By Samira R. Noorali J.D. special to Ismailimail
Photo images courtesy of Anvar Nanji & Nims Merali
Brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, popularly known as Salim-Sulaiman, are a composer duo best known for their musical work in popular Indian cinema. Although in the midst of a hectic concert tour, the two gentlemen swept into Barker Center on Friday with Harvard’s own Dr. Ali Asani by their side to discuss and analyze their work in front of an eager audience.
The event was co-hosted by The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program and South Asia Institute, both Harvard University organizations.
Harvard University is arguably one of the finest and most prestigious institutions in the world, and Dr. Asani is an apt representative of its values and commitment to providing the best education. As moderator, Dr. Asani gracefully guided the discussion through a variety of essential topics: Salim and Sulaiman’s personal lives and influences, the impact of devotional music on young listeners, analysis of the symbols and subtexts running through their work, and the function of music in transcendent experience.
Music has the capacity to “grant insights into the nature of existence,” Dr. Asani said early on, positioning himself for a conversation that would quickly take on spiritual overtones.
The talk involved an examination of Salim-Sulaiman’s music videos and song lyrics in Allahu Akbar and Khalipan, as well as other compositions. While discussing the tree of life, whirling dervishes, strong element of light, and other prominent symbols in “Allahu Akbar,” Sulaiman commented, “Songs with a devotional quality become timeless.”
Although the panelists and moderator constantly effused an air of hope, unity and celebration, the talk was not without its heavy moments. During the discussion on “Khalipan” – a song the duo wrote in the wake of the Peshawar attacks – Salim and Sulaiman found themselves identifying with the parents of the children who passed. In spite of an intense uprising of anger and inconsolable frustration in their hearts after the tragic event, Salim and Sulaiman expressed gratitude:
“We are lucky that we can emote through music,” Salim stated. Sulaiman added that “we don’t make music about religion or spirituality, we make music about what touches us.” Salim and Sulaiman clarified that they rarely if ever write music with an agenda, even a positive agenda. They create only what they are truly inspired to create.
A question and answer session followed where the composers touched on their favorite musical genres as well as what they hope to emote in their upcoming works.
“Celebration is strong emotion,” Salim stated before he went onto contrast their recent “intense” work with their lighter Bollywood releases. Both expressed that while they are committed to their meaningful and exploratory work, such work can and should be balanced by celebration.
After being whisked away to catch a flight to the UK (the destination of their next concert), Salim-Sulaiman conveyed this message on Facebook, “Today, we felt very privileged and humbled to speak at the Harvard University in Boston. The talk was about the significance of music to bring about a cultural unity between societies. The significance of devotional music and its impact on the new generation to be more in tune with their tradition and culture. We are extremely thankful to Harvard University for inviting us to share our experience and knowledge.”