Jawad Sharif’s ‘Indus Blues’ begins with a Sarinda player and his son playing music outside a college only to be unceremoniously stopped and told to leave. Upon the movie crew’s insistence to let them film the last Sarinda player of Pakistan being a cultural icon of the country, the groundskeeper scoffs at them and remarks that “this isn’t our culture.”
It is this kind of jarring sequence that immediately sets up the tone for Sharif’s piercing but an evocative documentary. Indus Blues documents Sharif’s meditative exploration of the struggle of eastern classical musicians in contemporary Pakistan, who are striving to brace themselves against a lurking extinction.
The film takes us to different corners of Pakistan, from Mohenjo-Daro in the South to Hunza in the North, as it chronicles the lives and sacrifices of ostensibly last surviving classical and traditional music maestros/instrumentalists of Pakistan.
The film, while depicting the pains and perils of the musicians as evidenced through their interviews, also seeks to glorify their passion as they exhibit while playing the very instruments they’ve devoted their whole lives for. This brilliantly keeps the viewers engaged through the entire length of the documentary on the one hand, and concomitantly demonstrates how much joy music brings to them.
The camera, at times, comes close to the musicians’ faces, less concerned with the instrument at hand and more at how jubilant the artist seems to be. This is emblematic of Sharif’s approach to the film. Rather than focusing on the music, the documentary maker is heartily invested in the lives and livelihood of these musicians and the few makers of these treasured devices.
Sharif covers a variety of ancient musical instruments, painstakingly travelling to the depths of Sindh for Boreendo, continuing to depths of Balochistan for the Balochi banjos, and up north in Gilgit to meet the last Chardha player, to name just a few of the forgotten instruments he covers. While Indus Blues could easily be considered as a travelogue, the film is mostly content with just leaving its fantastic cinematography in the backdrop to focus on raw emotions and pangs of the folk musicians.
Amidst terrorism, worsening economic conditions and a lack of support from the government, these artists don’t live the easiest of lives. And Sharif ensures that he doesn’t romanticize their jobs. Despite geographical distances and variance of skill sets, the musicians are united by the distress that the music of their forefathers might just die with them.
The musicians also share the same worrisome fate of being ostracized by a society that always under appreciates them and is even often hostile. It, among other factors, has made earning an honest living an onerous task. As we watch them discuss their lives and families, it becomes apparent that even among the artists’ families, there is discord about whether or not this fight to keep this treasured cultural heritage alive is worth fighting for.
Indus Blues also details the effects of the dichotomy of religion and music that has been vociferously popularized by some sections of the orthodoxy in the country, having a lasting impact on the minds of the people. On one occasion, a musician is referred to as a “pimp” on camera.
The artists recount other truly devastating tales as they explain the clash between tradition and religion has taken on their lives. Although Indus Blues doesn’t bring us any closer to solving these problems, it does a potent job of underlining the urgent need for protection of our dying folk music and its maestros.
Whether this film will become a catalyst for change, or just a footnote in the slow and impending demise of our indigenous musical heritage, remains to be seen. That said, Sharif’s Indus Blues offers a sobering critique at the sad state of our traditional instrumental music in Pakistan today.