By Shriya Roy
On March 24, Pakistani singer and author Ali Sethi announced on Instagram that he would be going live for “a very special session”. It was a pleasant surprise for music lovers across the world when Sethi brought together legendary Pakistani singer Farida Khanum alongside Indian playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj and music and film director Vishal Bhardwaj. The artistes spoke and sang together for their fans during the entire live session. While Khanum sang Ab jaane ki zid na karo, Rekha joined in with Phir le aaya dil. “I had always wanted to meet Farida Khanum-ji and had expressed my thoughts to Ali. Instagram Live made it possible. It’s a very constructive way to spread the message of peace,” says Rekha Bhardwaj. Later, the husband and wife duo of Vishal and Rekha said they felt “extremely fortunate to have shared the stage with the legend”.
So what prompted Sethi to organise such a collaboration? “Citizens of both nations listen to one another’s music, so it felt natural to celebrate our shared heritage at a time when the world is suffering. I think it brought joy to people,” he says.
Sethi is right. When it comes to music and the arts, India and Pakistan find themselves inextricably linked. And why not, since both the nations share a common language, culture and history. Not too long ago, in fact, Indo-Pak cultural collaborations were par for the course, with musicians intermingling freely and performing in each other’s countries. Things, however, took a turn for the worse in 2016 when, in the aftermath of the Uri attack, a ban was imposed on Pakistani artistes performing in India. In Pakistan, too, theatres refused to screen Indian movies.
The pandemic, however, changed all that. With the aim to provide some musical succour to fans as they stayed at home, artistes of both countries began to freely collaborate with each other on social media, live-streaming musical sessions. Sethi’s live session, in fact, opened the gateway for many more such collaborations. Mumbai-based singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari performed a Live in Karachi in collaboration with Salt Arts, a music, arts and entertainment agency based in Pakistan. Sethi himself organised many more Instagram Lives with Indian artistes such as singer Shilpa Rao.
Indian pop band Euphoria’s Palash Sen, too, collaborated on Instagram Live with singer-songwriter Faisal Kapadia (of popular Pakistan pop band Strings), who is the producer of Coke Studio Pakistan. “The cross-border Instagram collaboration is a great tool to bring the two countries together… The online collaboration was a great idea,” says Kapadia, whose band Strings has, in the past, partnered with many more Indian artistes such as singers Hariharan and Sona Mohapatra, and music band Indian Ocean.
These virtual collaborations, however, did not go down well with Mumbai-based film industry workers’ union Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), which, in a statement, warned Indian artistes against working with Pakistani artistes in any manner. “Anyone found cooperating or working in any manner with any Pakistani artistes, singers and technicians in any mode or media of entertainment will be subject to strict disciplinary action,” the FWICE statement read.
Needless to say, artistes aren’t happy. “The cine body is run by experienced people and I will not rebel, but ethically, I disagree because artistes are agents of change around the world. They want to resolve issues,” says Tewari, adding, “One particular thing that the statement said was that how can Indian artistes do these collaborations when soldiers are being killed at the border. Soldiers are being killed because politicians of both countries have failed miserably over the past 70 years to resolve a crisis. And if they have not done it yet, probably art is the only way it can happen. I know citizens on both sides of the border have enjoyed the music and the collaborations. I have been following the Lives and, for me, artistes like Faisal Kapadia, Ali Sethi, Palash Sen, Raghu Dixit or Papon are all agents of love and change. My session with Salt Arts was no different.”
Calling the warning “unnecessary” without any “adequate reasoning”, Rekha Bhardwaj says, “Humanity teaches us to be better. Music can’t be restricted. Social and public interaction can be controlled and stopped, but personal relationships, what comes from the heart can’t be stopped,” she says.
The Indo-Pak online musical collaborations received soaring views not just in India and Pakistan, but across the world, with people demanding for more. And that has given these artistes a lot of hope in these dismal times. “The way people came out, pouring their hearts out during the cross-country collaborations was wonderful to watch. It was extremely human. I hope it paves the way for something even better in times to come. Hopefully, this is a step towards mending ties. You can’t hide yourself in music. And that is where the magic begins,” says singer Ali Hamza, who is one half of the Pakistani band Noori Brothers with his singer-songwriter brother Ali Noor.
The Instagram Lives gave the artistes as well as the audience the freedom to connect with each other at an extremely personal level. Despite the warnings and bans, these sessions have opened up myriad possibilities. “I am very excited about the new door of opportunities that have opened up. You can’t stop it for too long. The togetherness that comes out of this will happen at a very genuine level because intentions are pure and there is no money or PR involved,” says Ali Noor, adding that the pandemic has brought the whole world on the same stage.
Talking about performing online, Hamza says, “Performing virtually has its own set of challenges. It is distant and yet very intimate. Everyone feels empowered. The social scene online is quite blooming. The pandemic has given it a big pump.”
Good music surpasses any political motive, believe these artistes. In Ankur Tewari’s words, the world is divided between people who hate and people who love. “Ultimately, people on both sides of the border want peace and love,” he says.
Rekha Bhardwaj says she is fortunate to have performed in Lahore and Karachi over the past decade. “We, as artistes, have been doing our bit to bridge the gap whenever political tensions rise. The love between the common people, the friendships have always been there and have never been affected. As an artiste, my religion is to spread the message of love and peace around the world. Life is so fragile… there is no time to hate,” she says.
Agrees Kapadia: “One thing I can say for sure is that no matter how much we restrict things diplomatically and politically, art and culture will make its place just like water. People in Pakistan still watch and enjoy Indian films and in India, too, people enjoy the dramas coming out of Pakistan. That can’t be stopped.”