In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to bring life to a standstill. While each industry was affected, few were impacted more than the arts and culture sector. Low-income artists in Pakistan who already lead lives of financial precarity were hit particularly hard.

It was in this climate that Shallum Xavier, a stalwart of the Pakistani music industry, started working on Safar Suroon Ka. This project sought to explore the musical heritage that is a common thread between both Pakistan and Bangladesh. What made this project stand out though was that it focused specifically on musicians from underserved communities in both countries. Not only was this project a source of paid opportunities for musical work for these artists, it also gave these artists the kind of platform not readily accessible to them – one bolstered by highly popular musicians with networks, reach and resources.

Safar Suroon Ka is one of 17 international digital collaborative projects funded through ‘Transforming Narratives’. Transforming Narratives is a four-year project by the British Council, Culture Central UK and Arts Council England, that supports creative and cultural practitioners and cultural organisations in Birmingham to engage in cultural and creative exchange with artists and organisations in cities in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

As the pandemic hit and we all retreated into our homes, all cultural spaces shut their doors and all funding for artistic activity was paused. The Transforming Narratives team decided to respond proactively to the new reality the world found itself in. With travel out of the picture, the project went entirely digital.

The Transforming Narratives Digital Collaborations programme links Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Birmingham through creative digital projects. Creatives in these countries received grants worth £75,000, increased from the initial £50,000 commitment due to the high quality of applications received. The multi-disciplinary creative projects kicked off in Autumn 2020 and end in Spring 2021. Each one uses digital technology to links artists, organisations and communities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Birmingham.

Shallum’s project involved digital dialogues, workshops, and a creative collaboration: a song in Bangla, Urdu and English called Chal Diye. The song is currently enjoying airtime on national television networks and radio. While a small project alone cannot change systemic conditions for artists from low-income backgrounds in Pakistan, it is a step in the right direction. The hope is that this way of working becomes the default way of working for artists in Pakistan and beyond. Transforming Narratives aims to play its part in making that possible.