by Rahul KumarJul 09, 2022
Hashim Ali and I are finally meeting over Zoom from two cities across borders battered with the same monsoon rains, which made us reschedule our first attempt to have this conversation. He is connecting from his studio in Lahore, Pakistan and I can’t help but gawk at the beauty of his background through which a grand painting frame stands out. "That is a painting by Mahoor Jamal, a contemporary Pakistani artist I admire. You should definitely check out her work." After exchanging a few words about our respective lives, we get to the point - Ali’s path-breaking work as the Art Director and Production Designer for six of the 13 songs that came out in Coke Studio Season 14, including Pasoori which has taken the music world by storm.
We are connecting just a few days after Pasoori has hit over 200 million views on YouTube (it has crossed 300 million views at the time of publishing) and is the eighth most viewed Pakistani song on the video-sharing platform. I ask Ali about his life post making Pasoori a visual spectacle. “I would be lying if I say I was nothing before Pasoori because I have had the fortune of doing some good work in my career so far. However, I would say that Pasoori has definitely made not just my work but the entire field of art and visual design more visible in Pakistan. I feel people are taking it more seriously now.”
Ali was born in Faisalabad and grew up in Lahore where he still continues to live. Born to a diplomat father, Ali spent his formative years in Rome where he was exposed to a world outside of engineering and medicine which he was expected to pursue. He came back to Pakistan and joined the National College of Arts, Lahore to study visual communications. “Why did you choose to come back to a country which is not necessarily known to have a flourishing design ecosystem?” I am curious to know.
Ali elaborates, “I went to an international school in Rome where nobody knew where Pakistan was and I was expected to either place Pakistan with Afghanistan - marred with the whole terrorism conflict - or with India which is now almost a superpower. I wondered why we aren't prominent enough in different fields for the world to know us. And that is why I came back to work here because my goal is to put Pakistan on the map visually. I want Anna Wintour to pick up a Pakistani magazine and put it on her mood board.”
Throughout his career, Ali has been advised to move his base to a different country for better opportunities but the global acceptance of Pasoori has reassured him that it is possible to make art from anywhere. Ali takes great pride in the fact that a team from Pakistan has been able to achieve global success by creating something which is geographically and culturally rooted in their country. “I feel the world is also becoming more perceptive towards the art and culture of South Asia without boxing this region into stereotypes. I feel excited about the possibilities that are opening up for artists and designers when I see even the West producing shows like Bridgerton and Ms Marvel. We are finally more than accented side characters now," Ali quips candidly.
We move on to discussing the specifics of art direction and visual language of Coke Studio which is a dramatic and distinct break from the orchestra-like sets the show has been following since its launch in 2008. As a millennial who has grown up with the show, I was intrigued by the intentions and the challenges of creating something new which may or may not have worked. Ali credits Xulfi, music composer and producer for the season who wanted to make the season more relevant or palatable - for the lack of better words - for Gen Z who didn’t relate to Coke Studio. “Xulfi and Kamal Khan (director for the show) reached out to me with the vision to not just create a different set for each song, but also to have distinct visual moments that would reflect the contemporary culture of Pakistan.”
Apart from being an opportunity to represent the culture of Pakistan, each song also subtly tries to infuse socio-political moments from its past and present, disguised as design and choreography elements. Sheema Kermani, Bharatnatyam dancer and social activist who opens Pasoori in a yellow saree followed by portraiture shots of young men and women is one such sequence. Kermani has been a known figure in Pakistan who fought against the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq who had banned dance in the country. Ali emphasised, “Bringing Sheema Kermani on board for Pasoori was Ali Sethi’s idea. He wanted to pay homage to the work of artists like Sheema who have resisted bans against art forms all their lives and in a way we owe it to them to be able to do this work in our country right now.”
Ali is acutely aware of the thin line between representation and glorification and believes that the season has done justice to showcase Pakistani culture without any traces of propaganda. He gives the example of Kana Yari, a Balochi song that features three singers, including a hijabi rapper, all of whom belong to three distinct tribes of Balochistan. They are all singing in their own dialect. “Balochistan is a neglected region of Pakistan and as I was working on Pasoori and Kana Yari I wanted to translate this divide on the sets. So we have Pasoori - a Punjabi song - which is shot in an open courtyard implying the pride associated with the region of Punjab in Pakistan and on the other hand, Kana Yari is shot inside rooms, almost as if it was being sung and performed behind the walls of Pasoori," Ali says.
After listening to all the specific details and nuances of the process of creating the sets, I find it hard to believe that Ali and his team had only two days to build the sets which were created in a studio to meet the sound requirements. “The sets are not just serving a visual purpose but they also need to act like a recording studio because each song is recorded live.”
"What were the challenges you faced since you had a very tight deadline?"
"In Pakistan, we do not have access to a lot of technology like 3D printers which would ease and accelerate the implementation. The design industry is very labour intensive but most of the time I have tried to use it to my advantage. Each and every painting you see in Pasoori was hand-painted by people within those two days. The backdrop against which Sheema Kermani dances was done by a man who comes from a family of painters who used to paint film and television posters in the past. Even the Coke Studio logo is hand painted," he mentions.
All six sets created by Ali break away from sticking to a colour palette and yet there is a distinct visual harmony. The earthy walls of the house in Pasoori are thrown off balance with the bright hues of clothes and fabrics used in the video and yet nothing feels out of place. “When I was studying in Design School, using a lot of colours was always looked down upon. I think it's a western sensibility our schools have taken but our culture is so much at ease with using colour, be it our architecture or our textiles.” The sets invoke imagery from a Wes Anderson film infused with Sanjay Leela Bhansali-esque details, I tell Ali. Ali laughs and replies, “I haven’t intentionally done it but Wes Anderson, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Tim Burton are people I take inspiration from so if that is showing, I must be doing something right.”
The imagery of the season also actively tries to break away from gendered forms of expressions and takes the viewer on a rather fluid journey without being outrageous or uncomfortable. Ali tells me that even though there was no conscious effort to appear fluid, perhaps it came from a place of respecting our gender-conforming heritage. “Before the British brought their Victorian sensibilities, men and women dressed in the same silhouettes. What you see on screen is essentially the premise of Pasoori - reject binaries and boundaries.”
"Do you feel closer to your Anna Wintour moment post recognition that has come your way post-Pasoori?”
“In a way I do but I also feel this is bigger than me or my personal aspirations. It is more about being part of a larger community of South Asian artists who have continued to make and express themselves through art irrespective of all the social, economic or political challenges that have come our way.”
As we move towards the end of our conversation, Ali talks about the importance of co-creation and collaboration in the field of art and design. Ali likens the experience and process of working on Coke Studio to the Kangra School of Painting that emerged in the eighteenth century where multiple artists came together to create one miniature painting. Ali adds, “Unlike the popular belief that art is individualistic, I on the contrary have always found making art an extremely collaborative process.”
We sign off on the wish to visit each other’s country which we both know is not going to happen in the near future as diplomatic ties remain suspended including a bilateral ban on artists that prevents them from performing in the other country. However, the comments section of Pasoori on YouTube reveals another world where people from India have wholeheartedly accepted and loved the song. Perhaps, a future without borders is closer than we think.