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Why should I have to make all the effort to look secular? asks Aamir Aziz

Aamir Aziz

Aamir Aziz   | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

After the stark ‘Achhe Din Blues,’ Aamir Aziz’s latest ballad about Pehlu Khan’s death has brought a lump to many a cynical throat

Rumour has it that after the 2008 Batla House encounter, whenever you heard an echo during a phone call, it meant the device was under surveillance. For Muslims in and around Delhi, the encounter was the catalyst for a nightmare that continues even today. “The fear was very centralised,” recalls ‘Achhe Din Blues’ singer Aamir Aziz, who at the time was a civil engineering student at Jamia Millia Islamia and living in Jamia Nagar. “The fear of being portrayed as a terrorist was genuine for every young Muslim.” Even worse, he says, was the terror of simply being shot on sight; or murdered in an encounter.

A decade later, that fear and paranoia have taken on artistic dimensions for the 29-year-old Aziz. The second song on his YouTube channel, ‘Achhe Din Blues’, which has more than a lakh views since its March 14 release, sparked a discourse on the ruling government. It’s now a week after his latest song ‘The Ballad of Pehlu Khan’ dropped on April 26, and Aziz and I are chatting at his Yari road apartment, housed in one of the scarce complexes that rent to Muslims in Andheri. It’s been two years since he moved to Mumbai, chasing new dreams.

Stark message

‘The Ballad of Pehlu Khan’ is just as political as the earlier song, if not more so. It eschews poetry and metaphorical camouflage to directly chronicle the 2017 incident in which Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer from Haryana, was lynched by a group of cow vigilantes. At a time when protest culture is extremely thin on the ground, the ballad — à la Bob Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ — comes as a salve against the apathy and violence we’re surrounded by.

Edited by Tarun Bhartiya and produced with the help of documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy, the five-minutes-something video oscillates between Aziz strumming his guitar in the studio and ghastly real footage of the attack on Khan. “If someone needs metaphors to understand the pain of this time, I don’t have anything better than this line,” says Aziz, referring to the lyric, “Bas khata itni si thi, ke yehin paida huye, aur Musalmaan the. (His only fault was that he was born in India and a Muslim.)”

“When Billie Holiday sang ‘Strange Fruit,’ should she have avoided mentioning black bodies because it can harm or offend people?” asks the singer. He says he felt compelled to write the marsiya or lament after news broke that the Rajasthan Police had registered cases of cattle smuggling against Khan and his companions. “I wanted to mourn and say that every murder is buried under the body of another murder,” says Aziz. “And now, at this juncture, I just want to say, don’t forget.”

Dressed in black T-shirt and well-worn acid wash jeans, Aziz insists that we have a free-wheeling conversation over a meal of dal and rice cooked by him. We start with the Batla House encounter that forced Aziz to reconcile with the reality of having a Muslim name. “A psychosis [has developed]. I can’t theorise it, but I don’t roam around alone [any more],” he says. Aziz’s friends incessantly call to check on him if they’ve missed hearing from him. “It’s not just me, the psychosis has passed on to them as well.”

Raging fire

Between 2010 and 2017, 28 people were killed and 124 injured in mob attacks according to a Reuters report that uses statistics sourced from IndiaSpend. On Holi this year, images of a Muslim family being attacked in their own home in Gurugram spread like wildfire on social media.

The repercussions of these hate crimes have seeped into Aziz’s memories, at night and in dreams and even into the food he eats. “My mother refuses to give me non-veg food when I travel by train,” he smiles. “No [Muslim] in this country who is travelling by train will carry non-vegetarian food.”

Though prodded, Aziz refuses to talk about his religious politics because it shouldn’t be relevant. “I believe all religions have been problematic, but no one is willing to listen to this,” he says. “Maybe my own community will say that I am betraying them, and others will not recognise me as a secular person. Why should I have to make all the effort to look secular?”

Born in a hamlet close to Patna and educated in Delhi, Aziz is in the process of transforming into a Mumbaikar. A civil engineer who has worked for companies like Larsen & Toubro, he gave up the corporate life in pursuit of a career in film and theatre. He’s been part of the theatre community since college in 2007. Most recently, he was seen in a tiny part in the Netflix original film Music Teacher (2019), starring Manav Kaul.

Artist’s burden

These days, Aziz moonlights as a writer for ads or films, patiently waiting for acting jobs to come his way. Music was and never will be about making money for him. “I don’t put a professional value to the music I make,” he says.

He talks of how many people are using art to combat the present regime. “I have no fear and neither am I apologetic when it comes to my music. My professional career doesn’t depend on my music, and I don’t want that burden where I have to put something out that will need to appeal to everyone.”

Nourished on Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and B.B. King, Aziz is working on a new piece at the moment, but is tight-lipped about its content, theme and even release date.

He puts faith in his academic and professional background. “I am a struggling actor with middle-class insecurities, but with a degree in civil engineering. So if I become a ‘failed actor,’ I can still stay alive.”

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 7:04:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/why-should-i-have-to-make-all-the-effort-to-look-secular-aamir-aziz/article27158993.ece

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