From the moment my cousin Haniya and I released our version of Bibi Sanam on Coke Studio, it resonated with people from Kabul to Kolkata and beyond, becoming one of our most-loved and celebrated numbers. Its success spawned many other versions on YouTube and it was a delight to see and hear people from all over the world engaging with the song with so much love.
In time, many classic versions were uploaded. In 2013, inspired by Ustaad Shamsuddin Masrur’s performance of the song in the 1960s, I recorded an entirely fresh version of Bibi Sanam with my Brooklyn-based band SANDARAA. Not surprisingly, this version became a crowd-pleaser on SANDARAA tours even to predominantly Western audiences in North America.
Two days ago, I came across a recently uploaded Bibi Sanam video from a Bollywood film. The film was completed a few years ago, but I hadn’t heard of or seen it. I was eager to see what space had been carved out for this beautiful folk classic by the multi-billion dollar industry we all follow and participate in so actively. The names attached to the project heightened my excitement. Usha Uthup, whose beautiful spirit and voice has inspired me since childhood, and Richa Chadha, an actor I respect as someone who stood up against objectification of women on the silver screen.
When I finally heard the song, I was unsettled, disappointed by its re-imagining. I could not find Richa’s spirit or Usha’s voice in the song, neither could I find the soul of Qandahar, Tajqurghan, Kabul jaan, or Sisstaan — all the places the song has referenced.
Instead, the song was forcibly put in a place it was never meant for. I must admit it deeply disturbed me to see a cover of our loving tribute/rendition juxtaposed against the general ongoings of a forgettable Bollywood item song. What was infused into the innocence, the freshness and sweetness of Sistaan is unwanted aggressive sexuality. Sadly, it felt perhaps for the first time a version has compromised the beauty of an ancient poetic, musical and spiritual tradition.
My first memory of Bibi Sanam takes me back to playing pakrhan pakrhai in the dark just behind the colourful shamiana at a family wedding in Peshawar. I hate the turtleneck I am forced to wear underneath my blingy gharara and, generally apathetic to wedding rituals and customs, I decide to play with kids I have just met. My mother is calling out to me. I hear her, but I refuse to end this thrilling moment just yet.
As soon as Bibi Sanam plays, its hypnotic quality sends me into a deep reverie where I stop in my tracks, and suddenly from the darkness of the little alleyway between the shamiana and the wall, I run towards the band, to find the familiar smiling face of the celebrated Afghan singer Ustad Shahwali.
He is seated on a stage, wearing his signature cap and a large pure wool shawl. He looks regal and I instantly fall in love with this sound and the world these half-familiar lyrics invoke. Who isn’t enchanted by tales of sweet anars from Sistaan?
In the early 2000s, my cousin Haniya and I, expressed our homesickness while in college in Massachusetts through singing for friends and recording music together on now extinct desktop mics.
Soon we started writing original material and within a couple of years of graduation, Zeb and Haniya became a band.
We continued testing our originals with friends and family, yet Dari and Turkish songs would always find their way into our repertoire. When Bibi Sanam became a contender for Coke Studio a decade ago, we decided to approach it in a way where the song upheld its original ecstatic feel yet also bore the Zeb and Haniya signature. Our producer, Mr Rohail Hyatt, stood by us and encouraged us to bring a freshness to the arrangements. Putting out Dari songs on one of the largest platforms in the country was a risk that many thought was foolish for a couple of newbies to take. We really weren’t sure if this was the right market choice but took the risk because the songs felt like our own. And we were duly rewarded.
The latest Bollywood version depicting gyrating women dancing around poles raises a stream of uncomfortable questions for me. As artists and art producers we cannot imagine ourselves separate or disconnected from our own artistic product. What then is the value of musical heritage for artists in the South Asian music marketplace today?
Songs have journeys. They will on their course make many unexpected stops. Each place of rest nurtures the artist and each rendition pushes the song forward on its way. Is the item song just another pit-stop or does it end the journey?
We do need marketing and the corporate sector to disseminate our work. But has a vested interest and the need to cater to a ‘reference tune’ calcified the mold to a point that even the radiance of a powerhouse like Usha Uthup appears dimmed.
Over the past 12 months, we saw social movements promoting inclusion and equality, we participated in them virtually and created real global social impact. Social media provides an opportunity for authentic and discerning collaborations. In the context of this hyper-connected environment, I need to ask whether we as artists and content creators are making lazy and uninformed artistic choices?
Because when you sing a song in a new language, you acquire an intimacy not only with the music, but also its people, as you gain access to its stories and histories. You then suffuse it with your own histories and culture – if done right, it is always a process of inclusion. This is especially true for rich spiritual soundscapes. Is it too much to hope that this can culminate in evolution beyond the item number?
When a dominant cultural machine imposes its careless vulgarity upon lesser-known spiritual traditions, it can undermine a culture and ultimately re-form and warp an identity from sacred to profane.
Bibi Sanam has always possessed a mesmerising quality, a magic kept alive for centuries, by artists and audiences, meshed with their personal memory, experience and history. For me the Bollywood version is a disservice to the song’s meaning and the culture it comes from.
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