Looking for Musarrat Nazir

Khalid Hasan

It seems like that famous jewel in her nose, Musarrat Nazir too is lost somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. She has not sung, recorded or released a song for at least a dozen years. She has also snapped contact with all except the chosen few of her family, who, when asked, prefer to say nothing as to why she has decided she prefers anonymity, when fame lies at her feet. Artists are temperamental and should not, cannot, be judged by standards that apply to those not so gifted.

While everyone is free to do what one wishes to do, the question remains whether it is right for those who have much to give to others – in Musarrat’s case her unique voice with its wonderful timbre – can justify their refusal to do so. After all, Musarrat’s voice, though physically hers, in reality belongs to her listeners, to the millions across the world whom she captivated, first on the screen and many years after she had left the movies, through her music.

I am aware of dark hints she passed through a time of personal difficulties and all had not been well with what was – and one hope remains – a dream marriage. I do know though that the shadow that had fallen across the lives of this most remarkable couple was lifted, largely because of an old friend of theirs who travelled all the way to Canada from Pakistan to help with what repair work such situations need. Both Musarrat and Dr Arshad Majeed, her husband and my old Sialkot friend, have sort of withdrawn. Contact with old friends stands – by and large severed – and letters sent and calls made fail to evoke a response. There was a time when the only reason I, for one, travelled to Toronto was to spend time with her and Arshad, the loving husband for whose sake she turned her back on a movie career that was then at its height. There were many attempts over the years to lure her back to the movies but she showed no interest. She would just say, “That part of my life is over.” Her work, however, speaks for itself and she would remain one of the loveliest and most memorable of stars, shining through a succession of Punjabi films. One of the great believers in her talent as an actress was Khurshid Anwar who put her in two of his Urdu movies, Zehr-e-Ishq and Jhoomar .

Musarrat and Arshad eventually settled down in a small town in Ontario to raise a family. The children are now grown. One of her sons makes documentaries; the other is a musician and the daughter, a senior producer with CBC, the Canadian radio and television network. Musarrat may have left the industry but she has never been forgotten. The tomboyish heroine of Mahi Munda lives in the hearts of her fans. It was 1979 when, unexpectedly, she broke her silence and released a long-playing record in London that contained such hits as ‘ Mein kamli’ and ‘ Jogi uttar paharoon aaya’ . The compositions were largely those of Arshad whose talents go beyond medicine and psychiatry. For the next few years, she did not have to look back, releasing one hit after another.

When I think of her, I see her running barefoot under the trees on a hushed Punjabi early summer evening, looking for that lost little gold-fringed jewel in her nose. While she has run back into the mud-walled village dwelling that is her home, she is being scrutinised by her stern and unsmiling elders who are long enough in tooth and claw to know why young girls lose what they lose on lazy summer evenings. In those few snatches of music of that runaway hit – Mera laung gavacha – forever lies preserved the romance of Punjab. Musarrat’s admirers transcend the generation gap. They include those who were only a twinkle in their mother’s eye when she left the movies to get married and immigrate to the cold wastes of Canadian winters; and they include those like Pran Nevile who phoned me from Delhi the other day saying there is no day in the week on which he does not listen to Musarrat because, as he put it, “In her voice I hear the Punjab that I love.”

Some years ago, Musarrat and Arshad wanted to return to Pakistan. In fact they bought a home in Lahore which they still keep and which I call aaseb-zada because it is only inhabited when they visit; for the rest of the year it is abandoned to ghosts, assuming that ghosts exist. However, Musarrat believes in taking no chances and had all kinds of religious and purification ceremonies performed one year, just in case the place was indeed haunted. Arshad wanted to set up a hospital in Lahore but after months of running around and a lot of money down the drain, he gave up. When I asked why, his answer was, “My difficulty was with attitudes. Nobody said no but little got done. At times, I felt that nothing was really taken too seriously by those who were paid out of public funds to make decisions and serve the people.” I should add that, unlike the bulk of Pakistanis who live abroad, Arshad is not a whiner.

Musarrat could always sing. The first time she sang was when at the age of sixteen, wearing a burqa, she was taken to the Lahore radio station by her father. The celebrated broadcaster Saleem Shahid – Salman Shahid’s father – gave her an audition and was captivated by her voice. The song broadcast from Lahore was ‘ Ni mein galyaan de raah takdi’ . When I asked her if she remembered that song, she said, “The tune yes, the words no.” She broke into the movies in the 1950s because of Anwar Kamal Pasha and immediately captured the people’s attention. She was cast in roles that showed her as a bit of a tomboy, un-self-conscious and outgoing. Her looks were delightfully wholesome. Her popularity went beyond Pakistan and the number of her fans in East Punjab was legion.

Some years ago, I asked her about the movie industry as it was in her day. She said it was like a family; everyone was nice and respectful. “We were a bunch of very young and very happy, hard working actors. I cannot recall a single unpleasant incident from those days.” She was also chaperoned by her father to the studios: being just a simple, artless girl from a middle class family of Punjabi Kashmiris who had broken into the movies. I asked her if there were “romances” as the Urdu movie magazines of the day reported. “We were pretty straight-laced, believe me,” she said.

In 1993, I wrote that the good news was that Musarrat is soon going to release an album, having recently sung a number of kafis that are both beautiful and moving. She also had plans to return to Lahore but it never happened. The album, though ready, was never released and the visit to Lahore, if it did take place, was brief. As for that laung , she is still looking for it, while we, her fans, are looking for her.