The promotional song for Season 11 of Coke Studio appeared a few days before the general elections in Pakistan on July 25. The popular music brand and television series has often used patriotic songs to promote each new season. For Season 8, it was Sohni Dharti from the late 1970s. The year after, it was Aye Rahe Haq Ke Shaheedo, once sung by Noor Jahan as a tribute to soldiers fighting the 1965 war with India. The national anthem was chosen to promote Season 10, which coincided with 70 years of Pakistan. However, as the core team for the latest season changed, there appeared to be a deliberate departure from conventionality.
Hum Dekhenge, or we shall see, is one of the best known Urdu poems written by the greatest Urdu poet of the last century, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It was written in 1979, the same year the democratically elected prime minister of the country, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. This eschatological poem – that went on to become a symbol of protest against the dictator’s Islamisation and repressive policies – talks about the promised day when “mountains of tyranny” will “blow away like cotton”. It talks of the day “when the crowns will be tossed”.
This choice of “patriotic” song was a fundamental departure from the traditional patriotic songs Coke Studio had taken up in past seasons – songs that focussed on the beauty of the country, the need to show one’s love for the country, or others that sought to unite a nation against an external enemy. But here was a song that demanded no sacrifice. Neither did it talk about the beauty of the golden land or an imaginary enemy. Instead, it spoke of the enemy within, the oppressor, the exploitative system that cashed in on the vulnerability of its citizens. In perhaps one of the most depressing times in the country’s history, this song was a cathartic articulation of the inevitable downfall of those wearing the crown. A few years later, the ghazal singer Iqbal Bano sang it to an audience of 50,000 people in Lahore at a time when all political opposition was being crushed. At the height of martial law, Hum Dekhenge became an anthem against the military regime.
In this simple yet beautiful rendition of the song for Coke Studio, numerous artistes appear one by one to sing their line. The voices of folk singers merge with that of qawwals, Sufi singers collaborate with rockers while rappers share lines with pop singers. Each singer brings a unique texture and individuality that sets each line apart and yet, as a whole, the songs works.
The song was an instant success, similar to other productions that have emerged from the platform of Coke Studio. It came at a time when elections were round the corner and there was a popular wave in favour of Imran Khan, now the country’s prime minister. Many of his followers see his political journey as a movement against status quo, against the two traditional parties of Pakistan – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party. For others, however, the fact that Coke Studio, a capitalist brand, had appropriated the poetry of a well-known Marxist poet, a poem that had been the anthem of Leftists for all these years, was the epitome of irony.
Break from convention
The season opened a few weeks later, picking up from the promotional song. All four songs featured in the first episode were deeply political.
The first, a rendition of arguably two of Allama Iqbal’s greatest poems, Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, captured the essence of the poet’s political philosophy. The first poem, sung by Natasha Baig, was a Shikwa, a complaint from a devotee to his deity. It speaks of a sense of abandonment, of how the believer spread god’s message to the world but now feels abandoned. In the reply, Jawab-e-Shikwa, the deity reminds the believer that it was god’s action that allowed the believer to spread his message. It is a reminder that one’s future is in one’s own hands and so, instead of complaining or waiting for a miracle, the believer must decide his own destiny.
The next song was also political, yet in a completely different manner. Here, two members of the Khawaja Sara, a transgender community, shared the stage with a popular singer to sing a traditional Punjabi song. The song was a criticism of patriarchal attitudes and the glorification of baby boys. Yet, more significant than this was the presence of the Khawaja Sara, who have in the past few years been subjected to brutal acts of violence. Here were two members of the community sharing the country’s largest musical stage.
For the next performance, the rap group Lyari Underground took the stage. Unlike other rappers in Pakistan who generally come from privileged backgrounds but pretend not to in their songs, this group comes from one of the most dangerous areas of one of the most dangerous cities in the country – Karachi. The town of Lyari has gained notoriety for its police operations against criminals. It is dominated by ethnic Balochis, one of the country’s most disempowered ethnic communities. While the lyrics of the song might not have construed a larger political meaning, just the presence of the group and its background became a political statement.
The final song, Main Irada, is a feminist anthem. Turning conventional gender norms topsy turvy, its lyrics describe womanhood as determination, fearlessness, resolve, purpose and passion. What also added to the song was the inclusion of traditional folk singers with popular pop artists.
Revolutionary statement from capitalist banner?
Thus, with the inaugural episode of the new season, it seemed Coke Studio, under the new team, was taking a new turn where it was not afraid to make political statements. Perhaps it heralded a new post-modern world where revolutionary statements came from capitalist banners.
But this was not to be. Five episodes have aired so far and after the first, no new political statement has been made. Maybe five songs in a season is all a major corporation can allow. There is no doubt this revolution will be televised. In the following episodes, the show reverted to its default of love songs and Sufi songs. Some of them were brilliant, but none of them held the political statement the season opener promised. With half the season still to go, we shall see if Coke Studio lives up to its promise.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was, was recently published by Penguin Random House