1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Rare note of harmony

Shamil ShamsApril 16, 2013

Pakistani singers have made it big in Indian cinema, despite the two countries' political differences. Whether it all comes down to innate musical talent, or pure novelty value, the phenomenon looks set to endure.

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (Photo: Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi / DW)
Image: DW/W. Hasrat-Nazimi

Pakistani musicians and singers have long been popular in India and Bollywood, as well as in their homeland.

Among the greats is the singer Ghulam Ali, whose ghazals (a form of Urdu verse) became hugely popular in India during the early 1980s, when he sang for a Bollywood movie called "Nikah." Ali, who chose to steer clear of lip-sync singing roles, was among the first few Pakistani artists who made it big in Bollywood.

Before Ali, it was another ghazal maestro, Mehdi Hasan, who became a household name in India. Hasan, whose success had more to do with his private concerts than his singing in the movies, inspired a host of other ghazal singers who also sang for Bollywood. Later, in the 1990s, Bollywood became obsessed with another Pakistani artist, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was known for singing qawwalis - a type of mystical poetry.

Being different

Hasan, Ali, and Khan are widely considered extraordinary singers who became popular in India and Bollywood because of their talent and skills. They had only a limited interest in cinema. However, the same thing cannot be said about the new breed of Pakistani singers, for whom Bollywood is a lucrative career option.

"In the past, Bollywood's music directors were trained in Indian classical music and their compositions were also heavily based on ragas (a traditional melodic form). That is why they respected Pakistani singers who had a command of classical music," Peerzada Salman, a cultural critic at Dawn newspaper in Karachi, told DW. Salman, however, felt that with the commercialization of Bollywood, even "un-trained" Pakistani singers are now making inroads in the Indian film industry.

Pakistani classical singer Mehdi Hassan performs in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Photo: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
Pakistani singer Mehdi Hasan inspired a number of Bollywood composers and singersImage: dapd

"The Indians admire singers like (new Pakistani Bollywood stars) Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam because they find their voices different from Indian singers. Atif Aslam, for example, has a lot of flaws in his singing but still liked for his 'unique' voice," Salman said, adding that none of these immensely popular singers were indispensible for Bollywood. "The moment they become monotonous, Indian filmmakers will cease to hire them."

Indian film critic Ajay Brahmatmaj believes Pakistani singers are more "experimental" than their Indian counterparts, and that is why they are so treasured in India.

"I spoke to Atif Aslam once," Brahmatmaj told DW. "He said that Pakistani singers needed to do something different to be successful in their country because the music industry was nearly non-existent in Pakistan," Brahmatmaj told DW.

Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan arrives for the premiere of the film 'Don - The King Is Back' in Berlin on February 11, 2012 (Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Bollywood is considered the biggest film industry in the worldImage: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Politics and music

While Pakistani artists are welcomed with open arms in India, Brahmatmaj says, the trend is not reciprocated. While the critic believes that Indian singers would ideally perform more in the Islamic Republic, he doubts that - for commercial and political reasons - the artists would be unlikely to do so on any great scale.

"Pakistan's film industry is almost dead. There is no big music scene there either. Therefore, you cannot expect Lata Mangeshkar to go and perform in Pakistan. Jagjit Singh also did not find it lucrative enough to stage concerts in Pakistan, despite his huge fan base there."

Some in India have expressed the view that movie makers should not allow Pakistani singers to sing in Bollywood, claiming it discourages Indian talent. Brahmatmaj thinks otherwise.

"There are people in Bollywood who do not care about the talent; they just like to oppose whatever comes from Pakistan," he said.

Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, right, and Indian ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, left, embrace each other as they arrive to address a press conference in Bangalore, India, Friday, March 4, 2005 (Photo: AP Photo/Gautam Singh)
Music unites India and PakistanImage: AP

Like Brahmatmaj, Karachi-based critic Salman agrees it would be wrong for Bollywood to close its doors to Pakistani singers.

"Indian and Pakistani music is the same. Last year, when India's flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia came to Pakistan, he mesmerized everybody with his music. Everybody loved him. Similarly, Mehdi Hasan and Lata Mangeshkar are part of the Indo-Pakistani heritage," said Salman.

As one of the few things that unites India and Pakistan, Salman added, music should not be politicized at any cost.