Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Vanished Cultural Landscape - A Reverie Inspired by Alamgir

Flipping channels this morning I stumbled on to a live phone interview with the 80's pop icon Alamgir on Pakistan's Hum TV channel. Listening to the conversation with him took me down a nostalgic spiral into the Pakistani music of my teens. He sang his signature toe-tapping and melodious numbers like "MeiN Ne Tumhari Gaagar Se" and "Dekha Na Tha". He was the bridge between the lively film music singers like Ahmed Rushdi and the future pop phenomenon of Nazia and Zoheb Hasan. Alamgir's Urdu pop songs with their western beats are justly considered the progenitors of Pakistani pop music. I have always particularly loved an enchanting Bengali song which he first sang on PTV in the mid-80's in a benefit concert raising money for typhoon victims in Bangladesh. I was watching that concert at the time and immediately fell in love with "Aamay Bhashaili Rey, Aamay Dubaili Rey".

Then surfing on YouTube I found this gem "Soona Soona Jeevan Apna":

This is Alamgir singing as a guest star on Anwar Maqsood's late 80's television drama serial "Aangan Terha". I have watched this video many times since the morning and find it unbearably sad for it represents a cultural landscape that has likely vanished forever. Surrounding Alamgir you see a group of actors, who in retrospect seem to me the last survivors of the disintegrating urbane old world of the shurafaa of U.P.

Transplanted to their new abode in Karachi after partition, the migrants couldn't help but bring a slice of U.P. (and Delhi, Hyderabad, Bihar and Bhopal) to this alien commercial city far from their ancestral imaginations. (Na woh saawan, na woh hariyaali, na woh jhoola, na woh sakhiyaan, na woh maanjhe ka jora, na woh thumri, na woh kabootar-bazi, na woh mushaira, na woh soz-khwani!). As they settled down, they naturally kept the flame of old traditions alive and enriched their adopted home. If you want to experience some sublime echoes of the Karachi phase of these traditions of the Urdu heartland, here are some personal favorites:
- Album of wedding songs called "Yeh Hari Hari Chooriyan" released in 1978
- Zehra Nigah's tarannum renditions of Faiz ("Jis Roz Qaza Aayegi") and Nasir Kazmi ("Gaye DinoN Ka Suragh Le Kar Kidhar Se Aaya Kidhar Gaya Woh"),
- Kajjan Begum's divine thumris "Sanwari Sooratiya Pe MeiN JaaooN Waari" and "Meherwa Ras Boondan Barse" and a Moharram Noha ("Run MeiN Jab Bano-e-Bekas Ki Sawaari Aayee")
- Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi's uncategorizable masterpiece "Aab-e-Gum". (Yusufi Sahib is Urdu's greatest living writer in my opinion. How I wish he would publish something more. It has been almost 22 years.) "Haveli", the first essay in the book is one of the best pieces of writing chronicling the manners and mores of that old Muslim U.P.(in this instance Kanpur) which in 1947 was already being upended by the steady march of time but whose demise was virtually assured by the consequences of partition. The phrase "Yeh chhorr kar aaye haiN" at the end so poignantly illustrates the grand tragedy of human existence on a miniature scale that it is hard to choke back tears whenever I read it.

But this long-winded reverie orginated with Alamgir's song and the actors in the video. It is because several of the actors in this clip like Shakeel, Mahmood Ali and Salim Nasir along with playrights like Anwar Maqsood were amongst those who familiarized the rest of Pakistan to that old country Urdu-speaking culture. To a child like me sitting in Lahore, turning the television set on and watching the Karachi dramas of Haseena Moin, Fatima Surayya Bajia, Anwar Maqsood, Khawaja Moinuddin and Athar Shah Khan opened the window to another world of refined culture, proper diction and humor steeped in an almost impossible command of spoken literary idiom. Even the street patois of the less literate characters seemed somehow more sweet. Today, when I picture Qurban Jilani, Jamshed Ansari or Azra Sherwani in Uncle Urfi, Salim Nasir in Aangan Terha, Mahmood Ali in Taleem-e-BaalighaN and Shakeel and Neelofer Aleem in Shehzori I imagine them as the last unknowing flag-bearers of the Muslim Urdu culture of Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Aligarh and countless smaller U.P. cities that produced their own leading lights. Both Salim Nasir and Mahmood Ali have passed away. So have Subhani BaYounas, Jamshed Ansari, Azra Sherwani, Ishrat Hashmi, Arsh-e-Munir, Qurban Jilani and Begum Khurshid Mirza. Shakeel, Talat Hussain and Qazi Wajid continue to work along with some of the writers like Anwar Maqsood and occasionally Haseena Moin. But in Karachi too, once the original generation of Urdu-speaking migrants passes from the scene we will increasingly look back at the golden period of PTV dramas from the late 60's to the late 80's as the dying flicker of a culture that has long ceased to exist in the Indian cities of its birth but was not able to take root in its new home either.

Perhaps that was never a realistic expectation but many children and grandchildren of the U.P. migrants are barely aware of what has been lost and the state's general deterioration will ensure that the original legacy will almost completely peter out in another generation. Even though as an ethnic Punjabi I am not a direct cultural descendant of the Urdu-speaking Muslims, no one interested in the cultural history of Urdu and of Muslims in India can be indifferent to this tragic loss.


ajnabi said...

Fawad sahib,

the dying flicker of a culture that has long ceased to exist in the Indian cities of its birth but was not able to take root in its new home either.

That is very beautifully expressed and sad! You give me something more to worry about...the loss of Nafees Urdu culture.

temporal said...


lost in silly valley said...

He Fawad,
can you help find this song ""Aamay Bhashaili Rey, Aamay Dubaili Rey". "

Fawad Zakariya said...

Prashant, I have tried to find it for years without success. I think it was a live benefit performance and a recording may be somewhere in PTV archives.

Years later I realized the composition was exactly that of the Hemant Kumar sung, Salil Chowdhry composed song, "Ganga aaye kahaN say, Ganga Jaye KahaN ray" from the film "Kabuliwala", starring one of my all-time favorite Indian actors, Balraj Sahni. One of these days I want to write a piece on that Rawalpindi-born intellectual artist.