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Our own angel

Updated Apr 14, 2016 09:34am


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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT is easy to make fun of Taher Shah. In his latest video (which, like his previous one, has gone viral in the subcontinent) he appears clad in purple robes, wearing a tiara. Standing before a tree, and roaming through a golf course, he croons that he is “like an angel” and that his heart is “like a rose... [like] mankind’s soul”.

Halfway through the song a woman, dressed in white, with a blonde wig and an eye mask, joins him — the antidote to Shah’s ‘angelic’ loneliness. Their union produces a child who appears in the video’s final moments, dressed in robes that are identical to Shah’s. Here is everything that is laughable: kitsch, corniness, and an absurd (and thus hilarious) lack of self-consciousness. Taher Shah seems oblivious to his gender-bending attire, the cardboard wings affixed to himself and the rest of his cast, and the saccharine sweetness of his lyrics.

Yet Taher Shah is more than funny. According to a post on his official blog, there is an ideology behind the song. This ideology identifies that “loneliness, love and children” are the most important elements of humanity, and that mankind (composed of “flower-like” angels) should be “spreading love”. Like the song itself, the explanation of its ideology is earnest, soaked in the sort of syrupy sweetness that makes most cringe. Its simplicity — why can’t we all love each other, and embrace our angelic natures — suggests a childishness that we can collectively snigger at.

Taher Shah is more than funny — according to a post on his official blog, there is an ideology behind his latest song.

The laughing ‘we’ is important here. In Pakistan, the upper-middle class is fluent in English — and the one just below it aspires to be. In this context, the fact that Shah’s lyrics are in English is notable. Despite all the qualms and quibbles of the past several decades, one’s command of English, the ability to speak it (or at the very least pepper one’s Urdu with it), has been an indicator of class in Pakistan. Unexpectedly, Shah’s video brings this to the fore; the grasping attempts to sing in English, the adoption of imagery that goes not just with speaking in English, but also thinking in English, reiterates this even more.

Here is the boundary between classes in Pakistan: an English-speaking, elite, upper-middle class who routinely mock the aspirational attempts of those ‘below’ them to “make friendships”, and in this particular case, be “mankind’s angels”. Their attempts (seen as bungling) at English in this exchange are subject not just to the usual class condescension, but also to the suggestion that those wanting to speak and sing in English, those unable to express cynicism and complexity within it, are somehow less evolved — simpletons towards whom disdain is justified.

There is class complicity and culpability in this, and it has a particular relationship with Pakistan’s present. The calcification of classes, the increasing impossibility of upwards mobility in Pakistan, is well known and routinely discussed. What is left out of the discussion is how the alienation of aspirational classes (ie its consequence), plays out vis-à-vis this Pakistani reality. The desire to learn English, sing in English — to be considered ‘English-speaking’ — is an indicator of wanting to be better, of wishing to belong to a wider discourse. When it is laughed at, reduced to being something shameful, its mistakes marked and its inadequacies magnified, those wishing to speak in an international (and in Pakistan’s case, elite) language, are spurned.

There are others who offer their own critique; those who espouse a complete disavowal of a global discourse conducted in (colonising) English. To these groups, Taher Shah and his earnest prescriptions are reprehensible for completely different reasons. When one is reminded of this existing schism in Pakistani society — the virulence of those who would find a humanising message, or representations of humans as angels, repugnant — one becomes suddenly grateful for gestures of the type made by Shah.

His wings may be made of cardboard, his cast amateur family members, his cinematography unpolished — but the tune is catchy, and its components syncretic. Our post-colonial imaginings are accurately signified in casting a blonde woman (even if she is only artificially blonde) as a representation of a female angel. After all, many of Pakistan’s great (of past and present) have followed a similar route; their blonde spouses, in actuality, have been feted and fawned over a great deal.

The lush golf course, its green a contrast to the aridity of much of Pakistan’s urban landscape, the marked pointing at some sort of unifying love, are suggestions not of hatred or suspicion of the world inhabited by the imaginations of the English-speaking, but a desire to belong to it. It is not a desire that should be spurned.

There are, of course, always dangers of reading too much into internet sensations, of suggesting that their appeal is more than accidental, more than a fluke. There is some truth in these reservations —there is also acuity in suggesting that the things which people enjoy mocking, or hating, contain some kernel of truth — not within the song or the singer, but in the teasers, the cynics, and the haters.

In the context of Taher Shah, this truth is simply that those making fun of his song are smug in their belief that they are better, more cynical, and not susceptible to cheesy prescriptions, regarding the angelic nature of mankind, or the unifying power of love.

Indeed, scepticism is cool, even comforting; in a Pakistan racked with the ‘war on terror’, it is the mask of most.

Against their faithlessness, true believers like Taher Shah are welcome refreshments, a break from the zeitgeist of cynicism, which we all need.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2016


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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (28) Closed

Not cricket Apr 13, 2016 04:04am

Lovely song.

Jawaid kamal Apr 13, 2016 05:08am

Tahir my friend I admire for every thing you stand for.God bless you.

Well meaning Apr 13, 2016 05:24am

the article is beautiful so is the philosophy behind the song . if we all could love everyone there would be so much less sorrow. seeing the innocent child in the video brought tears to eyes thinking of children who have died in terrorist attacks and how their families live a daily hell

Ajam Junaid Apr 13, 2016 08:17am

Alas, the tune is not catchy at all. The singing is horrible. The music is boring. The dresses are ridiculous. The only good thing about this 'song'- it is actually just a publicity stunt by one known as Taher Shah and not a real song - is the lush golf course and the drone captured cinematography. This could be a jingle for a golf course. Reading more into it is just a waste of time

NS Apr 13, 2016 08:53am

His outfit reminded me of old PTV dramas with long-haired Mughal princes clad in chogha, wearing jewelry and crowns. What was dissonant for me was the rainbow (cartoonish) at the beginning of the video, and the line of men in hooded robes (what was their purpose? a hint of danger), and the blonde hair and mask on the woman. Otherwise it seemed to hold together quite alright as a video extension of the fantasy world of 60s lollywood. The Mughal has domesticated the gori princess? Adam from the EAst adn Eve from the West in the Garden of Earth?

Eramanagalam Somapaolan Apr 13, 2016 12:06pm

Everything written in this is also true for Indians as well.

Mohamed Amin Siddiqui Apr 13, 2016 01:47pm

Ms. Zakaria, simply put, I applaud you.

Concerned Apr 13, 2016 02:21pm

I was analyzing all the wrongs in this song, and yes you just pointed out those problems i couldn't figure out. As you said "make friendships" made me laugh again. But since you have rightly identified a link between this humor and class difference, it makes me wonder why on earth this class difference is so profound in Pakistan. I wish every soul had the same opportunities in his/her life.

Naveed Apr 13, 2016 02:57pm

Very well written Rafia. I wish we could easily accept each other.

Sheikh Mudaser Abdullah Apr 13, 2016 03:45pm

unimpressive article

Hyder Apr 13, 2016 04:19pm

This applies to all former colonial states that can't shake off their linguistic complexes, among a litany of other psychological issues. Unfortunately, Taher Shah also represents a self-congratulatory cohort of people across the world, who feel their achievements will go down in history.

The Right Left Apr 13, 2016 04:27pm

You are bang on target !

Arsalan Uddin Apr 13, 2016 06:08pm

3rd rank in global twitter, what an achievement!

Hamaad Apr 13, 2016 06:41pm

Another great article, Rafia. Read several reviews about it but your perspective on this Taher Shah video is unique and admirable.

sialkoti malibu Apr 13, 2016 10:08pm

we all should learn from simple message of love and responsibility from this song.

Weirdity Apr 14, 2016 10:00am

The song is truly melodious and the cinematography is no way amateur. In fact, the sound engineering of the song is actually much better than most of the offerings from bollywood or lollywood. One thing to keep in mind is that taher shah never claimed to be a professional. In fact he is on record saying that he is not a professional and is driven more by his passion for music. People throwing scorn at him tells us more about the bad attitudes of society than anything negative about taher shah.

Irfan Apr 14, 2016 10:03am

I so much agree with the writer. Really thoughtful and humane. Gives good philosophical insight into our society.

BayAdab Apr 14, 2016 10:38am

Excellent article. Finally somebody seeing the reasons of ridicules that like of Taher Shah receive but so many others get away with more stupid stuff because they say it in Urdu therefore not getting into the elite club.

Ansir.khan Apr 14, 2016 10:43am

Wow! To have the audacity to defend something which is being ridiculed all around, is simply inspirational. Very thoughtful and impressive. Ms. Zakaria, you just added a member in your fan club.

AQJ Apr 14, 2016 10:51am

He is a very true person by heart. Since he is not harming anyone, should be appreciated. He speaks of love.

Ali Apr 14, 2016 11:23am

good article, good analysis and true that trolling of people like Taher Shah has more to it than just making fun of a funny video; at the same time song by Taher Shah also represents a lot more that what we see in a few hundred or thousand frames. Class struggle and desire to join better class than what we are in is effecting us in more ways than we might think; and this struggle encompasses all the aspects of life and society including economic, religious and social aspects.

Afsana Apr 14, 2016 12:04pm

Rafia,what a wonderful article...

Afsana Apr 14, 2016 12:05pm

I was waiting for an article like that...

saad Apr 14, 2016 01:04pm

Rafia, radical review and thought provoking but did you even read his blogs?? he considers his 2 songs iconic as in league of madonna or britney. he says he is doing for fans !!! because fans made him big. he has invented or reinvented a way to become an overnight web hit by giving non cynical people with reasons to ridicule his eunuch appearence (like u said, absurd lack of self awareness). he wants to be made fun of, u may disagree and thats.the.catch. everyone is wonderingwhy he spent million rupees on a cross.dressed mascara and lip sticked.. himself?
yeah he sounds "Ain-Jall" and "haywunn" instead of angel and heaven.but that doesnt mean he is challenging the bridge between the classes. he is just creating curiosity amidst absurdity and that will bring more fans. not loving fans. fans like me who can kill for a good laugh. hope he explains where how what he received international awards in Uk Usa and india and abt his upcoming "hollywood movie". see?? its easy trash. lets be proud of nazia hasan rahat ali zafar atif aslam. lets not allow the trash be misread for talent.

Raza Ahmad Apr 14, 2016 04:42pm

I am sorry but I disagree. An artist is presenting a piece of music and like all such offerings, it is up to the audience to decide whether it likes the music or not. So if a product is being pushed to me as a consumer of music, and I don't like the accent, then I am an elitist? Let's extend this argument. A poor samosa seller is selling samosas that taste extremely vile, but I am supposed to eat them up and like them because failure to do so would make me a bad or conceited person?

There are many examples of under privileged people becoming successes in our country. Coke Studio itself has introduced many artists that did not have any marketing momentum behind them before the program, but the audience connected to the music and they did become exceedingly popular.

Music, as a product, has to be relatable and yes, forgive me for saying this, it has to be 'good' for it to be liked.

MZA219 Apr 14, 2016 04:45pm

nice gaana

MZA219 Apr 14, 2016 04:48pm

nice song

GA Apr 14, 2016 04:49pm

Taher Shah appears to be quite well off and he has a production company. His English is better than most.