Hybrid versus “Pure”- A Flawed Theorem

Sophia Pandeya responds to Suleman Akhtar’s article on the music being created in Coke Studio series. Sophia’s writing is informed by Eastern as well as Western modern and traditional poetic forms.  Born in Karachi, Pakistan to parents of ethnically Indian descent Pandeya left for Thailand in 1986  in pursuit of greater personal  and artistic freedom. After living and working for two and half years in Bangkok she migrated to the US in 1988.  Spending nearly a decade in Manhattan,  she acted Off Broadway in ‘The Watchman” (Theater For The New City 1989). At the Summer Program of Naropa University in Boulder Colorado she created poetry performances with Japanese inspired brush techniques. In 1990 Sophia met and eventually married  Raam Pandeya, an  Indian American journalist and a practitioner of Kayakalpa; an ancient Indian healing art which she has also practiced since 1991. Sophia’s writing, painting and photography have been published in the print anthology Spilled Ink( 2000 PGI) and online at The Adirondack Review, Convergence Journal and Full Of Crow.

Sophia Pandeya

I recently read an article by Suleman Akhtar claiming that “Coke Studio is making a mockery out of our culture” This article is as uninformed as it is confused, rambling and jaundiced. Lets start out with the  opening statement that “Coke Studio is is the place where a revitalization of folk culture is endeavored by slaughtering it.” Actually the blame for the unfortunate butchering referred to by Mr Akhtar lies with the cheesy, vulgar and meaningless filmi music that can be heard blaring from each and every corner of rural and urban Pakistan today. 

Secondly, I find the statement that “Qawwali is the ONLY indigenous genre of the music that can enthrall people, irrespective of their social status, caste, creed or religion” very troubling because there are many other forms of indigenous music that transcend these divisions; has the author ever heard of the music of the mystic Bauls of Bengal? or the Manganiyars of Rajhastan? Also, Qawwali is not folk music but a hybrid form that grew out of the elements of Turkic music, most notably its clapping techniques combining them with the scale of Indian classical music. In fact many purist musical scholars of the day were horrified at the “distortion of the original” much like the present author, at such a hybridization!

Perhaps the author is not aware that the “father of Qawwali” Amir Khusro was himself a hybrid, being the son of a Rajput mother and a Turkic father  and it was this very hybridity that allowed him to compose some of the most memorable poetry with lines alternating  between Hindi and Farsi such as “Zehal-e-miskin makun taghaful, duraye naina banaye batiyan; ki taab-e hijran nadaram ay jaan, na leho kaahe lagaye chhatiyan“.

The author praises the 80’s and 90’s as the heydays of Pakistani pop music. So the naked aping of western pop without a shred of originality is fine but the bringing folk to the consciousness of today’s youth by combining genres is not? Has the author even listened to recent episodes of Coke Studio? How is the Chakwal Group, Daanah pa Daanah, or Peer Pavandi any less brilliant than A. R Rahman? Please don’t get me wrong, I am all for preserving folk music and we desperately need serious field work that records folk artists in their native milieu but that is the job of the Ministry of Culture, not Coke Studio.

 It is ironic that Mr. Akhtar extols modernist trends in western art while dismissing Coke studio as “a trivial experiment” and I quote “[T]he fact of the matter here is that it is not the culture itself that is being celebrated. It is being experimented with in a way that is uninspired and harmful.” I beg to differ and you can see the proof right here in two links. The first  clip is of Alam Lohar the legendary folk artist singing his signature tune Jugni on PTV in the early seventies.

The second clip is  his son Arif Lohar performing in the United States. A tour which he got because of his  success at Coke Studio.  Here at the climax of his good will tour at the Asia Society in New York City he performs an ecstatic, extended version of Jugni. You can see (especially if you watch the entire hour long performance) that he has taken the legacy of his father to a whole new level introducing the folk music of the subcontinent to an international audience who would never have heard it otherwise. This is clearly a revival of folk music and it happened because of Coke Studio.

This is not to say that I do not have some issues of my own with Coke Studio. The recent episode in which Meesha Shafi tried to produce an exact copy of Iqbal Bano’s legendary rendition of Dasht-e-Tanhai was a misplaced homage in my view. Overall though Coke Studio has made commendable efforts to infuse the music scene of Pakistan with originality and  fresh energy.

Lastly, the Justin Bieber analogy is plain unfair. These are desi musicians trying to have an engagement with their culture, a flawed experimental engagement in the eyes of some perhaps, but an engagement nevertheless and THAT is something that should be encouraged, not dismissed.

One reply to “Hybrid versus “Pure”- A Flawed Theorem

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