Today's patriotic songs don't hold a candle to the milli naghmay of yesteryear

Published 16 Aug, 2021 10:12am

We have to stop looking at nationalism as a quick promotion tool to be in the spotlight on particular days.

Composite illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi

At an intersection near Bagh-i-Mustafa in Karachi, one of the many scattered and tucked-away pieces of land technically qualifying as parks that haven’t been appropriated by squatter families in the building-strewn area of Aisha Manzil, sits a teenage boy with a dilemma.

His makeshift table-stall has the usual Independence Day merchandise one glances at while walking past such stalls: decorative pins, small stacked bundles of green paper flags, some miniature flags, and a handful of their bigger versions.

The only missing element from his table is the sound of Vital Signs’ 'Dil Dil Pakistan' blaring from his small, blue tooth-powered speakers.

With Sindh Government’s Covid-19 restrictions on the verge of being relaxed hardly a day before Moharram starts, should he even entertain the idea of turning his speakers on? The shops around him — medical, general and hardware stores, kebab and drink kiosks — are open, but one never knows when the shrieking sirens of a police van might suddenly sound from around the bend.

Whatever happened to good quality ‘milli naghmay’? Why do we keep going back to songs from 30 or even 50 years ago to rekindle the national spirit? Have we become incapable of producing good anthems?

It’s not only this boy’s predicament. It’s a familiar sight the next day, at another intersection, with another youngster 10 or so years older. Perhaps this is a familiar sight across Pakistan. Who knows?

'Dil Dil Pakistan' singer Junaid Jamshed
'Dil Dil Pakistan' singer Junaid Jamshed

The spirit of Independence Day is being suffocated, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic. And the one thing that made up for the lack of genuine festivity is nowhere to be heard: music.

But that’s not really true either.

Songs about Pakistan and patriotism are a dime-a-dozen. Every musician worth their mettle — and more than enough who test your mettle — do a song that tries to stir up national pride. It’s also one of the sure-fire ways of getting noticed…if not by the citizens of Pakistan then, perhaps, by content producers who seek products to attract sponsors.

Even as I write these lines, a spanking new song, 'Azad Hain Hum', by Faraz Saleem featuring Yasir Akhtar, has come out.

I’ll listen to it later. With only 866 views on YouTube (as of August 10), I guess others might be feeling that way as well.

'Hamara Parcham Ye Pyara Parcham' singer Naheed Akhtar
'Hamara Parcham Ye Pyara Parcham' singer Naheed Akhtar

It’s not about the numbers anyways. Lately it is only about how much patriotic music we can inject on YouTube.

A day before 'Azad Hain Hum', Sahir Ali Bagga came out with 'Jeve Jeve' — a “Latest Pakistan Anthem 2021” (according to the video’s title), produced by the Directorate of Electronic Media and Publications (DEMP), a division of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The video has a little over 130,000 views from his 2.5 million subscribers.

Lately Bagga has been the go-to “maestro” for loud songs that jolt awake one’s sense of national pride. His wares often display and propagate Pakistan’s military might in land, sea and air — but that’s to be expected, since the videos have often been produced by the military’s public relations wing, ISPR, or directly by one of the forces.

Actually, the military produces quite a bit of media that promotes the country’s sense of pride in the armed forces. The calendar is loaded with days that need celebrating (there’s Pakistan Day, Independence Day, Defence Day, Navy Day and Air Force Day). The songs include vocals from the veritable who’s who of the music biz — from Bagga to Atif Aslam to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan — and the hits on YouTube range from two to tens of millions, and maybe more.

'Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan' singer Shahnaz Begum
'Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan' singer Shahnaz Begum

With massive marketing budgets, hits on social media and YouTube, these songs also appear a lot on television. Yet, for some reason, the people of Pakistan — or at least a majority of us — still keep returning to yesteryear classics: the milli naghmay aka national songs, a phrase often spoken on Pakistan Television Network (PTV) or Radio Pakistan, or read on the covers of EMI audio cassettes.

Some three decades ago, when PTV reigned supreme as the sole entertainment channel, milli naghmay made their way into every nook and cranny of the broadcast. The high point of these songs came in the 1970s but continued into the 1980s — perhaps understandably for a country trying to refashion a national pride after the secession of half the country in 1973.

Some three decades ago, when PTV reigned supreme as the sole entertainment channel, milli naghmay made their way into every nook and cranny of the broadcast. The high point of these songs came in the 1970s but continued into the 1980s — perhaps understandably for a country trying to refashion a national pride after the secession of half the country in 1973.

Back then, state-owned broadcast media (both PTV and Radio Pakistan) was tasked with building up and maintaining a sense of nationhood, where the idea of “one nation” and the perseverance of its culture and solidarity was the main priority.

It was a necessity of the time, but it also paved the way for some memorable music and memorable lyrics.

'Aye Watan Pyare Watan Pak Watan' singer Amanat Ali Khan
'Aye Watan Pyare Watan Pak Watan' singer Amanat Ali Khan

Consider the gems from yesteryears: 'Yeh Watan Tumhara Hai' (Mehdi Hasan); 'Ae Watan Pyare Watan' and 'Chand Meri Zameen' (both by Ustad Amanat Ali Khan); 'Ae Rahe Haq Ke Shaheedon' (Naseem Begum); 'Ae Watan Ke Sajeelay Jawano' (Madam Noor Jehan); 'Jaag Utha Hai Saara Watan' (various artists); 'Sohni Dharti Allah Rakhhay' (renditions by Shehnaz Begum, Mehdi Hasan and Habib Wali Mohammad), 'Jeevey Jeevay Pakistan' and 'Mauj Barrhay Ya Aandhi Aaye' (both by Shehnaz Begum); 'Ye Des Hamara Hai' (Waseem Baig); 'Main Bhi Pakistan Hoon' (Muhammad Ali Shyhaki); 'Hum Zinda Qaum Hain' (Tehseen Javed, Amjad Hussain & Benjamin Sisters); 'Watan Ki Mitti Gawah Rehna' (Nayyara Noor); 'Hamara Parcham Yeh Pyara Parcham' (Naheed Akhtar); 'Tera Pakistan Hai' (Amjad Hussain); 'Khayal Rakhna' (Alamgir & Benjamin Sisters); and 'Itnay Barray Jeevan Saagar Mai' (Allan Fakhir)… to name just a few.

Songs such as these evoke great nostalgia, maybe because they have been imprinted into our genetic memory. But it wasn’t simply the associations of a certain generation that made them popular and stand out. Or that there was no other options available to listeners. There was something about their compositions and their poetry that still resonate and which has stood the test of time — so that even the younger generation today can still appreciate the simplicity of 'Sohni Dharti' or can hum along to 'Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan'.

'Mera Inam Pakistan Mera Paigham' Pakistan singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
'Mera Inam Pakistan Mera Paigham' Pakistan singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Perhaps, it can be said that the principal reason behind the popularity of these milli naghmay were the people who made them. The songs were penned by giants of literature such as Jamiluddin Aali, Saifuddin Saif, Masroor Anwar, Asad Mohammad Khan and Saqi Javed for example. Composers such as Mian Shehryar, Ustad Amanat Ali and the legendary Sohail Rana — who was appointed general manager of the national orchestra at PTV between 1974-76 — composed music for a good chunk of the songs. These were people who not only brought great musical and literary knowledge into their work but also recognised the necessity of establishing simple-to-grasp anthems that would augment the national morale of the masses.

The songs spoke of the magnificence of and devotion to the country, its cultures and resources, the vital importance of unity, acceptance and integration. The weighty messages came with a welcoming but preachy outlook.

The music changed somewhat in the mid-80s to the ’90s, in the era of studio albums and pop groups. The immensely popular Dil Dil Pakistan (considered by many, if not all, to be the second national anthem of the land), 'Yeh Zameen and Hum Hain Pakistani' (Vital Signs), 'Ae Jawaan' (Awaz), 'Jazba-i-Junoon' and 'Junoon Se' (Junoon), 'Dil Se Maine Dekha Pakistan' (Haroon), 'Dil Na Lagay' (Faakhir), changed the perception of milli naghmay because they didn’t stem from staid institutions such as PTV, yet they worked just as well. The message, relatively, stayed the same too.

Plenty of mediocre songs also came out during the time in the 1990s when it was de riguer to include at least one ‘nationalistic’ song on each pop album. Then things changed. Since the late ’90s, songs professing one’s love for the nation stopped being in vogue.

Maybe it was that the old guard of poets, lyricists and composers was dying out. Maybe people were just tired of what had often begun to sound like clichés by then. Maybe we had different priorities, such as fighting against extremist mindsets or corruption within. Maybe the idea of a unitary nation did not sit well with a more nuanced understanding of nationhood with its different component cultures. Maybe we’ve become too politically polarised. Or maybe it was the morphing of national songs into promotions of particular institutions rather than reflecting the aspirations of common people. Whatever it was, the spirit milli naghmay once carried seems long gone.

Perhaps it is one of these things or, perhaps, all of these combined.

Maybe, we have to stop looking at nationalism as a quick promotion tool to be in the spotlight on particular days (actually, scratch out the ‘maybe’ part). Perhaps we need to tell a new story, add a new dimension, or go back to our roots.

Perhaps we need to stop shoehorning imagery and causes we’ve seen a billion times over, and celebrate our subcultures and address pertinent issues? Aren’t songs that evoke the spirit of nationalism allowed to do that?

Then again, perhaps we need to go back to when milli naghmay came from the heart and not merely as a vehicle for corporate brands and sponsorships.

Maybe there is no clear answer to this question. Maybe, this 14th August, someone should — and it could be anyone — make a resolve to find an answer.

Normal folk, such as the boy selling miniature versions of our national flag and trinkets, need good national songs as much as Pakistan, the country does…because when eventually things open, he will still end up playing the classics or 'Dil Dil Pakistan', but not the songs we currently make.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 15th, 2021