Here is why the Popularity of Ali Sethi’s Pasoori Matters

Pop Culture

Here is why the Popularity of Ali Sethi’s Pasoori Matters

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“I really hope and dream that this song is able to transcend boundaries, borders and binaries,” says Ali Sethi, at the end of the making of his latest pop culture banger, Pasoori, also featuring Shae Gill. The song, a part of Coke Studio’s Season 14, has been a rage across the globe and recently caught the eye of The New Yorker, which then did a profile on Sethi. The piece touts him to be a messiah that’s uniting India and Pakistan. But while Sethi’s emergence as a cross-border music icon in the last few years is unquestionable, he is definitely not the first one. That, however, doesn’t mean he is insignificant either.

Sethi, known for reviving ghazals and giving contemporary renditions to golden classics from back in the day has said that while he might not be able to travel to India, his ‘music definitely would’ – a phrase that has, kind of, been proven true. Most recently, even while the world had not gotten over Pasoori, Sethi’s, 2019 rendition of Chandni Raat featured in Prime Video’s anthology Modern Love In Mumbai. His track played in the backdrop of the Hansal Mehta directed Baai, an instantly inspired choice for a story about forbidden love.

Sethi said that while he might not be able to travel to India, his ‘music definitely would’ – a phrase that has, kind of, been proven true.

To Sethi’s credit, the love and affection he has received on both sides of the border is evidence that art transcends the politics of borders and conflict. The New Yorker profile, though, unjustly makes a god out of him, when in reality there are several other artists who dwarf him in influence and impact in the years since the Partition. Sethi, though, has registered his voice at a tense time for cross-border politics that show no signs of dithering in the face of reluctant affection minorities on both sides of the border show for each other.

While icons like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, and Mehdi Hassan easily outshine him in terms of prestige and impact, it is also true that during their time it was harder to gauge influence that is now conveniently measurable courtesy the internet. Which is where Sethi’s popularity, the universality of his modern ragas attains significance. In the face of deniers who might want to argue there was never a way to ascertain, art flowed as seamlessly as we dreamed and publicized it would.

Therefore, while Sethi’s influence isn’t as divine as the profile makes it look, it is undeniable that he is significant. Whether it’s the gender-inclusivity that he embodies, his disarming quirky and freaky brand of style that is also echoed through his music, or the fact that he says the right things about initiating conversations where none have been encouraged for some time now.

While icons like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan easily outshine him in terms of prestige, during their time it was harder to gauge influence, now measurable courtesy the internet.

It is no revelation that we live in a time where practicing art has become akin to walking through a minefield of social media trolls, conservative politics. But Sethi desires to shatter glass ceilings so he can “revive an interest in those other layered ways of being and of experiencing poetry, music, art, visuals… insist on these multiple interpretations and allow people from different backgrounds and perspectives to take part in a conversation,” as he says in the profile.

There is a crucial role that social media has played here, in generalizing access to good and in overcoming boundaries that are social and political in nature. There’s a certain sense of rootedness to him and yet a global appeal that makes cross-border artistry intriguing to people beyond its baggage of conflict. It might also eroticize Sethi’s work, but cue in the context of India-Pakistan relations, and you should be able to glean the fine print. But as long as local, truly desi artistic icons are as fondly remembered as Sethi has been pedestaled.

To Sethi’s credit, the love and affection he has received on both sides of the border is evidence that art transcends the politics of borders and conflict.

Listen to Sethi’s versions of Ranjish Hi Sahi, or Gulon Mein Rang both sung by Mehdi Hassan originally, and you’ll be satisfied to see that he has done justice to the masterpieces by Ahmad Faraz and Faiz Ahmed Faiz respectively, instead of turning them into a newfangled version of something that was enchanting before. Listen to Rung, Chandni Raat, or Dil Ki Khair, and you can safely say Sethi hasn’t just made cover songs of originals but found a new modern language that is still following the script of tradition. It is what Coke Studio Pakistan has given to us, given to the world. Pasoori is only its latest milestone.

From exploring identity and individuality, to commenting on diaspora culture and South-Ssian representation, there’s a lot that Ali Sethi can be credited to, however, it’s vital to remember that he has  a lot more to do to be deified as a cross-border saviour. Artists have done far greater things, and paid far greater prices to create art at the cost, often, of life and livelihood. That said, Ali Sethi is significant for various reasons and it will be interesting to see how he uses this newfound fame in the context of a relationship that can’t help but go sour every couple of years.

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