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