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Music

India and Pakistan 'are different, but man, we can really get along,' says musician Zeshan B

Hindus burned down his Muslim grandfather's store in India in 1947. On the 70th anniversary of the India-Pakistan border, musician Zeshan B tells DW how his family and cultural history inspires his soulful sound.

The end of British rule in India came to an end and Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan were declared sovereign provinces on August 15, 1947. Just two days later, on August 17, 1947, the Radcliffe Line, marking the frontier between India and Pakistan, was drawn - and still serves as the border to this day.

DW: As a Muslim American whose parents immigrated to Chicago, Illinois, from India, what significance does August 17, 1947, marking the drawing of the Radcliffe Line, have for you personally?

Zeshan Bagewadi: The drawing of the Radcliffe Line and Partition [Eds.: on August 15] are definitely days of great reflection and complex significance. My grandparents went through the whole upheaval in Hyderabad, a Muslim urban oasis in a southern Indian Hindu-majority state. Their families got split up, and many of their friends and neighbors left for Pakistan. But my grandparents stayed. It was their home, their city, and my grandpa had a ration store he had built from the ground up with his savings. But there were repercussions for staying.

Read more: India's aspirations 70 years ago and now

I used to ask my grandparents about life in India, but Partition never came up. It wasn't until after my grandpa passed away in the United States in 2012 that I found out why. I persisted in asking my grandma, and she finally said she would say it once and only once:

On the eve of Partition, tension had risen in the neighborhood where my grandparents had lived side-by-side with Hindus, even caring for one another's children. There was a sort of religious clash nearby. I am not sure if she said Hindus were killed or one Hindu was killed, but it was bad. My grandma said that, in retaliation, a mob of Hindus burned down my grandpa's store.

I was horrified as what happened hit me. This is something my grandpa took to his grave. I told my mom about it, and she started crying. My grandparents had 10 children, and none of them had been told about it. When I asked my grandma why she hadn't told anyone, she said, "It hurts. It hurts to think about it. We just picked up the pieces and went on."

Musician Zeshan B (Diana Quinones Rivera Photography )

Zeshan Bagewadi, who goes by Zeshan B, grew up in multicultural Chicago

Having heard your grandma's revelation, what salient lessons do you take from it?

First, it saddens me that somebody I love so much had to go through something like that when he was just 24 years old. And in a broader sense, I am saddened because people do terrible things in the name of religion, which is supposed to espouse values of love, tranquility, peace.

It also puts Partition into perspective for me. I have mixed feelings about whether it should have happened. Maybe this is utopian, but Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs would have figured out a way to make one country work, and it would have been a very viable, very powerful country.

And it also shows how easy it is for people to be misguided by external forces, like the politicians that came in and inflamed sentiments. To this day, people continue to fall prey to that, whether the politicians are British, Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Muslim. The ruling power in India today exists on a platform of demagoguery and racism.

What is amazing is that my grandparents never harbored any resentment towards Hindus and Sikhs. That is a big take away. And their sheer resilience: My grandparents and the grandparents of many of my friends just stood back up and marched on despite enormous hardship, suffering and misery.

You've addressed Partition and the Radcliffe Line in your music. In 2014, you collaborated with Pakistani-American filmmaker Nushmia Khan to release "Border Anthems," in which you combine the national anthems of both countries with side-by-side film clips. What was the message you wanted to send?

"Border Anthems" is a celebration of our [Eds.: Indo-Pakistani] musical heritage through two incredibly beautiful anthems. We are lucky to have come from a culture that is so old, complex and dynamic. Because I am an Urdu-speaking American Indian who has his hand on the pulse of what is going on in Pakistan, I felt empowered to say that we are the same. No - that we are different, but man, we can really get along!

"Border Anthems" also recalls one thing my grandma said - and it is seared in my mind: "We are only separated by a border." That Radcliffe Line that was created artificially. Once my grandma told me my grandpa's story, I felt motivated to do something through what I do - music.

You talk a lot about a generation that remembers a time of coexistence before Partition. When you look at the state of border politics in the world today, do you think the fact that these older generations are dying out affects how borders are seen?

Yes, in that many of the old people were like my grandparents and didn't like talking about what happened. I can understand that. It is painful. But I shudder to think there may be other grandparents who are passing away without telling how things used to be done and that it was just fine. The current generation is accustomed to that border being there. It is the way it has always been and ought to be.

Read more: How have India and Pakistan fared economically since partition?

But today's generation, which didn't have to witness all that violence, has the potential for brotherhood to work with people on the other side. And I want to do whatever it is I can do in my limited capacity to make that happen.

Your recently released album "Vetted" challenges borders through both musical style and substance. One example is the song "Ki Jana?" where you take the poetry of Bulleh Shah, an 18th-century Punjabi Sufi humanist poet, and set it to an infectious funk beat complete with grooving guitar, blaring brass and raga-style vocal riffs. How did your blended musical style evolve?  

It is who I am. It evolved organically by my growing up in Chicago around Black and Brown music. I am the child of immigrants who listened to soul, blues and funk, but also Indian and Pakistani singers. Anybody in my situation would soak up all those things.

Of all my songs, "Ki Jana?" really touches on Partition. Indians and Pakistanis take poetry very seriously, and Bulleh Shah is revered just as much by Muslim Punjabis as by Hindu and Sikh Punjabi. I am not the first person to take his words and put them to music. Indian and Pakistani musicians, Sikh and Muslim - they have done that.

And there is no better song on the album that encapsulates my own existence. What Bulleh Shah is saying is, "Who am I? Ki jaana main koun?” It is a question. Who am I? Am I American? I am 100-percent American, but I am 100-percent Indian. And as an Indian Muslim, am I actually Indian or Pakistani? That song brings all of that into focus. And the interesting thing is that there are no answers.

Do you think through a song like "Ki Jana?" your music can deconstruct social borders that we put around ourselves?

Of course! Do you know how many jam sessions I have had with Pakistani and Indian musicians? Musicians and music, they don't care about borders. Music can - and I think will continue to - deconstruct artificial differences. In one stroke, it can celebrate the differences - and there are differences - but at the same time it can bring us together. Throughout the world, that is the case. A musician in Pakistan can get down to Beethoven. A musician in Germany can get down to Qawwli [Eds-: a Sufi devotional music style].

Does this apply not only to musicians but to people who aren't musicians - people who just hear your music? 

Absolutely. And it has. I have probably more fans in Pakistan than I do in India, and I am Indian! They get it. They don't see that I am Indian, or American. They just see that I can sing, I can groove, that I share sentiments that they can vibe with. It doesn't matter what type of music it is - if it has that infectious beat, people are going to get down to it. In India, Pakistan or wherever. 

Zeshan B released his debut album "Vetted" (Minty Fresh) in April 2017. He performed the album's single and Civil Rights anthem "Crying' in the Streets" on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert in August, singing in Urdu and English, and is kicking off an East Coast US tour.

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