In Celebration of Celebration: ‘Tu Jhoom!’

January 14, 2022, Makarsakranti, midnight. I finally spot the icon on my YouTube recommendations that I have been waiting for a long while, and press its deep crimson thumbnail, the earphones tucked in well. I have never heard of Naseebo Lal, but have grown up listening to the magisterial Abida Parveen, so enough anticipation has already built in.

Soft instrumental notes textured with a celestial ambience kick in evenly, and in a few moments, the bold, high-pitched notes of Lal release the eponymous refrain of “Tu Jhoom”.

That initial sense of expansiveness continues to spread in a controlled manner as Parveen’s baritone picks over, and with this also enter those wonderfully captivating beat-claps, contemporary and folksy at once. I am taken in by the loci of the two singers: instead of facing the audience as is usual in duets, they are facing each other. The song is a conversation, I realise, but it is also a resounding spell-work of various collectivities: a large angelic chorus shimmering in white, an entrancing dance ensemble in deep green, a number of absorbed instrumentalists, and an ingenious invisible team behind a beguiling camera work, sound-mixing, light-effects and an elaborate set.

The whole audio-visual matter flows in and out with a smoothness that you align with the numinous, and the resolute non-dancer in me gives in to the joys of swaying whilst sitting upright, much like the two singers themselves. Enraptured, I obsessively press the replay button in a bid to never extinguish this feeling of pure delight. I jhoom!

With more than 27 million views on YouTube, Coke Studio Pakistan Season 14’s first song has the sublime power of giving goosebumps even as it moves one to tears. A work of impeccable beauty in every sense of the word, it skilfully embodies the oxymoronic spirit of this season’s tagline: it is “real magic”. In an age when vitriol has been brazenly replacing virtue, it is a joyful relief to browse through the thousands of appreciative YouTube comments under the studio’s many glorious productions, and to restore one’s faith in humanity. They also reveal a gracious acceptance of the fact that Coke Studio Pakistan is far more sophisticated than its Indian counterpart.

The greatness of all good music however is that no matter where it has been produced, it selflessly lends itself to be claimed by each and every person, so that one only feels a sincere emotional connection with its existence, circulation and celebration. Right from the early days of television in the Indian subcontinent several decades ago, when my parents (like so many other people) used to record the multifaceted shows aired from Pakistani Television (PTV), the land across the border has consistently demonstrated a unique finesse in the field of music that continues to hold its mesmeric sway the world over.

Also read: Inside Coke Studio Pakistan’s Enduring Appeal – and Its Shortcomings

I derive great pleasure from the observation that good things often provoke a generosity in people instead of selfishness, prompting them to excitedly tell others: “Look! Listen to this! Watch this!” It is in such urgent gesticulations that the power of novelty gets tested and shared in the most honest, unbridled manner. The great architect Louis Kahn once said that “the creation of art is not the fulfilment of a need but the creation of a need. The world never needed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until he created it. Now we could not live without it.” And the same could be said of “Tu Jhoom” too.

A friend and I have childishly traded the “number of times” we have listened to this masterpiece, and ardently wishing to be the song’s preeminent fan, I have cheekily been adding an extra “zero” to whatever number she comes up with. So if I get a “I have heard it a hundred times at least” from her, then I simply quip, “I have heard it a thousand times over!”

There is a unique gladness in this silliness that congenially corroborates the song’s sheer power and beauty. It is also an elation that echoes the very jubilation woven within the verbal and performative fabric of the song itself.

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

For “Tu Jhoom”, despite its serious existential lyrics about human emotions and fate’s great hand, is essentially a song about delight and celebration. It seeks exhilaration in the simple but profound fact that no matter the pains and sufferings, the human soul always has a capacity to delight and to embrace the wondrous and the blissful. For joys and sorrows are a part of life, but life in itself is much bigger than both. Whereas in a superficial appraisal, its lyrics can be interpreted as provoking an indifference of sorts (as it says, we are ultimately the children of Destiny), that would be a gross misreading.

“Tu Jhoom” holds much relevance for our pandemic-ridden times where we have all experienced the cruel workings of fate in an unprecedented, gruesome manner, but also witnessed exceptional models of human resilience, empathy and generosity. It is towards that endless generosity of human spirit that the song gestures to, even as it appeals to human humility and submission in the face of that which cannot be controlled.

In his marvellous 2019 work The Book of Delights: Essays, the American writer Ross Gay sheds light on the significance of finding delight in daily observations, from the littlest to the grandest, as wonder endlessly infuses the ordinary. As he takes on the self-aimed task of noting and narrating one “delight” each day of his 43rd year, he avers that “the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… [In this year] I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.”

The book brims with an energy akin to Lal and Parveen’s counsel to “jhoom”, and exalts the song’s celebratory sentiment. Which brings me to the recurring verb “jhoom”: a word so wholly Hindustani in ring and appeal that people have translated it in multiple ways since the piece first came out. Though it was a surprise to not immediately spot an English translation accompanying the original subtitles (that Coke Studio Pakistan is known for), its absence warmly led ordinary citizens to offer their own interpretations.

From “you sway!” and “you chill!” to “you dance!” and “you swing!”, there were numerous translations forwarded by the increasing gamut of listeners. My earlier alluded friend also came up with her meaning of “be euphoric!” I for myself settled for “you rejoice!”, but as with other options, I continued to feel something lacking.

So when the studio finally decided to come up with its own authoritative translation, it decided not to equate the two Urdu words with two equivalent English words. Rather, it aimed for transmitting the Sufi spirit of divine enjoyment in two short sentences: “Transcend into a greater realm/ To discover the soul’s gem.”

That a single word can evoke so many responses and tie them all into something higher and deeper still is a wonderful phenomenon. For it a word full of potential and plenitude, just like the celebratory spirit of the subcontinent itself. Tu jhoom!

Siddharth Pandey is a writer and photographer from Shimla. He will soon be joining the Kate Hamburger Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) as a Fellow in Global Humanities. He can be contacted on Instagram @shimlasiddharthpandey. 

Featured image: Coke Studio