Pakistani singer and writer Ali Sethi has made his love for ghazals well known and continues to do so. For him, the journey of rehauling and reintroducing the ghazal art form to a contemporary palette wasn’t a smooth sail.
In a pre-recorded interview with BBC Asian Network, Sethi says that he was always drawn to obscure and outdated forms of poetry and music at a time when “nobody was paying attention to them...you weren’t allowed to really bring a critical appreciation to these things,” he said.
According to Sethi, it’s now that ghazals are appreciated by the younger generation. Previously, the youth wouldn’t enjoy the genre. He confessed that he was mocked for liking ghazals as a teenager and his friends thought the genre was “not muscular or western enough, all those complexes that one grows up within a postcolonial society.”
He continued, “And now, those same dudes, they’re like: can you sing those ghazals at my wedding and I am like, ‘I don’t think so, not unless you pay top dollar.”
Yet, Sethi was practicing his skill way before he made singing a lifelong passion. As a child, his mother had a big hand in polishing his skill and talent. Sethi said he grew up listening to traditional and folk music in the house. “My mother would make me sing complex songs and verses. She’d pay attention to me and that activated me.”
Sethi started uploading his music to SoundCloud five years ago “when nobody knew that I was a musician,” he said. “A lot of young people responded to it and said they loved it. I hadn’t tagged it as a ghazal, it was just a track and it appealed to them. But I remember one producer reaching out to me and while he was all praises for the music and arrangement, he asked me why I was performing ghazals which he called ‘such a aunty-uncle genre.’ I asked him how much time he has for me to let him know how ghazals are actually a young person’s genre.”
As Sethi put it, “Now it just has an image problem,” as people will hear them and enjoy them if they don’t know it’s a ghazal.
Confluence of culture
According to him, the ghazal is the perfect vehicle through which we can make sense of our social and cultural connections and make room for the exploration of the genre, and a lot more young people love it because “the arrangement feels very contemporary.”
“When I hear woke brown kids on social media talking about like a sort of gender-bending multicultural happily hybrid perspectives and bringing people together, ideas of love, it fits to our pre-colonial beliefs and works of art because those are the people who made the ghazal”
“What we think of traditional is actually quite experimental.”
On his fashion choices, which are known to break the proverbial box, Sethi says, “It allows me to get away from this dichotomy between traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, or between Indian and Pakistani.”
“Sometimes I think the flash of colour allows me to execute [my art]. What else would I wear as a ghazal singer? If I wore a tuxedo, which I wore as part of the Ranjish hi Sahi performance, which I thought at that time was a good idea, but now in retrospect, it is a bit typical.”
Is this him making a fashion statement? Sethi emphatically said “I am not! These are the constituents parts of who I am. I am made up of all these things.”
On being asked why in the past five years, there are only a few names that have broken out big in the Pakistani music scene, Sethi said, “Well there is only one Coke Studio, right? Are there any record labels in Pakistan right now promoting young talent? I don’t think so.”
“There are 80-plus TV channels in Pakistan, and not one channel is devoted to making original musical content in Pakistan.”
This article first appeared on Dawn.