The Ghazal Resurrector? Ali Sethi and His Music in Millenial Imagination

From a young novelist to a familiar name on the tongues of the subcontinent’s millennials, the trajectory of Pakistani music artist Ali Sethi has been a roller coaster ride. Seen as a musician who has brought back ghazals to popular music, Sethi’s wide and vibrant body of work is nothing short of a revolt to bring what is seen as an “aunty-uncle genre” out of stuffy drawing rooms to younger audiences.

In Sethi’s music, there is a reaffirmation of his post-colonial South Asian identity that stands to create a rich, polyvalent and diverse image of the South Asian music culture – both classical and folk. Sethi’s music has been received with much gusto, not just for its postcolonial and multicultural nuances attached to the ghazal as a classical form making a return, but also because of what his music has to offer in terms of identity politics, especially on the debates around diaspora culture and brown history.

Since his short but powerful debut in Mira Nair’s 2012 film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Sethi’s music and fame has grown beyond borders. His rendition of  Ahmad Faraz and Mehdi Hassan’s ‘Ranjish hi Sahi’ performed for Coke Studio in 2017 and his 2017 release ‘Chan Kithan’, which was a fairytale adaptation of the folk classic with the same name remixed with electronic and indie rock, became an instant success. It was followed by his self-composed album produced in 2019 alongside Grammy-winning musician Noah Georgeson that contained hit numbers like ‘Dil Lagayein’, ‘Ishq‘ and ‘Chandni Raat‘, each a meaningful visual delight in its own.

The chosen medium of visuals in Sethi’s music videos has always been the poetic metaphor, which he considers to be an underrated tool that at once evokes emotion, multiplicity and dialogue. Apart from being the new voice on the block, one of the reasons for Sethi’s unique popularity among the young generations on both sides of the border are the themes of music that range from love, longing, hybridity to fantasy and coexistence in times of polarisation. Sethi’s ‘Chandni Raat’, which was released days before the February 14 Pulwama attack that led to heightened tensions and security on the India-Pakistan border, immediately garnered attention on social media as a call or anthem for peace and harmony between the two states.

Also read: Talking South Asia: Can Identity Be Crafted Through the Medium of Music?

The genre that has been associated the most with Sethi’s name is the ghazal, which also happens to be the musician’s forte as he trained for more than a decade under legendary practitioners like Farida Khanum and Ustad Naseeruddin Saami. However, in his songs, Sethi approaches the ghazals of stalwarts like Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano and Begum Akhtar not as a puritan but as an experimentalist: “What we think of traditional is actually quite experimental”. His renditions of classic ghazals are served with a side of techno, reggae, RnB and even EDM – like in his latest release ‘Mere Aur Hain Iraday’, a ghazal by a lesser-known Urdu poet Agha Hashar Kashmiri.

Not just the music, Sethi also brings together the use of obscure as well as unlikely instruments in his version of these ghazals apart from the usual harmonium, sitar and tabla. For Sethi, these experiments are an attempt to subvert the stereotype attached to the ghazal as an obsolete art form only found in vinyl records of seasoned collectors. His music asserts to make ghazal as the young people’s genre with its history of love and revolution across South Asia. Fortunately for him, he has succeeded in achieving this goal to some extent.

There can be no doubt that a large proportion of Sethi’s fan-following across the world is constituted by the youth from the subcontinent, both within and abroad. Using contemporary themes, issues and Western music forms, Sethi has transposed the ghazal from a classical form of music to hybrid popular culture open to assimilation. His use of live performances and most importantly, his Instagram account has been key to his audience engagement which is geared at generating a postcolonial, cosmopolitan and multicultural awareness to the South Asian consciousness. Additionally, the role of platforms like Coke Studio has been crucial in the promotion of artists like Sethi who are claiming to bring back the regional, local and classical forms of music from India and Pakistan out of fading limelight and forgotten stages and live onto our screens.

The arrival of Ali Sethi on the stage of South Asian cultural scene has been timely for a generation wanting to go back to its roots in the backdrop of emerging identity politics in an increasingly polarised world.

Shriya Singh is a master’s student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Featured image credit: Instagram/@alisethiofficial