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We know much about your Har­vard glory. Could you share de­tails of your mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion?

Grow­ing up in La­hore, I heard a lot of tra­di­tional mu­sic—qawwali and ghazal es­pe­cially. I al­ways wanted to know how the melodies worked—how singers like Noor Je­han and Nus­rat Fateh Ali Khan could mod­u­late their voices in seem­ingly end­less ways. Alas, I was grow­ing up in what we call a “burger” (up­per-mid­dle-class) mi­lieu, so there was no way of pur­su­ing my rather es­o­teric in­ter­est in mu­sic. It wasn’t un­til I went to Har­vard that I fi­nally felt en­ti­tled to study mu­sic and de­vo­tional po­etry— to at­tend to them with the kind of rigour I would bring to a ‘sub­ject’ like eco­nom­ics. I ended up ma­jor­ing in South Asian His­tory and Lit­er­a­ture, came back to La­hore and, while work­ing on my novel, be­gan an ap­pren­tice­ship with Us­tad Naseerud­din Saami of the Delhi Gha­rana.

You have sung many clas­si­cal pieces, but you have also been dab­bling with Pun­jabi folk. What in­spires your choices?

I am drawn first and fore­most to melody—if the tune draws me in, I’ll be hum­ming it till I’ve got it in my own style. Some­times I am com­pelled to put a piece of po­etry to mu­sic—if it speaks to me in a per­sonal way. These days I’m writ­ing my own songs.

It takes courage to at­tempt a ‘Ran­jish’ im­mor­talised by Me­hdi Has­san sa’ab.

With an iconic ghazal like ‘Ran­jish’, there is of­ten pres­sure to match the mae­stro’s an­daaz or ang. A young singer may also be tempted to ren­der it in a ‘new’ (read: il­lit­er­ate) way. I re­sisted both and ap­proached it as a trib­ute—a project that abides by Me­hdi sahib’s raag-logic even when im­pro­vis­ing.

is sev­eral years old. Can we ex­pect to hear more from Ali Sethi the writer?

There will be books (in­shal­lah-in­shal­lah).

—with Farah Yameen

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