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It seems that what the state traditionally thought was its responsibility — particularly during the Zia years — has been taken upon itself by the corporate world and individual performers in Pakistan. Or maybe the state has so successfully shaped the minds and altered the tastes of a sizeable populace in a certain way that the market is simply responding to that. The recent musical compositions of poems by Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Coke Studio Season 11 provide enough cause for concern.

Iqbal’s famous series of two poems, ‘Shikwa’ [Complaint] and ‘Jawaab-i-Shikwa’ [Answer to the Complaint] is the title of the composition featuring Natasha Baig and Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal’s ensemble as lead vocalists. Supported by background singers, Baig melodiously and forcefully renders a few stanzas from ‘Shikwa’ and carries the theme of the poem: giving examples of their feats, Muslims ask the Almighty the reasons for being demeaned and neglected in contemporary times. They are particularly disappointed after having contributed so much during the course of history to establish His worship and His order in the human world. Iqbal’s craft and language are unparalleled in this poem. He passionately laments the yoke of slavery and colonialism experienced by the Muslim societies of his time. It bothers him that the Almighty overlooks the plight of the people who would sacrifice everything in His name.

But when it comes to answering this complaint, the Ayaz-Muhammad ensemble begins with a rendering from the sequel with mistakes introduced in the verses of Iqbal. Soon after, ‘Jawaab-i-Shikwa’ is forgotten and replaced with some very ordinary lines — by two other poets — that may rhyme, but bring the standard of poetry down considerably. One is familiar with the genre of qawwali where verses from different poets are intermingled. However, there has to be a reason to do so in broader terms of a subject or to invoke an image.

Besides, you would do it if needed to provide a relief or digression and mostly where a ghazal is being sung, not just for the heck of it. Iqbal’s own sequel poem has such powerful stanzas — which answer the complaints and questions raised in the first poem — that choosing inferior lines from others was not only unnecessary, but in bad taste. I’m not sure whose idea it was to introduce these lines instead of selecting appropriate and much superior stanzas from ‘Jawaab-i-Shikwa’. The song does end with Iqbal’s lines, but leaves us with the echoes of a devotional song rather than the powerful poems Iqbal had written.

To sing anyone’s verse wrongly — let alone lines from Khusro, Mir, Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Farid, Ghalib and Iqbal — is unacceptable. However, the problem is that most editors and producers today are unfamiliar with the basics of Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Sindhi, Punjabi and Seraiki poetry and related traditions. They depend on seasoned people such as Ayaz — who are increasingly catering to English-speaking audiences in Pakistan and abroad. I’ve witnessed on a few occasions that Ayaz not only tends to take liberties with verse, but offers an inaccurate translation of Persian into Urdu. He also likes to explain the mysticism and universality behind the lines he sings. No doubt Ayaz and his ensemble are exceptionally good qawwals, but the gentleman is not an expert in language, poetry and mysticism. Perhaps the limited literacy of these subjects among his audience emboldens him.

Where the composition of Faiz’s ‘Wayabqa Wajho Rabbik’ — more popularly known as ‘Hum Dekhein Gey’ [We Shall See] — is concerned, it is no doubt engaging. The effect the young musicians create is amplified by an accompanying video showing people from all classes and walks of life. However, the reason this poem is so admired by political workers, trade unionists and young people alike is the lines not sung in the Coke Studio composition. These are the lines about the destruction of the powers-that-be and the raising to power of ordinary women and men. The selective lines that are sung reduce the poem to a spiritual hymn.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 26th, 2018