STREAMING: PAST PRESENT

March 22, 2020

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“The fish represent fertility, peace and spirituality,” says one of the directors Sadam Aqeel Khilji
“The fish represent fertility, peace and spirituality,” says one of the directors Sadam Aqeel Khilji

Based out of Lahore, Mughal-e-Funk is a purely instrumental group is made up of powerhouse performers Rakae Jamil on sitar, Kami Paul on drums, Rufus Shahzad on synths and keyboard and Farhan Ali on the bass guitar. The same line-up also performs with Meesha Shafi as well. The band takes its name and inspiration from the Mughal era very seriously. Mughal-e-Funk been working on original compositions in 2015 and all of their tracks are named after Mughal Emperors.

They’ve previously released a version of Akbar in Levi’s Live Sessions, Aurangzeb in Coke Studio Season 11 and Jahangir as a part of the Paanch mixtape. The songs are supposed to reflect the group’s own interpretation of the lives and cultural contributions of the rulers in art, music, poetry and literature. Their music is instrumental, experimental and ambient. And at times gives a very Buddha Bar-esque feel.

They have re-released Akbar along with a beautiful semi-animated video directed and created by Sadam Aqeel Khilji and Muhammad Umer Noor.

For their latest track, Rakae Jamil says, “Along with being a very strong, successful ruler, who was also very powerful, we’re trying to show that Akbar was also a very fair ruler. There was a lot of conflict during his reign and we show that in the music, with the breaks, but at the same time he kept that peace and harmony intact.”

The video of Mughal-e-Funk’s latest offering, Akbar, is worth watching at least a few times for how it mixes characters from Mughal-era art in contemporary Lahore

The music for Akbar is very atmospheric. It starts off with a light sitar riff that repeats through the song and the ‘breaks’ that Rakae is talking about are little interludes that are depicted through various war scenes in the video — times of conflict. The song doesn’t follow a set pattern, there are a variety of moods that carry different parts of the song — beauty, optimism, a sense of conflict and danger, feelings of victory etc.

The video itself is a mix of hand drawings of Akbar’s own Mughal-era paintings depicting him and the people around him. It follows the Mughal art style in showing the scenes of conflict, there are fish in the sky (more on that soon) and this is juxtaposed against photos and videos of Mughal-era locations in present-day Lahore. There are also women representing the feminine — Anarkali. There are lots of ideas in this video and, at times, it risks becoming a bit of a khichrri but it’s entertaining to watch nonetheless.

The song led the directors and artistic creators of the video to explore not only Akbar’s own life in detail but also Lahore’s Mughal heritage. “We didn’t know much about Akbar when we started,” relates Sadam. “A lot of things regarding his life came up during our research but it was difficult to figure out what part of it was authentic and true.” He added that there were parts of Akbar’s life, such as his actual relationship with Anarkarli, that are still very much in the shadows — there isn’t a lot of information out there regarding that.

“I visited all of the Mughal-era heritage sites around Lahore,” he adds. “I was trying to piece together this character in my head of who Akbar is. He’s dead, but you have an idea of who he might be. We wanted to take these characters out of their paintings and bring them into the contemporary world.”

You can see that when you see animated versions of the characters in the paintings around present-day Mughal-era architectural sites in Lahore. What’s a bit confusing is that some are in colour, while others are in monochrome.

“Science says that we dream in [any] two colours — monochrome,” says Sadam “That’s why most of our characters, depicting the dream state, are in monochrome and the video, depicting present reality, is coloured.”

What about the weird fish in the sky? “The fish represent fertility, peace and spirituality,” says Sadam. “You will often find them in sacred spaces as well — mazaars, mosques etc. They also have a very silent life. You cannot hear them, you can feel them.”

“There are different characters that don’t look the same visually but represent the feminine gender,” he adds. “That’s how I’ve used it. It’s not necessarily about Anarkali, but the women around him.”

How difficult was it coming up with a narrative of Akbar’s life for the video? “The song is an instrumental. It doesn’t tell you directly about Akbar. But the music takes you to a place where you can visualise Akbar’s era,” he says adding that the music has a nostalgic quality to it yet sounds contemporary. “So, there is a musical fusion there. The visuals take puranay [old] visuals and sets them in a modern era and [thus] creates a visual fusion.” Interesting.

But Sadam is adamant that the video has elements that have intentionally been kept vague so that the viewer can derive his or her own meaning from it. “The video is an open-ended story where you can interpret according to yourself. You’re not bound,” he says. Just like the band doesn’t restrict itself to the kind of music it creates.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 22nd, 2020