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Pakistan’s soft power

When Coke Studio Pakistan first entered the Indian mindscape with a blitzkrieg of sorts, the listeners were literally blown away

Pakistan’s soft power

Some years ago, I read an essay ‘on the female voice in Hindi cinema music’ by Ashraf Aziz where he had argued how pre-independence India was dominated by a range of robust, wide ranging voices in so far as female playback singing was concerned. Noor Jehan was an epitome of the same.

The trend continued to some extent post-independence after partition in the likes of Shamshad Begum and Geeta Dutt. That was also the period when a complete feminisation of female playback singing began, smoothening out its rough edges, weeding out its grainy tone which met the male singing on an equal footing.

With the advent and designed preference of sisters Lata and Asha, all of that was rolled back. In a way, that paralleled the resolution of the post-World War dilemma of the west where all those women who were backing up men on the frontiers while logging work hours in the offices had to be sent back to their homes. The coming of Lata and Asha with their soulful but extremely subdued voices signalled to women that it was time to regain their ‘true calling’, post the Gandhian struggles of the streets.

Though that tradition retained its original colour in singing outside the Hindi cinema music, especially in forms like thumri and ghazals; Begum Akhtar being the greatest symbol of the same.

There were the most sophisticated keyboards and electric guitars packaged in a studio setting, with most cool-looking guitarists, drummers and singers, their costumes and hairdos making our eyes stretch till the two ends of our ears.

Pakistan, perhaps never lost touch with it, as the Pakistani cinema was never so complete in its domination over other forms of music. People in India knew more of Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum than any established playback singer from Pakistani cinema music. But that was the preserve of the aficionados than the common listeners of popular music. The wave of singers like Ali Haider, Junoon, Strings and so on came much later. And even before them, way back in the early 1980s, was Nazia Hasan, once again introduced to India through her iconic song ‘Aap Jaisa koi’ in movie Qurbani.

Occasionally, one heard a Reshma, once again through movie Hero or a Ghulam Ali or Salma Agha through Nikaah. The streams of passage to the masses in India were structured and laid out through what got termed as Bollywood in the 1990s liberalised India.

In the meanwhile, with the coming of the cassette economy, ghazal singing in India became popular with Jagjit Singh leading the band in the 1980s. That popularity, however, brought Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali to our homes and perhaps for the first time this uneasy feeling that our next-door neighbours were doing somewhat better.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, India experimented with its own versions of popular rock, pop and later hip-hop music with singers like Alisha Chenoy, and Sunitha Rao among others. All of that flickered briefly and died its slow death, against the ruthless onslaught of Bollywood.

In the meanwhile, we continued to think of Pakistan, barring an occasional Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as the place which was more of a consumer of our music than a producer for us.

So when Coke Studio Pakistan entered the Indian mindscape with a blitzkrieg of sorts, the Indian listeners were literally blown away. The range of throaty, robust, soulful, melodious, grainy, playful voices was simply astounding, accompanied by traditional instruments like dholak and chimta. There were the most sophisticated keyboards and electric guitars packaged in a studio setting, with most cool-looking guitarists, drummers and singers, their costumes and hairdos making our eyes stretch till the two ends of our ears.

Fortunately, this was the time when the reign of Lata and Asha had met its well-deserved demise and Bollywood too was experimenting with new sounds and new voices. But, as I said, ‘Bollywood’! Outside it, little was possible. But what Coke Studio Pakistan did in immediate term was to re-introduce us to the possibility of more than one proto-type of ‘soulful voice’ and that too in popular genres.

In order to get a quick sense of its popularity among my fellow Indians, I posted two questions on various WhatsApp groups I am a member of, requesting lists of their favourite numbers and singers and also why? The range of the answers to the first one is too long to list here but that certainly gave me a few good ones to listen to that I had missed previously. The reasons for why were pretty interesting too. While some liked them for the earthy, folksy numbers of Mai Dhai (Kadi Aao Ni with Atif Aslam), Arif Lohar (Jugni with Meesha Shafi) and Akhtar Chanal Jahri (Daanah pa Daanah, sung with Komal Rizvi) with some great foil provided by contemporary genres of pop and hip hop.

A friend wrote how it was a journey for her to regain the memories of Seraiki, the language of her ancestors from Southern Punjab, from where they came after partition. There were those who simply loved it for the re-invention of ghazal and qawwali, a journey down the memory lane of lost genres (in India), with Ranjish Hi Sahi sung by Ali Sethi or the great Farida Khanum for her classic Aaj jane ki zid na karo, Tina Sani via Faiz with Mori Araj Suno Dastgir Pir or Reshma’s Lambi Judai; Rahat Fateh Ali with Abida Parveen (Chhap Tilak) and along with lesser known ones in India like Farid Ayaz and others with their magical rendition of Kangna.

Then there were those who were simply singing the mainstream contemporary songs like Lage re Nain (Ayesha Omar), tongue in cheek rendition of Rockstar (Ali Zafar). It deliberately played on people’s nostalgia by picking up a few old classic songs starting with grainy, black and white clippings of the originals, followed by contemporary renditions like Jaan e baharan (Ali Zafar).

I have already slipped into the treacherous terrain of listing. You don’t know which one to pick. In one place, you have tradition jostling with contemporary, most glamorous looking stars with traditionally dressed folk singers, the new beats arranged sassily with the old ones and showcasing Pakistan’s soft power to the world in a self-assured way.

While digging into Youtube for these numbers, I happened to glance down the comments below and one of them stood out. On Meesha Shafi, a fan wrote that only she could wear something resembling a bathrobe and still manage to look like a diva. And mind you, in this case she was not singing a contemporary genre but Dashte Tanhayee Mein, that classic which was sung by Tina Sani before her and even before that by the great Iqbal Bano.

While driving to work, I listened to this number again and again without looking at the screen of course and it still gave me goosebumps.

And this brings me to why I began by mentioning feminisation of female singing in India post-independence, while fully aware that Coke Studio is as much about male singing as about female singing. There is a character in Mohammed Hanif’s crackling The Case of Exploding Mangoes, who describes Lata and Asha sisters ugly but with voices like goddesses (I am writing from memory!). With Coke Studio, Pakistan showed to the world they have their own goddesses and with a range of voices which can certainly break that monopoly of a single definition of female singing.

Avinash Kumar

avinash photo copy
The author has been in the development sector for more than a decade and currently works with an International non-governmental organisation based in Delhi. He may be reached at: [email protected]


  • Nothing is sillier than claiming some stupid Coke Studio did wonders in India or influenced India in some major way. God bless these morons who think they revolutionized the world. Being clueless is not a great achievement.

  • Coke (that is, Coca-a-Cola, a world renown American soft drink) Studio?? Pakistan’s soft power? No, Coke brand is part of American soft power, not Pakistan’s. The artists are Pakistani or others but the brand is American and this program creates goodwill for America in the hearts and minds of people, not Pakistan. I have heard people say ‘oh, at least some American company is pushing for the talent among Pakistan’s youth,…show if any indigenous company or organization has done anything like it!!!

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