by Ayesha binte Rashid
When one thinks of the tales of the Subcontinent, a recurring theme easily emerges – that of love. There is the tragedy of Anarkali, entombed behind a brick wall by Emperor Akbar for her crime of falling in love with his son. She is left with a choice to make - surrender herself to her punishment or let her beloved bear the brunt of the Emperor’s wrath. And so, her life for her beloved’s.
The faqirs immortalize the tale of Sassi and Pannu in the shrines of Sindh, singing verses of the great Sufi saint from whom the story has traveled to us. The Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai tells the tale of Sassi, who traveled through the hills of Kech Makran, on foot, without food, water or hope. Dragging her withering steps, Sassi dies in search of her beloved. And her beloved, in turn, dies to be with her.
These stories abound throughout our land. In Balochistan, Mast Tawakali spends the night frozen in one place, dumbstruck and dumbfounded by one glimpse of Sammo’s beauty. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Adam Khan has cried so many tears at being separated from Durkhanai, he is nearly blind. In Punjab, a grief-stricken Ranjha swallows a poisoned laddu (sweetmeat), determined to join Heer in the afterlife.
These stories whisper through the ages, flowing through history and finding their way into popular culture - songs sung by Madam Noor Jehan, poetry written by Ahmad Rahi, films directed by Khwaja Khurshid Anwar - and eventually into Shuja Haider’s ears. This is Saiyaan.
Shuja’s tale opens on a protagonist in angst, a jilted lover with a desperate plea. With a passion that cries out to the beloved, the protagonist coaxes them to return. And as Punjabi metaphors would have it, a crow sits on the roof but does not caw. In Punjabi folklore, if a crow settles on your rooftop and caws, it heralds the arrival of a guest. Unfortunately for our protagonist, the crow on their rooftop is silent - and so, there is no sign of their beloved.
The song progresses as the protagonist provides assurances to their beloved. This desire for the beloved is beyond restraint, our protagonist wishes to attach themselves to the beloved as gota (soutache) is stuck to lace. They are willing to wear what the beloved likes, cook what the beloved likes, be alienated by all of the world, as long as it earns the beloved’s favour. Without the beloved, their boat is sinking, misfortune follows them wherever they go. This is a song of submitting completely in the name of love.
The theme of all-consuming love, wrapped in visual metaphors, inspired from Punjabi folklore, is arranged over a composition that hints at music from the golden era of Pakistan’s film industry. Having watched some of the industry’s most iconic composers and musicians at work, Shuja is passionate about paying ode to them in his work. But the key, for him, is originality.
“We should try to sing like the great musicians and singers that have worked before us, but we shouldn’t sing what is theirs. I can’t sing like Mehdi Hassan, I can’t sing like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I can sing like Shuja Haider.”
Joining Shuja on vocals is Coke Studio’s very own Rachel Viccaji. In the weeks leading up to recording, Rachel can be found rehearsing her lines at every opportunity. Trying to make sure she is saying “muhabbataan”, not “muhabbataa”. “Chhaḍni”, not “chhadni”. She is not Punjabi, and she is determined to do justice to the language. In the end, Shuja and the house band reassure her that confidence is key and that ultimately, the rest will fall into place. With this trust, the pieces come together, and the performers bring the words to life, coming away with the energy that is created from an interactive recording.
Looking back, stories of the past remind us of a time when the act of love meant to surrender oneself fully. The love of Heer and Ranjha, Sassi and Punnu, is different from what we call love today, explains Shuja, it’s not easily found, but it did once exist and we are, as humans, still capable of it.