Pakistani band Strings going separate ways calls for cross-border creative freedom, a rarity in sub continental music today
The bodily departure of Strings from the world stage is not an occasion to mourn the demise of their music, but fondly yearn for the age of free collaboration and creative freedom they once stood for.
When I heard that Strings, the Pakistani band led by Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, was disbanding after almost three decades of making music together, I felt a firm sense of longing rather than loss.
To be honest, it had been long time since I had heard or attempted to even trace what Strings had been up to most recently. Every now and then, when I would hear ‘Durr’ or ‘Dhaani’ at a party, it would register as the nostalgia sprint that an ageing memory loves to make every now and then.
But Strings, and other Pakistani bands like Jal and Junoon, that became big in India at the turn of the century represent, more than just nostalgia for an old earworm. They are also memories of a time when art was boundless and free from the burdens of both diplomacy and hate.
It was still the era of television where channels introduced us to eclectic music from around the world. In small-town India, one had to navigate the compulsions of populism to clutch at the coattails of something unique and fresh. India had a booming alternative music scene at the time but it still did not echo the verve and style that modernism demanded.
Most of us living in small town India saw the ‘man holding the guitar’ as a sign of performative and perhaps even social freedom. It had been teased to us by the likes of 'Papa Kehte Hain’ but never comprehensively embodied in the sound and the flesh. At least not by someone who would both inspire awe and envy. The likes of Shaan and Sonu Nigam had been discovered but still mirrored the desire to become mainstream, rather than etch their own paths. Both, predictably, did so. The likes of Euphoria and Silk Route made a splash, and remain cult to this day but it were really the Pakistani bands that created not just a space, but an elusive and yet unrecognisable cross-border memory.
It may seem easy today but back in the early 2000s accessing music wasn’t as straightforward. You had to trust the quality of pirated CDs you could get hold of and wish that at least half the songs mentioned on the counterfeit covers would actually flawlessly run. I discovered Jal, Atif Aslam’s original band, through a worn CD-Rom that breathed its last soon after. Call it enlightenment or the sound quite simply of a tonal anomaly to the Indian eardrum but ‘Aadat’ felt not just a song but a significant step towards adolescence. The brooding vocals, the piercing guitar, I had heard nothing like it before. Junoon’s ‘Sayonee’ had given us a trailer of the kind of broody metaphors that Pakistani music was willing to experiment with but Aadat felt more intimate and personal. It was perhaps also the age, where love and affection seamlessly coiled with the despair and desperation. Music, suddenly became a place of refuge for those unmoored by the onset of adulthood and the many complications it brought.
Strings was perhaps the most stylish brand that arrived in India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years of governance when collaboration was seamless, identity and art intertwined between warring nations. These bands, their music seemed as much a part of our own history as they today seem like elusive memories of a time beyond recognition.
Strings became a sleeper hit through ‘Durr,’ and their follow-up album 'Dhaani.' But it was their collaboration with Sanjay Dutt and John Abraham (a rising youth icon at the time) for ‘Yeh Hai Meri Kahani’ (Zinda) that not just cemented their celebrity but also forced a docile Bollywood to consider the rewards of collaborating with the fringe. India’s youth had by then developed a taste courtesy this brief Pakistani intervention that would eventually force the film industry’s hand to assimilate more indie artists. Shaan, Zubeen, Alisha Chinoy, and Mohit Chauhan among others were all absorbed by the mainstream, and so was Atif Aslam, the last of the Pakistani imports who refuses to go away.
The fact that Strings disbanded after three decades of making music together makes sense. What else are two creative partners supposed to do after picking each other’s brains for the period that they have? For that fact alone, one must toast the success of a small group of musicians who travelled further than anyone would have anticipated in the first few years of the millennium.
It is this unlikely journey that symbolises what Strings achieved beyond the ambit of album sales and song charts. Art is seen as the interpreter of its subjects. But in certain cases, it is the artist that the world can see through like a mirror for a comprehensive picture of that moment in history.
We are today in an age where collaborating with a neighbour is dictated by our political affiliations. Division is not just a cross-border phenomenon; it has now crept beyond the boundaries of family and intimate relationships. The bodily departure of Strings from the world stage is thus not an occasion to mourn the demise of their music but fondly yearn for the age of free collaboration and creative freedom they once stood for.
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