Coke Studio: Invoking Historical Memory

Among other unlikely avenues where popular culture and religiosity is reflected in the public sphere are television based music platforms like the Coke Studio [1], a live studio-recorded music performance series, which largely showcases a fusion of diverse musical influences in Pakistan with a modern Western flair. In other words it reflects the  ‘synaesthic world of sound that can be experienced or tasted in different cultural contexts and life worlds in Pakistan’ (Frembgen 2012: 135). Leaving aside the  debate about corporate materialism and such,  criticism that is often attributed towards this production there is no doubt that  Coke Studio’s foremost contribution to the Pakistani society would be the singular way in which its melodies are invoking historical memory in cultural terms.  This program’s widespread popularity  [2]is hardly surprisingly since music is intrinsically associated with religion in South Asia in complex ways. The various expressions of popular South Asian Islamic religiosity, articulated in the forms of devotional poetry, sufi-kalams, kaafis, qawwalis, naats, marsiyas, manqabats clearly point towards the coextensive nature of music and religion in the popular religious culture. The musical recitations of such kalaam and qawwali have been described as ‘a religious practice’ but one in which it is ‘impossible to separate music from religion, religion from music’ (Newell 2007). However inspite of the widespread popularity and resonance of such narratives, they have been until recently relegated as ‘backward’ forms of culture’ and ‘inauthentic Islam’ in the public discourse dominated by orthodox Islam and elite representations. Many times such devotional music is described simply as popular culture not as ‘religion’ given the contentious relationship of the Islamist orthodoxy with music, which is seen as being ‘un-Islamic’.  Continue reading


All About Male Privilege but…Zindagi Gulzar Hai

This review of Zindagi Gulzar Hai is an excerpt from an article by Karanjeet Kaur published at Caravan magazine.

The current crop of Pakistani dramas to make their way across the border, via Zindagi, were all created over the last four or five years, in the image of the old PTV plays. They were originally telecast on private Urdu channels—such as Hum TV, Geo TV and ARY Zindagi—that launched around the time General Pervez Musharraf seized power after a coup d’etat in 1999. The influx of private money into the media and entertainment sectors during the early and mid 2000s helped revive teleserials. Before the decade ended, the industry had found a name it could bank on: Umera Ahmad.

The 37-year-old writer’s romantic novels and screenplays centre around female protagonists, and mirror middle- and upper-class anxieties about love, weddings and social mobility. Her milieus are contemporary, and her heroines, somewhat like Haseena Moin’s, appear progressive, if ultimately acquiescent. Doraha (Crossroads, 2008), an adaptation of her novel directed by Mehreen Jabbar and featuring a soundtrack by the pop sensation Jal, catapulted her to renown, paving the way for future teleplays, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan (My Existence is Meaningless, 2009) and Shehr-e-Zaat (City Unto Self, 2012). Continue reading

Zinda Bhaag: Anxious Anti-Heroics

This review of Zinda Bhaag by Nadeem F Paracha was originally published here.

Pakistani cinema is changing. As more and more filmmakers from the urban middle classes continue to extend the recent extraordinary revivalist run of Pakistani films, the scope of mediation and perceptions in this respect are broadening as well.

This was quite apparent in Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur’s Zinda Bhaag. Released in 2014, the film is now available on DVD.

Zinda Bhaag is very much part and parcel of the class make-up and social landscape of Pakistan’s new wave cinema, in which films play like stark art-house mediations on life but bear the soul of lively commercial cinema. Continue reading

Pakistan’s Online Culture of Dissent

A survey of Pakistan’s digital sphere shows that creativity , community, contention and control are all interrelated. So that inspite of all the effort at censorship and control one finds a creative and irreverent culture of dissent that is framed largely around the digital media.  This internet culture, where all authority is consistently subjected to doubt and ridicule, seems to be burgeoning under increasing political scrutiny and control. Many unorthodox , imaginative and subversive ideas are found on the Pakistani cyberspace which seem to suggest  agency for the ordinary people within the very sites of contention. This online culture is a very public space where well known and unknown people , continue to use agentative ways in  the digital media to subvert the mainstream official narratives and conversations. This culture of dissent is very democratic and heterogeneous one we see students, artists, activists, academics, journalists, doctors, lawyers etc  collaborating together over various issues and concerns.

Continue reading

‘Sail on Silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to shine’.


Sabeen Mahmud’s death has clearly unsettled as many people as her unusual and eccentric life did.  In retrospect, her death seems as unreal as her life was. In the four short decades that amounted to her lifetime Sabeen became well known for destabilizing categories, questioning taken-for-granted socio-political norms, creating unconventional and creative spaces, starting unusual conversations, and unceremoniously subverting many misconceived notions about ‘helpless’ young women in Pakistan’s public sphere.

Much before Sabeen became a public figure, it had become evident to all those around her that she was an extraordinarily ‘different’ person. Sabeen, who was our fellow student and hostelite at Kinnaird College in Lahore, stood out from the very first day among the disparate groups of young girls at the Kinnaird hostel with her eccentric willfulness (and her signature Bermuda shorts !). Among other things, she was also the only hostel student in the early 1990s who possessed an alien contraption called a ‘laptop’. That infamous laptop, which Sabeen had bought with her years worth of pocket money savings, became the site and tool for many uprisings, rebellions and laughs in the next four years to come. Continue reading

Religious Nationalism and the Digital Imagination


Encouraged by the state policing of official national narratives in Pakistan , the internet gives space to the religious nationalism of right wing voices, some framed in  quasi-fascist ideologies. At times the state and these right-wing voices seem to be competing as hegemonic forces over the how far they can carry out  censorship over the media. More often than not contention takes places over narratives of nationalism and religion, and consequently ‘moral policing’ with regards to these issues has become a normative feature of the digital sphere in Pakistan.[1] In this way the media plays a role in redefining the political and cultural frontiers of  the ‘national imagination’ promoting what is now called ‘cyber-nationalism’ (Yang 2011: 8).


There relationship between media and nationalism is a mutually constitutive one. As the new media make information ‘want to be free’, it also seems to  ‘create pasts’ that ‘want to be restored’ (Rajagopal 2006: 221). Also because ‘the loss that haunts writing’ is ‘erased’ by new media, it render the past into an accessible presence’ (ibid 220) leading to new forms of ‘re-tribalization’ (ibid 285). In many ways the internet mirrors the notion of the ‘nation’ itself. Much like the internet the ‘nation’ is an ‘imagined community’ seen as a ‘free’ but ‘limited’ space of ‘horizontal’ comradeship (Anderson 1983: 16). In this context perhaps the digital media thus plays an important role in promoting nationalism and proto-nationalist identities in the public sphere. The advent of new media has also had a profound impact on the politics of memory, history and memorialization. In an age where ‘memory and media mutually’ shape each other as people utilize media technologies for ‘creating and recreating a sense of past, present and future’, one often comes across very active efforts towards the reconstruction and archiving of memories of a South Asian past in the transnational space of the internet as a discourse on the production of a ‘South Asian’ identity online[2]. Continue reading

Surveillance and  Censorship in Pakistan’s Digital Sphere

In many ways the access to media and the ICTs in Pakistan is thoroughly implicated the pervasive surveillance and censorship regimes under the ostensible justification of  national security. In the case of Pakistan such surveillance is happening with the explicit backing of US and other Western powers,  reflecting on the ways surveillance linked to racial supremacy and empire (Arough and Chakravartty 2015: 19).


As a key player in the global ‘war on terror’ Pakistan’s has been showered with multifarious forms of surveillance technology. The Pakistani government is by far the largest known recipient of US National Security Agency (NSA) funds.[1]Pakistan cooperates heavily with international surveillance initiatives against its own citizens, particularly the NSA. Some of the NSA slides published in Brazil’s O Globo show that in one month in 2012, for instance, the NSA analyzed 11.7 billion records of DNI traffic into and out of Pakistan, as well as traffic to top Pakistani domain names [2]. In 2013, Pakistani Senators expressed concern after initial revelations about the scale of NSA surveillance in Pakistan, local civil society and digital rights activists in Pakistan reacted vehemently to the revelations.[3] Inspite of all this popular support for surveillance of communications is high in Pakistan [4]. This could possibly be so because the public itself is ‘a product of the media’ as it does not ‘exist’ but is ‘hailed into existence under the conditions of growing urban consumerism and modern media culture’ (Yang 2011: 22). Continue reading