts of the biggest film industry in the world. In the line of fire is the latest release “Raees” of the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, as well as the “khandhaan” that spells magic at the box office, Yash Raj’s latest production “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil”. 

If one caught Karan Johar confessing to Barkha Dutt on television, “I feel scared and vulnerable,” then one recognizes that Johar is only too familiar with this form of politics.

He had to apologize to the patriarch of the Shiv Sena for the use of the word ‘Bombay’ in his film instead of ‘Mumbai’ and now the nephew is demanding that he re-cast and re-shoot all the parts with the Pakistani actor if he is to release his now completed film. It is clear that this kind of muscle flexing pays scant regard to creative decisions, commercial considerations or even the grand economics of film-making!

Johar must take on mission impossible and convince the Sena of angry men that artists are no relatives of terrorists and that his film with a Pakistani heartthrob in the lead can only `spread love’.

The MNS is hardly listening. They are looking to score a point or two in a match of political sibling rivalry!  After all the might is right polls are already tipped in favour of the Shiv Sena headed by a cousin.

The rival party launched an ink attack at a book reading of a former foreign minister of Pakistan in Mumbai. It is ironical the title of the book reads: ‘Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’! They further upped the tally by threatening the veteran ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali to cancel his show in Mumbai. These are wily politicians who are willing to bully and use brute force against a creative community, which they are confident will not retaliate.

It is a striking mirror image of how extremist factions have paralyzed the public and cultural spaces in a city like Karachi in Pakistan, often compared to Mumbai for being a port city and commercial hub. Personal attacks, threats, violence and even a few target killings have silenced the majority. As a consequence, dialogue and cultural engagement breaks down and the shadow of violence looms large.

Musicians and artists find safe refuge in their own community that dots the landscape of the imaginary land. It is a better place than you and I are in: those borderless spaces that lift us above the violence and rhetoric. A place to which each of us has a standing invite!

“I hope some day you’ll join us

And the world can live as one”

are the closing lines of Lennon’s song. “Imagine” has become a peace anthem. It was recently performed in Paris on November 14, 2015 at the Bataclan theatre in memory of the 89 people who were gunned down by a terrorist.

Miriam Chandy Menacherry is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker. Her most recent work Lyari Notes is a cross border collaboration with a Pakistani filmmaker Maheen Zia about music and resistance. It has travelled widely and will play at the Peace Builders Festival (Delhi) that recognizes the efforts of women in peace building.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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