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Farewell, Strings: A Thank You Note From India

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Torchbearers of Peace –Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Om Puri, Noor Jahan, and Jagjit Singh –Besides being legends in their own countries, they all have one other thing in common.

Their talents made waves on both sides of man-made lines — be it the official Indo-Pak border or the de-facto one that is the Line of Control. While armies, politicians, and intelligence agencies waged war, these artists’ talents knew no boundaries. There have also been times when folks like Ali Zafar, Mahira Khan, and Fawad Khan unfairly ended up facing the music from die-hard Indian as well as Pakistani nationalists for cross-border skirmishes.

Regardless of such vitriol, these entertainers are ambassadors of a peace that sadly keeps eluding citizens of two nations that have overlapping traditions, a shared history, similar superstitions, and of course, the same saas-bahu squabbles.

This past Friday, the popular musical duo Strings, which has played its part in trying to bring about this elusive friendship, announced its disbanding via social media. Considering the constant bridge building and bridge burning that has been playing out among the two states for the past 73 years, the group’s songs very much transcended borders.

India and Pakistan,“Hue Anjaane Kyun?”

A year after the Kargil War that further derailed a promising peace process, one tune encapsulated the essence of this love-hate Indo-Pak relationship. A hit single from their album Duur, “Anjaane Kyun”? (why strangers?) had a chorus that asked, “Hue begaane kyun? Hue anjaane kyun?”

The verses “Yeh rasta mera, yeh rasta tera, hai dono ki manzil juda, hum do humsafar, hum do ajnabi, hum dono ka ek khuda” (we have different paths, our destinations are different, we journey together, we are strangers, we both have same God) brilliantly reflected the two countries’ commonalties and convergences despite the iron curtain between them.

Just a little before the 2003 ceasefire agreement that gave way to more people to people contacts and constructive dialogue, the duo dropped their fourth album Dhaani. Living overseas, I always rushed to the TV whenever the eponymous lead single played on channels like Zee TV, B4U, or PTV. The video, which showed women performing jobs that are traditionally done by males, was a mainstay on Indian music countdown shows throughout 2004.

During a summer holiday in India that year, the Dhaani CD would always be sold out whenever I ventured to any record store to buy a copy. Though a few months later, a relative travelling back from the country would finally pick one up for me. The collaborations with Hari Haran and Sagarika Mukherjee on that album symbolized what India and Pakistan can do together if the two rivals just resolved their differences.

Even today, the album reminds me of a time when it looked like both countries would finally bury the hatchet. Plus, the sight of Faisal and Bilal jamming with Sanjay Dutt while John Abraham recites Anwar Maqsood’s poetry in the “Yeh Hai Meri Kahaani” (this is my story) video is still delightful for any peacenik. Many Indian youngsters were lucky enough to hear the band live at College Festivals too.

Uniting people, even after derailed peace initiatives

A few months prior to the 26/11 terrorist attacks that derailed this fruitful yet delicate peace process, their 2008 release Koi Aaney Wala Hai (someone is to come) would always be in the bestseller section of many music stores here.

Unfortunately, the Mumbai attacks torpedoed the prospect of visa liberalization initiatives that were gaining steam a day before the tragic attacks. After that, it took a decade for Strings to put out a new album.

Luckily, fans had YouTube for their fix of Strings content.

To see Indians and Pakistanis of various ages, faiths, and ethnicities interacting online like long-lost siblings — especially in today’s age of trolling and cancel culture — one has to just scroll down to the comments section below any one of Strings’ videos on the streaming platform.

Crass nationalism, for the most part, seems to have no place in discussions on YouTube pages where one can stream the band’s new and old hits.

Keeping the flame alive

In more recent times, if anything represents the syncretism of South Asia and the untapped potential of Indo-Pak amity, it is Faisal’s and Bilal’s rendition of Amir Khusrau’s Ghar Naari. Indian playback singer Sona Mahapatra’s featured vocals are more than just a nice touch to the new version of that Sufi classic.

Despite many musicians switching to more contemporary, commercial styles, they stayed true to their sound with their latest album Thirty in 2019. Little did us fans know that it would be their last hurrah.

Even with the UAE-brokered peace process seemingly getting off the ground, it looks like Strings will not play their artistic role in peacebuilding this time. Either ways, singers, writers, and actors from the subcontinent still bear the torch of bringing people together through their art.

That too, as hardliners at various levels strive to divide them.

So thank you Faisal and Bilal for being the threads that bind Indians and Pakistanis together! You guys will always have a second home here in India!

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Naya Daur