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Of anthems and songs

As song upon patriotic song was sung or played over the local and national media on August 14, it is time to debate the role of music in society

Of anthems and songs
Courtesy: ProPakistani

During celebrations of all kinds, it has become a ritual to either play songs especially created for the purpose or the already existing ones reworked for the occasion. This August 14 was no exception — as song upon song was sung or played over the local and national media.

The general assumption is that the heavier the doze, the greater will be the level of patriotism among citizens of a country. Give them surfeit of it, so that they become ever more patriotic by the end of the week, or after a couple of weeks when the celebrations end and another set of celebrations begin. It all has been a series of celebrations or one event stepping on the toes of another, so that people do not have a chance to think, consider and evaluate.

It is good for the musicians and professionals that they get an opportunity to work. As the media overplays its role in proving more patriotic fervour, professionals are hurtled together to dip into their talent for a command performance.

The centre of these songs are lyrics because other than lyrics there is just no way that one can tell one patriotic song from another. The lyrics are excessive, like there can be nothing less than offering one’s life for the sake of the country. Patriotism demands the life of the citizen, so be it. The ultimate sacrifice is there for the sake of or, if expected, for the safety of the country.

The lyrics are all about extremes — it has to be about life and death. The commonplace moments of drudgery are only coolly forgotten. The other functions, duties and responsibilities that can make a good citizen, are considered too mundane to be the subject of a song or a music video. It has to be about an extreme situation that can bring out the heroic in you. There is no heroism involved in not polluting the air and not adulterating the food that others eat.

It appears it is harking back to the old debate that music cannot be composed around petty themes like keeping your appointments, not shirking work or being honest to whatever you are being paid for. Music is about offering one’s heart to the beloved and one’s life for the sake of the country — the rest is too ordinary to become the domain of music.

Keep the streets clean, don’t lie about your assets or don’t indulge in corruption are far too ordinary for music to be composed on. Only the reduced function exemplified by jingles can do that.

The patriotic song has to be about an extreme situation that can bring out the heroic in you. There is no heroism involved in not polluting the air and not adulterating the food that others eat.

In the great debate about the role of music in our society, it appears that music per se is not an object of condemnation or denunciation but the cause that it is put to. Or to stretch the argument further, music should be put to a cause; if it is not, problems arise because the nature of its effect cannot be pinpointed and assessed.

Music is for a cause, and there can be only two that have ruled the roost here — one religion and other patriotism. And if it strays and assigns another reason or another function for its existence, it is ruthlessly debated. If there is an ambiguity about its function, that can raise both eyebrows and heckles as well.

The exact nature of the problem, of course, lies in its control, the control of the arts. The artists have to be tightly watched and their artistic output ruthlessly scrutinised. If it does not fall in line with the stated purpose or that of a pressure group within society, then all hell breaks loose and its denunciation issued from the pulpit. If it is seemingly within bounds, like making a caricature of the enemy as it abandons its post and runs for its life because it does not eat meat, it is not only acceptable but admirable as well.

Since time immemorial, one has known that music accompaniments were used to organise marches and also to create the right fervour to inspire and encourage armies to decimate the enemy.

If music is for a purpose, it cannot be defined in such narrow strictures like the glorification of the idea of the beautiful as perceived throughmiza hai daraz  or an unbridled passion unleashed by “rawani-e rawish”. The mere reason to sing to beauty could land a poet or musician into serious trouble like Hafiz when he preferred praising the til (mole) on aariz-e mehboob (cheek of the beloved) than writing eulogies on the conquest of Samarqand by Amir Taimoor.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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