Daily Times: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: The great ones who once walked in Lahore

By A Hamid

Under the canopy of the sky that shelters Lahore have walked men of such accomplishment in the years gone by that it would be a long, long while before we can hope to see their like again. They have ranged from musicians to writers to poets to painters, in short, any area of human accomplishment one can think of. Some of these men I met and some I only saw; then there were others who passed away before my time.

The first great man who comes to mind is the painter Abdul Rehman Chughtai. I first saw him in 1949 or 1950, having already come to admire his work that regularly appeared in literary journals. He had a style all his own, which people came to call Chughtai art. He had illustrated Diwan-e-Ghalib, first printed in Germany under the title Muraqqa-e-Chughtai. It was a work of surpassing excellence, with each painting a symbolic interpretation of a Ghalib verse. In 1948, when I began my literary life, there were two established Urdu literary publication houses in Lahore: Maktaba-e-Urdu and Naya Idara. The latter, owned by Chaudhri Nazir Ahmed, who had an excellent taste in literature, also used to publish the magazine Savera. Books, printed on litho, by his house were superb examples of the craft. The fact is that Chaudhri Nazir Ahmed and Barkat Ali Chaudhry of Maktaba-e-Urdu played a pivotal role in bringing quality Urdu literature to the people of Pakistan.

My first collection of stories, Manzil Manzil, was published by Maktaba-e-Urdu. Barkat Ali Chaudhry told me that he would have Abdul Rehman Chughtai design the jacket. One day, he took my by the hand and we began to walk to the painter’s house, which was located near the old British cemetery on Ravi Road, between Bhati and Taxali Gates. We were shown to the second floor of the house where we found the great man mixing colours in a stone grinder. Next to where he was working, lay clay and china cups. Barkat Ali Chaudhry introduced me, then said, “I want you to design the dust jacket of A Hamid’s first book. It would be a matter of great honour for us.” I looked around. There were several canvasses resting against the walls, and on one of the walls hung some paintings. It was not the first time I had seen Chughtai, having spied him off and on visiting the office of the magazine Naqoosh and sometimes Naya Idira. He was always dressed in a summer suit with a round sheepskin cap on his head. He had a Hitler-type moustache and he was a strongly-built man with big hands and long fingers. He was a man of few words and in the beginning, his pieces used to appear in Lahore’s literary journals. He worked hard and he worked quietly. I never saw him at any of the meetings held in the city. Occasionally, however, he would briefly drop in to see Muhammad Tufail of Naqoosh or Chaudhri Nazir Ahmed.

Another great man I have had the privilege of meeting was the master calligrapher Tajuddin Zarrin Raqm, who lived inside Lohari Gate. His sitting room or baithak was on the first floor and to the left of his place was a shop that sold clay pots. It was Chaudhri Nazir Ahmed who first took me to the great man’s baithak. He was a tall, handsome man whose work was often compared with pearls on a string. He died in his youth. Then there was Syed Muhammad Yusuf Sadeedi, who was another master calligrapher, and as handsome as the words he inscribed in black ink on paper. I would often meet him at the office of the daily Imroze, edited at the time by Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat. I would find Yusuf Sadeedi sitting on a flat wooden platform, his back resting against the wall, writing the next day’s headlines for Imroze. He was a hafiz-e-Quran, having memorised the entire holy book as a boy. He was extremely shy. I would sometimes sit next to him and watch him write. It was like watching a miracle at work. I once said to him, “Hafiz sahib, you are as handsome as the script your pen creates.” He smiled but said nothing. He died young in a car accident in Saudi Arabia.

Then there was Siraj Nizami, a scion of the Patiala school of classical music. Recalling the great Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of the same school or gharana, he told me that the maestro lost his father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan in his infancy, so he moved from Patiala to Lahore and was apprenticed to his uncle. He made his mark early and his fame spread to the four corners of India. Once, before a performance at a music conference in Calcutta, his accompanist, the great tabla player Ahmed Jan Thrikwa asked him what taal or rhythmic scheme he had chosen for the evening’s performance. “Whichever you wish,” Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan replied. They say his performance that evening was something out of this world. Thrikwa, perhaps the greatest tabla player of all times, sometimes had a hard time keeping up with the maestro from Patiala.

Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan was other-worldly in his approach to life. The celebrated Pakistani music director Hassan Latif was his student, and a friend of mine. He used to say that in his lifetime, Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan earned millions but never kept a penny. He never married. Whatever he was paid as performance fee, he would distribute among those whose need he thought was greater than his. He would always dress immaculately in finely tailored English suits. Once, Hassan Latif recalled, the Ustad left the house, fully dressed, including a top coat as it was winter, but when he returned all he had on were his undergarments. “What happened to the clothes, Khan sahib?” Hassan Latif asked. “There was a beggar by the roadside shivering in the cold, so I gave him all I was wearing.”

He also took under his wing one of the greatest ghazal singers of our time, Farida Khanum. His voice has been compared with the roar of a lion. His notes would be delivered deep down his chest. I saw Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan only once. He was slim and dark. When I came upon him, he was wearing a white sharkskin suit, black shoes and a sheepskin cap. He was absorbed in himself, shaking his head from side to side as he walked into a side street from the main Hira Mandi bazaar.

Now only the memory of those great men lives and only with those who care about such things and such people.

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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