by Ayesha binte Rashid
The year is 1988 and the movie Mukhra is playing on the screen – the scene unfolds upon a wedding event in a village. Babra Sharif dances across the screen in a blue kameez and lacha glittering with embellishments, with a net dupatta laced with silver on her head. Behind her, one hears the rhythm of a dholak overlain with a Punjabi harmony. Nadeem Baig appears in a white dhoti with a red scarf around his neck, joining her in the bhangra. Wedding decorations hang from the walls of the village home, as the two characters twirl and jump through its courtyards and corridors. A glowing Samina Peerzada, dressed in yellow, watches on as mehndi is applied to her hand. Babra Sharif begins to sing but it is Madam Noor Jehan’s iconic voice that calls out, “Mundiyaaaaaa!”
Cut to 2019: the scene opens on Amir Azhar as he strums his classical guitar, diving into an intro, a spin on the original’s dholak opening. In Coke Studio’s rendition, it is Quratulain Balouch that calls to her mundiya. “Dupatta chadd mera!” she demands playfully. Her mundiya replies with a compliment about her badaami (almond-like) complexion. In the film, Nadeem Baig croons to Barbra Sharif — on the Coke Studio set, 40 years later, Ali Sethi is the one who calls out to the spirited kuriye of this story.
The “genesis” of Mundiya occurred at a studio jam: something about Quratulain’s voice, what he later describes as a “khanak” (trill) characteristic of folk singers, reminded Ali of Madam Noor Jehan’s bold, uninhibited, “Mundiyaaaa!” A demo was recorded, making its way to Coke Studio three years later and an impromptu studio recording came to fruition, brought to life by the house band.
Mundiya’s true genesis, in the 1980s, is remembered by Amir, whose father played bass guitar on the original. After school, a young Amir Azhar would go off to Evernew Studios, on Lahore’s Multan Road, to bring his father lunch. On one such occasion, he happened to chance upon Noor Jehan, Nadeem Baig, Tanveer Hussain (also his uncle), and Azhar Hussain (his father) rehearsing Mundiya in the presence of Wajahat Attre, the song’s composer.
“How was I to know that one day I would be sitting here, giving an interview about the same song,” laughs Amir. “Now I realize what legends I was in the presence of.” These are the historical threads that connect our music’s stories: a jam session in 2019, a recording in 1988. A young Amir chancing upon a rehearsal — 40 years later, he is sitting beside his uncle, Tanveer, at Coke Studio’s set, playing on a rendition of the very same song because something about Quratulain’s voice gave Ali the idea to record a demo of Noor Jehan’s “Mundiyaaaa”. As culture moves forward, these memories come knocking on our doors, reminding us of where we came from.
The groove is built on Babar Khanna’s dholak: a beat of 8 that keeps the song rooted to its origins. Midway through the song, Tanveer launches into a mandolin solo that is then passed on to Amir’s classical guitar, the music coming together to join the song’s Punjabi roots with shades borrowed from a colorful genre of another part: in this rendition, we find the slightest hint of Flamenco elements.
“Flamenco music is so inspired by the music of the Middle East,” explains Ali. The artform rose when Arabs went to Spain: their traditional music mixing with European music to give rise to Flamenco music, according to recent historical research. “You find the entire history of interaction between the Middle East and Europe in the ululation of Flamenco singer’s voices,” says Ali. “There is no raag, no sur, that you can’t find a version of in what we call gypsy music.”
One goes back to 1988, watching Barbra Sharif closely as she dances across the screen in her blue lehnga, her movements not dissimilar to that of a Flamenco dancer’s. She twirls, her hands are thrown up in sync with the music, quick steps leading her movement, a lachak (undulation) in her hips. She is less uninhibited than a Flamenco dancer, but her bhangra conveys the same passion that is characteristic of Flamenco.
One needn’t stray so far back as 1988 to seek this marriage between the sound of Punjab and Spain. “You don’t expect such hardcore Punjabi lyrics to be paired with something so different,” says Quratulain, of Coke Studio’s rendition. Once again, the roots of history weave their way through culture’s soil, this time connecting us to seeds that were planted long before us. A reminder that cultures are a process of sharing and experimentation.