Daily Times: Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore radio’s lovesick trees

By A Hamid

I was associated with the Lahore radio station for close to forty-five years as staff artist. My friendships were mostly with singers, composers and instrumentalists. Those radio years gave me the opportunity to get to know artists who had few, if any, equals. They were such nice people also, seldom asking anyone to share their burdens, which were considerable. They were people of such childlike simplicity that even inconsequential things would make them happy. They were also very tender-hearted and sometimes a single note of music would bring tears to their eyes.

The famous sarangi player, Ustad Haider Baksh, I first saw in the old station building in Simla Pahari. He did not live long after that and much of what I know about him, I owe to Ayub Rumani and Siraj Nizami. He gained fame as Floosay Khan though he remained Haider Baksh to those who knew him. Siraj Nizami told me that the maestro had spent much time as a musician with various recording and theatrical companies. He would also accompany the famous Lahore singer Inayat Bai Dheruwali. He was an extremely gentle man, always dressed in a long muslin shirt and a white Punjabi tehmad. He would walk slowly, taking short, careful steps. Once he fell ill but wouldn’t go to the doctor in the neighbourhood despite his wife’s entreaties. In the end, the doctor had to be requested to come and check him out. The doctor arrived, examined him and began to ready his syringe to give his patient a shot. The Ustad was not prepared for the shock and urged the doctor most humbly to desist from what he was about to do because the injection would kill him.

The doctor paid no attention to him and continued with his preparations. Helplessly, the Ustad looked at his wife and wailed, “Are you going to watch me getting killed in front of your eyes?” An interviewer from Lahore radio once asked him, “Ustad, what is your greatest wish?” Floosay Khan’s reply was, “I want God to provide and man to eat.” He looked more like a wrestler than a musician and loved to eat, and eat to his heart’s content. Siraj Nizami would tell a story about the Ustad’s love of eating. It happened before independence. Outside Lahore’s Mori Gate, in Changar Mohalla, there used to be an eatery run by a Hindu gentleman. It must have been his unlucky day when he put a sign outside the establishment which said, “Come and eat here: we only charge for the curry, the chappatis are on the house.” One day, who enters the place but Ustad Floosay Khan, who sat down and ordered three or four plates of curry. Every time the waiter would appear, the Ustad would ask him to bring more chappatis. There was nothing the establishment could do except to abide by its declared promise. The Ustad ate so many chappatis that the place ran out of them. Finally, the proprietor rose from his chair, stood in front of the Ustad with both hands joined in supplication. “We made a mistake. Please forgive us,” he said. A few days later, the Ustad reappeared at the place but was sorely disappointed when he saw that the sign promising free chappatis was no longer there.

Another famous sarangi player I remember was Ustad Ghulam Muhammad of Kasur, who had accompanied some of the most famous classical singers of those times. He would always accompany Lahore’s great classical vocalist Ustad Kalay Khan. In his later years, he had come to be associated with the Lahore radio station, which afforded me an opportunity to observe him closely. He was thick set and his hair had disappeared except from over his temples. He had a peculiar walk, weighted somewhat to one side. The station had moved into its new building by now. Behind the canteen, they had set up the central production unit and the recording studios where classical, semi-classical and Punjabi folk music was recorded. The musicians associated with the central production unit were a separate group, and they included Ustad Ghulam Muhammad. He would also, when needed, provide accompaniment to performances being broadcast or recorded for the main station.

To go from the central production unit to the main station, you had to walk under a huge banyan tree. Ustad Ghulam Muhammad would always look up at the tree’s thick branches when passing under it. There was another banyan tree facing the engineering rooms, which was not so thick-leafed as the big one. The two trees were a hundred, may be, a hundred and fifty yards apart. Ustad Ghulam Muhammad once said, as we sat in the canteen sipping tea, that the tree next to the central production unit was female and the one facing the engineering rooms was male. “When the wind blows, that is when the two of them make contact. They are very much in love with each other,” he told us. We loved his childlike talk - a hallmark of the Ustad’s personality.

It so happened that the engineering people decided to build a few more rooms but this could only be done if the smaller banyan tree was chopped down. Little did they know or care about male and female trees and so they sent for men who began to hack the tree down. When Ustad Ghulam Muhammad learnt what was going on, he rushed to the chief engineer’s office, begging him not to bring down the tree. He argued that if this tree, which was a male was cut down, someone would lose his life. But he failed to convince him. The tree was brought down and construction got underway. I witnessed all that with much sadness. Now whenever Ustad Ghulam Muhammad would pass under the remaining tree, he would look up and say, “Its mate is dead; this one is not going to survive long.” While the tree did not die, Ustad Ghulam Muhammad did. It happened one day when he was walking under the lone tree. He shuddered, fell to the ground in a heap and died.

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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