The release of Coke Studio’s latest outing Paar Channa De brought with itself more than just a surge in the waters of the Chenab, which flows between India and Pakistan.
While foreign policy teams from the two neighbouring countries may not be making much headway, the song seems to have pulled off an unlikely coup, bringing in the first Indian solo artist to be part of Coke Studio since its inception: Shilpa Rao.
Unshackled by the concerns of genre or nationality, the musicians relayed the tragic love story of Sohni Mahiwal, which resonates on both sides of the border. Rao sang the part of Sohni in the age-old Punjabi folk song and prompted both Indian and Pakistani viewers to sit up and take notice.
“Doing Coke Studio in Pakistan was a beautiful experience, not just because of the music but also because it breaks mental barriers as well. I hope there is more of this to come, for other artists as well,” The Indian Express quoted Rao as saying. “It really didn’t feel like I was in a different country even! Everyone – be it Ali Hamza, Ali Noor, Zeb Bangash or Qurutulain Balouch – was discussing similar things, like what to wear and which jewellery will match. I had done all of it before, I was just doing it again,” added the 31-year-old, who has previously been part of the third season of Coke Studio in India.
The Ishq Shava hitmaker went on to draw further parallels between how the popular music show operates in the two countries. “That commercial aspect we have in India exists in Pakistan too but there, it is 150% from the musicians. Not that we don’t have it in India but in Pakistan, it acquires more importance because of what it means to the Pakistani people,” explained Rao.
She met Ali Noor and Ali Hamza in Delhi, where they had been visiting for a gig. As fate would have it, they found themselves at the residence of Subir Malik — frontman of Indian band Parikrama – jamming and chatting. “Noori had no idea of my work in Bollywood or otherwise. During the jam session, they asked me to sing something and liked what I did,” recalled Rao, who attempted an Awadhi folk song sung by Javed Bashir and Humaira Channa in Coke Studio season 8. “Ali Noor simply said, ‘You’re coming to Pakistan’,” she shared.
But even then, Coke Studio was not part of the plan as Rao had been invited just to speak to students at the brothers’ family music institute in Lahore — the famous Sanjan Nagar Institute for Philosophy and Arts. “I was there for a week and everything came together. Even now, after all of this, they have no idea of the work I have done in India,” said the Jamshedpur native.
Trained in classical music, Rao has also crooned mainstream hits like Khuda Jaane from 2008’s Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone-starrer Bachna Ae Haseeno and Manmarziyan in 2013’s Lootera. Nonetheless, the singer claims she does not appreciate playback singing, wherein many singers are made to record one song and there is uncertainty regarding whose version will be used. “Unlike a lot of singers, I sing one song a year. In that case, most composers understand what I bring to the table.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th, 2016.