Ali Sethi, the 36 year old Pakistani writer and musician, born and bred in Lahore, currently based out of East Village, New York was first morphed into a musical icon by Coke Studio Pakistan (Ranjish Hi Sahi, Gulon Main Rang, Aaqa), and then refashioned into a household Instagram companion through the COVID-19 lockdown. The shut-in that began in March last year, dried up live gigs and concerts for musicians. Most took to Instagram and Facebook live; old institutions like the National Center For Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, were putting out recordings of their old live-shows, while musicians like T.M. Krishna, Ankur Tewari, Shubha Mudgal were performing in digital concerts, many of which were free of cost, setting up their own camera, equipment, and lighting.
Sethi, too, took to Instagram live every day, for his 168,000 followers, around 11:30 p.m. IST — a New York morning. But there was something both different and comforting about what Sethi was doing. A year on, we look back at what he is doing differently, and how artists can use tools of digital intimacy to re-define what it means to be a star.
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A Digital Living Room
Hour long stretches of music, taking up and weaving random threads of conversation from the comments, these Instagram lives weren’t performances as much as a digital living room with bursts of music, a harmonium being dexterously fingered in the background. Around 700-1000 people would show up. It was an odd admixture of riyaz, a rehearsal, as well as mehfil, a gathering, where music was both the point and the distraction from the point. He would stumble on the high notes, re-do it, apologize, and make the same mistake again; he was more comfortable with the lower octaves. He was also comfortable with us, his discerning but dove-eyed audience. Some mornings he would sound more gruff than usual. There was no pretense of perfection.
But what living room is entirely civil? There were bursts of verbal spats, where trolls descended on his Instagram live sessions, noting how he releases fewer original songs than covers of famous ghazals. He called one of them “Aunty”. When someone commented “Ali Sethi kanjar!”, he replied immediately with “Beta aap ka pura khandan kanjar!”. Some called this a casteist slur, while a fan made an hour-long video of this 4 second clap-back on repeat. The following Instagram live session he invited a friend and academic to discuss words like kanjar and mirasi, highlighting their origin, their context, and usage over the years. Another time, he invited his sister, actress Mira Sethi, on his live, as they read paragraphs from Arundhati Roy’s God Of Small Things. In between singing songs he would casually explain the meaning of certain words of the ghazal he was singing, its etymology, the melange of ragas he has at his employ, how the harmonium, what we consider a quintessential Indian classical instrument, is actually a Western import, and how identity, like most things, is constructed over decades, sometimes centuries.
It was soon made clear that these were not replacements for live concerts. They were their own kind of performance, where music, and personality was refashioned by circumstance into something more intimate, more necessary, even as what we considered intimate and necessary was being re-thought and re-defined.
Across The Border
Sethi would bring in artists to participate on Instagram lives as and when they showed up, have conversation with them, poke fun with and at them, trade praises across the border, sing, be sung to, and swivel around in a performed closeness that began to feel real.
When the lyricist and writer Varun Grover came on, they traded Punjabi verbiage (“Ande lazeez hote hain, pyaare nahin!”, Sethi tells Grover about his grandmother’s nitpicking of adjectives to describe an egg), and at the end, they promised to continue their guss-puss over Whatsapp. When singer Shilpa Rao came on, she noted this was the first time they were face-to-face, and insisted on him singing her father’s favourite song, Umran Lagiyan; her mother showed up in the background in a nightie, all smiles.
When Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj showed up, an immediate logistical issue was brought up. They wanted to get Farida Khanum too, but back then Instagram did not allow for more than two screens on Instagram live. He stepped down, and facilitated the interaction; Farida Khanum sang Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, Rekha Bhardwaj sang Phir Le Aaya Dil. Sethi commented, “Subhan allah!”.
The Federation of Western India Cine Employers (FWICE), angered by this cross-border cohesion put out a statement, “We are pained to inform all members that FWICE has issued a total non-cooperation circular advising all members not to work in any manner whatsoever with all Pakistani artistes, singers and technicians.” And that was that; so much for digital art leaking across physical borders.
Ali Sethi has trained with Ustad Nasiruddin Sami of the Dilli gharana, who migrated from Delhi to Karachi as a child, and Farida Khanum, who was born in Calcutta, grew up in Amritsar, then Rawalpindi, then Lahore. His music too casts this syncretic shadow, where his love for AK Ramanujan, and his study of Tamil at Harvard, bleeds into his musical landscape of qawwalis, ghazals, Punjabi folk music, and bhajans. He has repurposed the ghazal, considered a dated genre of music, through Coke Studio with his star-spangled outfits— sometimes an intricate sherwani, sometimes a spiffy suit, sometimes a shawl; a figure of cultural syncretism.
The video for his single, Chandni Raat dropped on February 23, 2019, a week after the Pulwama Attack where acrid tension between India and Pakistan was mounting. The top comments on the video are from Indians, seeking in his video — a tattered glass house with strangers mending each other’s bruises and brutishness — the refuge that political discourse wasn’t providing. How are we expected to hardwire hatred into ourselves?
There is a very specious quality to this refuge that comes from his training with Farida Khanum. Sethi noted in passing how once, when he was unable to crack a melody, she chided him, “Thoda sa dard naal kaho na.”
Dard not in the rose-tinted sense of pain, but in the Greek sense of pathos — from where sympathy and empathy, hamdardi, and bedardi, come. His music becomes that for many, given expression by his slippery aesthetic — his kitsch outfits, his widows peak, his coloured hair, his chitrali topi, his grandma razai print pullover, his questionable mustache.
In New York he is curating his own South Asian Bloomsbury Set— with filmmaker Mira Nair, Indian writer Amitav Gosh, and Pakistani artist Salman Toor. They eat baingan, share music, pour whiskey and we get to see glimpses. Sethi has recorded the narration and music for the audiobook of Amitav Ghosh’s Junglenama which was illustrated by Toor. In December, 2020 he released Mere Aur Hein Iraaday, an EDM Ghazal to the words of Agha Hashar Kashmiri, considered the Urdu Shakespeare. He just released his latest single, Rung, co-written with the late poet Shakeel Sohail, whose video seamlessly zooms between Lahore and New York City.
Sometimes, when I listen to him sing, and watch him perform in front of a hand-sized phone in his spare apartment, it does seem like the era of the “new star” is upon us, where it isn’t the star’s distance as much as their closeness that we covet. Glamour has begun to look boring, its synthetic productions of performed richness no longer distract as much as dismay. Sethi, with his sardonic humour, puff-chested Punjabi, handsome comportment, and digital accessibility — he re-posts any Instagram story where he is tagged, and replies with warm familiarity to comments of strangers on his posts — might be a way forward, if not the way forward. We’re all grappling in the dark anyways, the future of entire industries of glamour and glitter in the thrall of existential angst; some muse, some music might just be what we need.