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Interview: All eyes on Taher Shah

July 07, 2013


— Video grab from 'Eye to Eye' video.
— Video grab from 'Eye to Eye' video.
Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

Taher Shah has a cold.

His agent tells me this the Thursday before last, the day after I had first contacted him. He tells me that Taher has suddenly had to make a lot appearances, and he’s feeling exhausted.

I am nonplussed. Yes, I had editors emailing me asking to get this interview lined up, and yes I had already been beaten to the ‘scoop’ by a few news channels. But I was almost here now.

Here - a phone call away from speaking to Pakistan’s most spectacular internet celebrity yet. By the next day, when the interview had to be postponed again, Taher had made history by becoming the first desi meme to make it on foreign websites. First it was the Indian Express, then Kottke picked it up. The Atlantic’s health editor would later do so too.

But Taher still had his cold.

By Saturday night, a half hour before the interview was about to begin, I was beginning to panic. The crux of reporting on an internet-based story is immediacy. The longer it takes, the higher the chance that a viral video of a satirical Jamaican song about grooming cats like humans would grab the spotlight.

But the interview didn’t happen that Saturday, nor on Sunday. Like all timeless tales of love, redemption arrived just as I abandoned hope. On Monday night, I got a phone call – Taher was feeling better.

I called him around midnight, and began our conversation with a question a music critic, and distant-Taher-relative Safieh Shah had asked me to put forward: “Eyes are a vital part of eastern romance and grace. They are integral to the concepts of Ishq aur adaa. How do you feel about this?”

Taher felt delighted about this.

He kept exclaiming how much he enjoyed the use of these terms – Ishq and Adaa – because they resonated so deeply with the message he sought to bring out in his song. “... Eyes are the most vital part of body and culture. They can bring out many meanings, and are a complete subject. Now I’m really glad you asked this question about Ishq (Love) and Adaa (Grace) because this is very important to the eyes. Ishq is endless, it is life, it is forever – Adaa is “wow!” it is what attracts us to someone.”

He said much more than this but I couldn’t decipher it – partly because of the lack of a recorder, and partly because of Taher’s frantic eagerness for adjectives when speaking in English (a sharp contrast to his far more measured, articulate use of Urdu).

I then tried to steer the conversation towards the past, towards some banal details of education and employment that the rest of us could then use to try and make sense of who he was. Yet, Taher was masterfully evasive about his personal life. He told me later, when I asked him whether he was currently single or not, that “when someone becomes well-known, everyone wants to know details about their private matters. I will reveal these details, but at a later time.”

I knew this would disappoint many, as would his guarded admissions that he spent his life “studying in Pakistan, then spent some time abroad” without saying which schools he had attended, and where he had gone when he went abroad. I then asked him about the company he ran and he said it was “a Public limited company.” When I asked for an exact name, he demurred again, promising he’ll let his fans know when the time was right.

We decided to shift gears.

I ask him about his video – the one he had shot, directed, edited and starred in. Why had he started it with flashing bulbs and the paparazzi? Was he foretelling the perils of fame? Taher dismissed the notion. The paparazzi were there for a simple reason – they were there to cover a “person who is making a mark” (said person being Taher himself).

Fair enough – time for something with a little bit more edge. Why had he not put in other models or actors in his video? After all, a gorgeous woman is a staple of music videos. Taher responded by making it clear that “I have nothing against glamour, and as far as that is concerned I am planning to introduce people in future videos. But you see [in Eye to Eye] I am not talking about just one person, the lyrics are about all people’s eyes. Even male and female is not important because the only thing that matter is that your eyes should show love. That’s what I wanted to show in the video.”

I then asked him about a theory that I had been nursing for a while – was he dressed in black and white in the video to represent eyes themselves? Taher explained that “love can be seen through eyes. The love from eyes is simple, and it goes to the bottom of the heart. So white and black shows true love and fake love, which eyes can always tell – the white is the true love but the black is the fake love where people tell you that they love you but they don’t.”

I later felt that perhaps here Taher had been prescient about the sort of fame he might receive, and the black part of him was an intuitive, subconscious referencing of the trolls and the meanness he would encounter. It was one of several points in the interview where I wondered whether I would reach a point where I would have no choice to suspend my cynicism, and admire the clarity and strength of Taher’s self-belief.

If the weird, strange, inexplicable rise of Taher Shah was to make any sense, it had to be conceded that something about him resonated - something beyond the wonder of a simply bizarre thing. What most of us have been trying to do is to isolate what this is, and where it came from. Feeling I hadn’t gotten any close to answering this question, I decided to next ask him about his creative motivation – what was his process of making art?

Taher replied with a phrase he would repeat in various guises several times over the interview: “I am making a trend.” He went on to say that there was nothing special to his artistic process beyond being in a good mood, and having a quiet, simple place to relax. “I have been working on this song for 18 months – it didn’t happen overnight. My effort was to use simple words, so that people can relax. I didn’t do everything myself, and I didn’t make the music. I had a team, but I was the one who had to take the lead. The reason I succeeded was because if something exists within your heart – if you have conceived it with your heart - then nothing can stop it from being realised. You do your work because you want it to express something for you. Your work should work for you.”

So why did his magnum opus – Eye to Eye – become conceived in his heart as an English song? “My team had tried to discourage me from singing this song in English – they told me that it wasn’t ‘our’ language. Well, I’ve done this song for the masses, but it’s a message for abroad. Its a message for the global masses which says that Pakistani newcomers have talent and they can make a mark. And I feel proud that I did that.”

If any of us bothers stripping past the derogatory perspective we use to look at him, we would have to concede that however one measures or judges it, Taher has managed to achieve his barely plausible agenda – that of connecting with the global masses.

Considering he was probably alone in expecting his song to reach this pinnacle, who had he looked to for inspiration? “Inspirations are there, but when it comes to the music I am not inspired by anyone. You can say I was inspired by myself. Of course, all Pakistani artists have been very influential for me and I respect them greatly. And yes I was helped by others, but inspiration comes from dedication, which is what I had.”

After much prodding, Taher eventually took one name. “In my teenage years, Madam Nazia Hasan was a huge inspiration. I loved all her songs [begins to sing Sunn]... She was a legend and remains a legend. ” As Safieh later pointed out, Nazia’s “Aankhen Milanay Walay” was perhaps the fertile creative ground where Taher might have conceived “Eye to Eye”.

Taher’s confession about Nazia allowed us to travel down a tangent. What were his views on becoming a celebrity – a musical star? Did he realise that some people were mocking him, laughing at rather than with him? What did he feel about the memes, the taunts, the trolls? Taher’s response once again displayed the remarkable poise and belief he has in himself. “Yes, celebrity status is a big change, magar pareshani ki koi baat nahi. [no need to worry] I am humble and proud. As for the people who are attacking, current scenario mei situations chal rahi hain. We need to take such things lightly – even if criticism is negative I take it positively. Dekhein, mein mahubattain baantne aaya huun, mohabbat baant raha huun. Negative positive se farq nahi parta. Aaj kal young generations aur IT ka zamana hai, positive negative to hota rehta hai. Iss hi liye jab yeh gaana bahut hi maqbool ho gaya tou logoun ko laga key eh overnight hua hai, magar mujhe shurro se pata tha ke yehi hoga, kyun ke aankhon ka pyar sacha pegham hai. [Look, I am here to share love, and I am sharing love. Positive or negative doesn’t bother me. This is an era of the young generations and IT, and positives and negatives happens here. When the song went viral people thought it was an overnight success but I knew from the start this would happen, because the love of eyes is true.]”

With such fortitude on display, I decided it was time to put forward a question the blogger Farooq Nomani had asked – what were his thoughts on the current music scene, and how did he plan to change it? Taher’s response was immediate; “I hope to be one of the people who are changing music in Pakistan, and film as well. But for me, I am making a trend and people are following it.”

The recurrence of this ‘trend’ got me to ask him what he meant by this phrase. “By trend I mean when something new comes, people take time to adapt. Aankhon ka tabsara ek sacha tabsara hai iss liye aankhon ka pyar sacha pyar hai. Beshaq beytahasha gaanay nikle hain aankhon ke baaray mei, lekin mei apnay trend ko aagay le ker chal raha huun.Iss hi liye young generation iss ganay ko pasand kar rahi hai, kyun ke mera message hai keh muhabbat dil se karein magar izhaaar aankhon se karein. Mei iss trend ko follow keroun ga.[The discourse of eyes is the truest discourse, therefore the love of eyes is the truest. There have been many songs about eyes, but I am taking my trend forward. This is why the young generation likes this song, because my message is that feel love in your heart, but express with your eyes. I am following this trend.]”

It was a beguiling argument, surprising me with its logic. For all the spectrums and genuine classical, Taher’s observations, when lined up according to the skew of his perspective, begin to make sense. His decisions to sing it in English, to make the video about himself alone, to sing about the grandeur of eyes were all vindicated. Of course, simpler deconstructions would argue that his choice of saxophone, hairstyles and the look he gave the camera all evoked a camp 80s soft-core aesthetic that is at once nostalgic and hilarious.

His lyrics descend into a sort of ridiculousness which are comprehensible but take frequent departures from common dictates of sentence structure. His glorious sense of narcissism isn’t clearly justified by his outlandish appearance. He lucked out in being discovered during a slow cycle for international memes. The rationalities can go on for days. But at some point you have to admit that Taher Shah had a certain vision, and regardless of how you feel about his self-awareness in this whole rise to fame and the achievement of his vision, he did pull it off.

Ultimately, that is what captures us. We are captured by the fact that Taher is like a decorated bus, an Afridi six, a guy lying flat on his stomach while driving his motorbike – basically he is this stupendously futile yet gloriously joyous celebration of the self – a flawed, probably fatal celebration that burns with a furious intensity, its traces dancing in your vision when you shut your EYES.

Ahmer Naqvi is the Brian Lara of his generation. He's a genius, but his team usually loses. He writes on sports, film and music for various publications.