Popping Zia

Published December 9, 2010

Illustration by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com

Even to this day, I continue to come across articles that talk about how during certain eras in Pakistan, pop music and musicians were banned on TV and radio. Recent write-ups (both in Pakistan and in the West) tend to make some rather sweeping statements and pronouncements, especially regarding what pop music and musicians had to face during the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq.

There is no doubt that creating and playing pop music (in public) was a tough task during the wily dictator’s myopia-laden regime, but the truth is, there was never a blanket ban imposed on this kind of music.

This was not because Zia had guilty little liking for music, but he was well aware that Pakistan was (and still is) a diverse society where imposing a singular cultural ideology could frustrate the imposer’s idea of oneness.

Although, ever since the 1950s and across Zia’s dictatorship, several attempts were made to artificially mould Pakistan into a single national and religious concept, of all which ended in failures. Even the most conservative governments in Pakistan have only tentatively tried to impose the kind of cultural prohibitions that are otherwise a norm in most other conservative Muslim countries.

Unlike Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Kuwait and, of course, Saudi Arabia, the demand and attachment to music in Pakistan has not only remained high, but many music forms (including pop) have somehow managed to continue operating out of the reach of even the most intransigent decriers in the government.

Just why even a harsh dictatorship like that of Ziaul Haq largely failed to completely oust popular music from TV and radio was also because his regime actually used music to bring the dictator’s ideas about faith and nationalism into people’s drawing rooms.

Conscious of the success the populist image of Z. A. Bhutto’s regime had in the 1970s when state-owned TV and radio were bombarded with melodic odes to the working classes, hearty folk music and flamboyant urban pop music, Zia’s regime took the idea and molded it to fit its own image.

Throughout Zia’s regime, folk and national songs (created with the help of modern instruments) appeared frequently on state TV and radio but this time, instead of carrying ‘socialist’ themes or Sufi-folk imagery as it were during Bhutto’s swinging ’70s, it was heavily punctuated with conservative subject matter and imagery such as loud demonstrations of faith, family values, the glory of the armed forces, etc.

But in spite of the dictator’s overtly conservative make-up, pop music on TV and radio was never entirely discouraged – even though the regime did place a ban on airing some songs that had been a regular feature on the state-owned electronic media during Bhutto’s regime.

For example, two of the most prominent songs (out of about three dozen or so) banned by Zia (on the grounds of being ‘obscene’) were Alamgir’s ‘Dekha na Tha’ (1977) and Naheed Akhtar’s Tutaru Tara Tara (1975). Also getting the chop was Ahmad Rushdi’s most famous ditty, 1975’s ‘Dil Ko Jalana’ (because according to the new censor board it ‘glorified alcohol consumption’).

But this was not the first time a government had banned a song in Pakistan to be aired on TV or radio. In 1969 when the leftist students movement that (in 1968) had helped parties like the PPP topple Ayub Khan’s dictatorship, was still fresh, the new Yahya Khan dictatorship briefly banned the telecast of  a song from Riaz Shahid’s big hit, ‘Zarqa’ (1969).

Pakistani urban youth had thronged cinemas to watch this passionate pot-boiler about Palestinian guerilla fighters taking on the Israeli army. Although the Yahya dictatorship had allowed the screening of the emotionally-charged film, it was only later that some of the tipsy dictator’s advisors claimed that the film was a symbolic take on the military regime, and that filmmaker Riaz Shahid had purposefully used the famous character-actor Talish, to play the role of a mean Israeli general because Talish uncannily resembled Yahya!

The song in question was ‘Raqs Zanjeer Pehan Kar’.


The Zia regime was a highly contradictory affair. It is also considered by many to have sowed the seeds of a peculiar kind of hypocrisy that can still be found across vast sections of Pakistan’s polity and sociology.

For example, on a cultural level, though the regime’s policies were myopic and sometimes, outright reactionary figuring in the banning of various arts (such as dance), literary works (poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz and Habib Jalib), and political concepts (such as socialism and democracy) on TV and radio, it was during Zia’s regime that the use of the VCR and watching Indian films at home, reached new heights!

The contradictory nature of Zia’s dictatorship can also be detected in the fact that while ’80s pop idols like Alamgir and Muhammad Ali Shehki were being given ample space on TV (albeit, only if they were ‘properly attired’), the Zia regime (in 1981) ‘advised’ the state-owned PTV and Radio Pakistan to stop playing songs by the country’s newest pop sensations, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan.

Nazia and Zoheb had exploded onto the scene with the country’s first ever Urdu disco album, ‘Disco Dewane,’ (1980). Recorded by the teenaged sister and brother duo in London under the supervision of famous disco producer, Biddu, the album was studded with classic late ’70s disco beats and dynamics fused with Pakistani/Indian film sensibilities and lyricism.

Released in Pakistan by EMI Pakistan, within days it became the music label’s biggest selling album. Young Pakistanis constantly called Radio Pakistan to play songs from the album and even the somber PTV ran a crude video or two. But when a ‘religious advisor’ of the Zia regime (in Karachi) saw the video of the album’s title song, he complained to Zia that PTV – by running such songs – was undermining and mocking the regime’s ‘Islamic credentials’.

Though both PTV and Radio Pakistan immediately stopped playing Nazia and Zoheb’s songs, their album was always available in the music stores. But since in those days, local musicians had to bank a lot on the coverage they got from far-reaching state-owned media (to generate album sales, and more so, to tap into the large ‘private functions’ market), the duo’s parents went into overdrive in trying to set up a meeting with the then Information Minister, Raja Zafarul Haq.

After many tries, Nazia and Zoheb finally managed to bag a meeting with the dictator himself.

The teens were summoned to the palatial President House in Islamabad and were sat in front of the grinning general (in full view of PTV’s news team and cameras), and given a long lecture on what it means to be Muslim and Pakistani. Soon after the meeting, the ban was lifted.


Pop music (as long as it was presented within the parameters allowed by the censors), continued to be played alongside the regime’s crude political propaganda and the increasing number of religious programming on PTV.

These parameters included little or no dancing while singing, no physical contact between male and female singers, and it was preferable if the singers avoided wearing western clothes. Also hidden somewhere in such advisories was a distaste for what had started to develop as ‘Sufi-Pop’ (a fusion of Sufi folk music and pop) among some pop musicians of the country.

Pakistan’s indigenous and populist folk Islam, although popular among the majority of Pakistanis, was scorned by the puritan minority, many of whom were being backed by the Saudi monarchy, including Zia.

Not only did Zia disapprove of it on doctrinal bases, his dislike of it also stemmed from the fact that the Bhutto’s populism was closely related to it, and that during the 1983 PPP-led ‘MRD movement’ against Zia, a number of Sufi shrines in Sindh became hiding places and headquarters for many young PPP and PSF activists during the violent movement.

So it took some convincing by actress-turned-director, Saira Kazmi, when she pitched a unique concept to PTV. She wanted to record and direct a video featuring ’80s pop star, Muhammad Ali Shehki, and legendary Sindhi Sufi folk singer, Alan Faqeer. This was one of the first examples of a fusion genre that would become ‘Sufi Rock’ in the 1990s, mainly due to the work of bands like Junoon and later, through events like Coke Studio.

Ironies in this respect kept propping up throughout the repressive dictatorship. Even during what was perhaps the most chaotic and reactionary period of the Zia regime (1986-87) – when the military dictator, after dismissing his own handpicked prime minister, began imposing a second round of harsh and convoluted ‘Islamic’ legislation – viewers were suddenly treated with a song and video that would trigger the first big wave of urban pop music in the country.

The song was the otherwise harmless, ‘Dil, Dil Pakistan,’ but played and sung by very modernly-attired group of middle-class youngsters called the Vital Signs.

Director of the video, Shoaib Mansoor, had to struggle hard to get it played on PTV, but the damage had been done. In 1988 when Zia was assassinated and Benazir Bhutto’s PPP came back into power (through elections), the Vital Signs led a swift wave of modern pop acts up the charts.

This phenomenon can be seen as the new urban middle-class generation’s response to Zia’s long regressive rule.


But soon, democracy too, became a bitter-sweet pill for pop music in Pakistan. Though from 1988 until about 1995, pop music became a regular fixture on TV and radio, its detractors were now largely non-governmental elements.

For example, the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami held loud protests against PTV when (during the first Benazir regime [1988-90]), the channel aired its first ever dedicated pop show, ‘Music 89’, (featuring various new pop acts, including the Vital Signs).

However an attempt was made by the first Nawaz Sharif government [1991-93] – still reeling under the influence of his mentor, Ziaul Haq – ‘to cleanse PTV from western influence.’ This also included forcing female musicians, show hosts and even actresses to always wear a dupatta. The absurd move was an obvious flop.

Pop on TV and radio hit a peak during the second Benazir government (1993-96), but it came under direct attack during the second Sharif government when in 1997 it banned PTV from airing any music played by singers in jeans or with long hair.

The second Nawaz regime had already banned a number of songs such as Abrar-ul Haq’s ‘Billo,’ (claiming it was about a prostitute), and Najam Shiraz’s ‘Sonha Chata Hoon’ (claiming it was inciting young people to rebel against the authorities), but the heaviest hammer fell upon Junoon.

Led by off-the-wall guitarist, Salman Ahmed, Junoon had risen from underground obscurity to (by the late 1990s) become Pakistan’s foremost rock act, in the process popularizing a socially-tinged rock-fusion music called ‘Sufi-Rock.’

Junoon recorded a song called ‘Ehtesaab’ calling for accountability of politicians (not the military, mind you) and its video was largely seen as a lament against the failure of the second Benazir government.

However, by 1997 the band had began to be perceived as being close to new-born politician, Imran Khan who at that time was considered by Sharif to be a competition in the Punjab. This resulted in a blanket ban on the band (on state-owned TV and radio).

This was the last such ban to take place in Pakistan.


Today, pop music and musicians in the country do not face any state/government bans.

The opposition to them is now mostly coming from religious pressure groups, but the real threat is the one being faced by every Pakistani: the violent extremists.

This is despite the fact that no musician has ever been directly attacked by the extremists, but scores of music stores have been bombed across the country.

The grim state of affairs that every Pakistani faces due to the ever-present threat of a suicide attack, the economic downturns and the growing tussle between politicians, has actually ripped open a glaring divide in the current pop scene.

Whereas pop musicians had all found themselves sailing on the same boat across the 1980s and the 1990s, the scene now stands polarised.

There is now one set of pop musicians (for instance, Rohail Hayat, Shehzad Roy, Abrar-ul Haq, Fakhir, Salman Ahmed, Jal, etc.) who have in one way or the other, aired concerns about the wave of conservatism that began sweeping the scene in the late 1990s, whereas the other set has, ironically, come out by voicing the same concepts of patriotism and faith that were once used by Zia to curb ‘obscene cultural activities’ and music.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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