Sufism, selflessness and South Asian solidarity: How Ali Sethi enchanted the world with his distinctive style
In 2004 before music videos and Instagram reels devoured South Asian lives, one rock fusion number titled Bullah Ki Jaana Main Kaun (Bullah I Know Not Who I am) sung by British Punjabi singer Rabbi Shergill took the urban youth of the subcontinent on its sway.
A new musical experiment, Shergill’s song proved magical!
The lyrics, soaked in the Sufi mysticism of the region, were originally a Kafi poem written in the 17th century by Panjabi Sufi saint, poet and philosopher Syed Abdul Shah Qadri also known as Baba Bulleh Shah.
"The answer lies in its evocative lyrics embedded in Sufi principles of Ishq-e-Haqiqi, which questions the idea of “self” and “selflessness,” oblivious of any locational boundaries"
Other than Shergill, Pakistan’s early rock band Junoon, Wadali Brothers and Sufi Qawals too had their own version of the same number.
One wonders what was the draw. And the answer lies in its evocative lyrics embedded in Sufi principles of Ishq-e-Haqiqi, which questions the idea of “self” and “selflessness,” oblivious of any locational boundaries.
Though the song was a result of India-Pakistan’s shared history and philosophies, folk traditions that bound them together like a warm silken pashmina with the aspect of ‘togetherness’ were underplayed in the public realm of both countries.
Today Shergill’s song is bracketed as ‘generational read dated’ but its transformative elements are not lost and it would not be too off to say that Shergill or Junoon were precursors to Ali Sethi’s musical universe which is so heavily endowed by poetic mysticism of the subcontinent, and critical narratives of love.
Fast forward to the summer of 2018 when Harvard University presented a concert at its Art Festival with a live performance by Ali Sethi, its alumni.
While the evening of nonstop earworm music boomed across Sanders Theatre’s of Harvard, the point to be noted was what Sethi sang as one his concluding songs that night – it was none other than Dum Mast Qalandar, a Sufi qawwali drawn from 13th-century salutation of Sufi saint Lal Shah Baaz Qalandar. His shrine is located in present-day southeastern Pakistan with thousands of seekers congregating annually.
Inside the shrine, like many other Sufi shrines across the subcontinent, sessions of nonstop feverish music, a symbolic search of self and the divine in the form of zikr and damaal take place with conventional boundaries of cast, creed, gender, religion or any other falling apart.
Sethi had shared this experience as a touchstone moment, perhaps an acknowledgement of the core essence of his phenomenal music that has emerged cathartic for the artist himself, leading the Pakistani-American singer into a distinct musical journey.
One needs to engage with this bit of Sethi’s unparalleled story of success going beyond the widely known celeb facts that he was born and raised in Lahore to well-known journalists and rose to prominence as a singer with Dil Jalane Ki Baat Karte Ho – the riveting ghazal in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) originally sung by iconic Farida Khanum, who also happens to Sethi’s one of the two mentors.
There was a pre-phase to the above timeline post 9/11 when Sethi was increasingly introspective trying to recourse questions of his Muslim identity, the culture he came from and his homeland Pakistan.
As destiny would have it, a class on Indo-Islamic culture and religion at Harvard by Ali Asani threw open the doors of conceptual, existential understanding that Sethi was exploring constantly those days.
Much later the lessons of Asani’s classes which the artist has defined as “heart-mind knowledge” set him on his new and ‘own’ musical journey; a journey where boundaries of differences fell off and what would transpire into ‘Ali Sethi style’.
Soon he was a frequent face in Pakistan’s inimitable Coke Studio, releasing cover singles. With each song released, he found his audiences, his music was sans border playing endlessly on a loop from India to Canada to the Middle East and Australia.
The result is reflected in numbers too. The views of his songs on YouTube are effortlessly high to the tune of millions like Umra Lagiya (released in 2015 – 6,578,718 views) Chandni Raat (2019 – 5.6 million) and Chan Kithan (2017 – 18 million), all good enough to tell the world that Sethi has most definitely arrived.
Additionally, reading the trickling comments below Sethi’s music videos which never seem to cease makes one pause and contemplate the power of his music.
"Pasoori became the second most searched song of the year on Google and the most hummed song of the year on Google Trends"
As if all this wasn’t enough, Pasoori (a Punjabi word for a hot mess or an intractable situation as explained by Sethi) happened in 2022.
As the year came to a close, Pasoori became the second most searched song of the year on Google and the most hummed song of the year on Google Trends.
Released ten months prior and introducing singer Shae Gill, the avant-garde music video with an inimitable energy clocked up a viewership of more than 490 million so far, with endless Instagram reels and TikTok videos made using the song.
In a recent interview, Sethi described the song as “emancipating and traditional”, attributing its origin to folk traditions of Pakistan that the singer believes are “empowering and self-enhancing”.
"Sethi has reminded the world that music born out of traditional, spiritual and folk customs is powerful enough to bring people together"
True to his words, Pasoori is impactful or what else could sway half a billion listeners stretched across the world.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Ali Sethi was among the names chosen for the line-up of Coachella 2023 – a huge deal and achievement for South Asian representation in mainstream music.
While the year-end convention of Best of the Year goes in spirals, Sethi has reminded the world that music born out of traditional, spiritual and folk customs is powerful enough to bring people together.
One is reminded of Sethi’s words, “We are many and we are one."
Indeed syncretic is not a lost word.
Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author, and columnist.
Follow her on Twitter: @Peachtreespeaks