Daily Times: Sunday, August 27, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye:Those men with magic voices

By A Hamid

This happened in the early years of Pakistan. I had begun my literary life, but a job as such I had not yet taken because I just did not feel like enchaining myself to a 9 to 5 routine. In 1948, I published my first story Manzil Manzil in Adab-e-Latif. Between my writing and my work for the radio, I had begun to make a fairly good living. My link with radio dated back to my childhood when I was in the 8th grade. I had appeared in programmes broadcast from Radio Rangoon and Radio Ceylon, which used to be called the Southeast Asia Command Radio during World War II.

I was doing a good deal of work for the Lahore radio station but had yet to join it as a staff artist. I would write features and speeches at the going rate of a rupee a minute. Considering the times, it was not such bad remuneration. The station was still at its old Simla Pahari location. It was there that I first saw the musician Jeevan Lal Matoo, his wife Madhuri Matoo and the singer Vidya Nath Seth. All three went to India after partition. When I look back, I see those early days as Radio Pakistan’s golden period. Every leading artist and writer was associated with the station. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was still in Lahore and made regular appearances. The young duo of Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan had already established its name. All programmes went out live; there were no pre-recording facilities, which only came when the station shifted to Empress Road. The music programmes were produced by Abdul Shakoor Bedil, elder brother of the music director, Khayyam.

One day, Bedil and I were in the duty room when Nazakat and Salamat began to present one of Khwaja Farid’s kafis. Suddenly, Bedil got up, asked me to follow him and we walked towards the studio from which the broadcast was being made.

On the door, the red light was on, which meant that the programme was on air. Very gently, Bedil opened the door and the two of us slipped in. We sat down on the floor as silently as we had entered. The two singers looked at us but continued their performance. As it ended, Bedil said to Salamat, “Khan sahib, please do not end it or you will end us.” The two brothers smiled and continued singing. There was such pathos in their voices and so powerful were the lyrics they were singing that a tremor runs through my body even today when I recall that performance.

One day I went to the State Bank of Pakistan to cash a cheque, where I ran into Fida Ahmed Kardar, who worked there. When he saw me standing in the queue, he took the cheque form me and after some time brought me the money, just to show how much he cared for writers and artists. While I was waiting, I saw walking towards me down the State Bank veranda Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s middle brother and the greatest ghazal singer of his time. His black curly hair had started greying at the roots. He was wearing a long silk shirt and a raw silk tehmad. There was a silver bracelet on one of his wrists. In his hand, he held a cheque issued by Radio Pakistan. I rose and greeted him respectfully. He told me he had a tonga waiting outside. He asked if it would take long. Before I could answer, Kardar saw him and said, “Khan sahib, just give this to me.” Kardar returned with the money soon and Khan sahib left.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan lived in Shahi Mohalla in front of the mausoleum of the Nau Gazza saint. A potter’s shed stood to the left of the house to reach which you had to go up a dark and narrow flight of stairs. The room to the right served as the baithak of Ghulam Ali Khan and to the left was that of Mubarak Ali Khan, his youngest brother. Saleem Shahid was assistant director of the Lahore radio station and Anwar Jalal Shamza and I were his great friends. He joined the BBC later, never to return to Pakistan.

The three of us often used to go and spend time with Mubarak Ali Khan, who was an extremely nice and friendly man. He was also very handsome and he was a natty dresser. He had appeared as hero in the Punjabi movie Sohni Manhiwal, which I had seen and some of whose scenes I distinctly remembered. On one of our visits, Saleem Shahid said to him, “Khan sahib, today we want you to sing raag Malhar so that you bring down rain.” Mubarak Ali Khan’s reply was, “Those masters who could bring down rain were men of great piety. We cannot even dream of matching their gifts. I am afraid if I start singing Malhar, the sun might re-emerge from the clouds.”

I can never forget the good turn he did to me once. It had been decided by Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq to celebrate Meeraji Day and since Meeraji loved the raag Jai Jai Vanti, as homage to him, that haunting raag was to be sung at the event. I was in my usual spot at the Pak Tea House when Shohrat Bukhari walked in. The man looked worried. It turned out that at the last moment Amanat Ali Khan, who had agreed to sing, had expressed his inability to make it, leaving everybody in the lurch.

The function would be incomplete without Meeraji’s favourite, Bokhari said. He happened to know that I was well acquainted with Mubarak Ali Khan and he asked me if I could get him to come and perform. I promised to try.

There was no time to waste and so we jumped into a tonga. Luckily, we found the Khan sahib at home. We told him the whole story, while apologising for having come to him at the last minute. He was gracious, “Hamid sahib, how can it ever be that you ask me for something and I say no! Just let me know when and I will be there.” We offered to fetch him but he answered that he would get to the YMCA Hall, where the event was to be held, in time and by himself, which was exactly what he did, along with his musicians. He was also carrying a small carpet on which he always sat when performing. He just wanted a bit of space so that he could do his riaz.

There was a large crowd and in the hall and I was hoping and praying that the maestro would be heard in silence and with the respect that he deserved. The moment he touched the strings of his sur-mandal, a hush fell over the audience. His exposition of Jai Jai Vanti was magical and the listeners were spellbound. We thanked him profusely but all he said was, “We are artists and we value our friends. This evening has been a special pleasure for me.” Mubarak Ali Khan is no longer in this world but the memory of this warm and wonderful man, who was also a great artist, has always stayed with me.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan


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