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Cultural dynasty:
The Maqsood family

Legendary writers Anwar Maqsood, Fatima Suriya Bajia and Zehra Nigah, Couturier Sughra Kazmi, cooking maestro Zubeda Tariq, pop music whiz Bilal Maqsood  and there are more.
Instep takes you on a visit into the Maqsood household to breathe in the vibe…

By Maliha Rehman

 

Partition, 1947. Muslims left their homes in India with just a few worldly possessions to start life anew in the newly formed Pakistan. Anwar Maqsood’s family migrated, taking along with them the possessions that were dearest to them; 65 boxes filled with books. From riches to rags, from a palatial home in Hyderabad, Deccan to setting up tents on the roads of Karachi, the large family – consisting of Anwer, his nine siblings, his parents, maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandmother – went through a grueling, poverty-stricken first few years in Pakistan. But while scrounging for money and setting up lanterns in the evenings because they couldn’t afford electricity, the family continued to do what they loved best; read, write, garden and paint. It was this strong genetic flair for the arts coupled with the necessity to earn money that eventually raised each and every sibling to giddy, extraordinary heights of fame and success. It’s hard to find a family as exceptionally multi-talented in the echelons of entertainment history, the world over.

This is what makes it so difficult to chronicle the lives and achievements of Anwar Maqsood’s clan. Not only are they all extremely busy individuals who are often difficult to track down but there is so much to write about each one of them. In fact, when I meet the octogenarian Fatima Suriya Bajia, she discerningly points out to me, “You’ll need months to research all that each one of us has achieved.” I nod in agreement. Each family member has done so much; repeatedly entertained, educated and entranced audiences with their artistry and set new parameters of success through their hard work.

Anwar Maqsood’s house is an ode to the family he loves and takes pride in. It’s an eye-opener. Here and there, on walls and on table-tops, in monochrome and in color, smile down some of Pakistan’s most illustrious: the prolific writer and philanthropist Fatima Suriya Bajia, the heartrending poet Zehra Nigah, the enterprising BBC journalist Sara Nackvi, the intellectualist and former Chief Secretary of Sindh Ahmad Maqsood, the pioneering bridal couturier Sughra Kazmi (Bunto’s mother-in-law, who started the bridal empire) , the cooking maestro Zubeda Tariq and Anwar Maqsood’s wife, novelist Imrana Maqsood, among others.

And then there are the images of Anwar himself. Placed amidst impressive Sadequains and M.F. Hussains, are the writer’s own sculptures and paintings. These are Anwar’s other passions, aside from writing, and he pinpoints them as his main source of income. Alongside these paintings are framed images from some of his most popular scriptwriting ventures, testament to his stellar TV career. Entire shelves are lined with musical CD’s, ranging from Indian classical music to Motown hits to the very latest. Rivaling this collection is Anwar’s assortment of books, both Urdu and English, which are stacked in shelves that take up an entire wall of a room.

This is clearly a family of book-lovers. “People collect jewelry; in our family we’ve always collected books,” smiles Anwar. “My late brother Ahmed Maqsood had about 10,000 books most of which have now gone on to my sister Zehra’s sons.” His eldest sister, Bajia, adds, “Post-partition we lived in the most impoverished conditions. While we didn’t have any worldly assets, we always had our books to sail us through. Our maternal grandfather was a poet and a very literary man. He passed on his love for reading to our mother. Even when she died, she had a book in her hand.”

With such a rich artistic and literary lineage, the later generations were bound to follow in the elders’ footsteps. The younger offspring in the clan now include an impressive array of barristers, painters, writers, cooks and educationists. Among this motley crew, Bunto Kazmi the expert bridal-wear designer, and Bilal Maqsood, the multi-faceted Strings guitarist, are probably the most well-known.
“It’s strange that no one in our family was ever formally trained for the fields that they eventually took up,” muses Bilal. “I think we all have an intrinsic, genetic leaning towards the arts. Living in an environment where writing, painting and literary discussions were the norm, it was only natural that we would eventually choose careers in similar directions.”

A genealogy in culture
It is this very genetic streak that has made Bilal’s eldest son, 13 year old Mikail, a voracious painter. Anwer, his proud grandfather, has had his sketches framed and displayed all over his house. Pointing at a very accurate likeness of the painter M.F. Hussain, Anwer elaborates, “Mikail drew this sketch when he was just nine years old. Mr Hussain was over at our house and Mikail just sat in front of him and began to sketch him. He has a gift for art and although he isn’t formally trained at all, some of the work he is doing now, at 13, is far better than what many grown painters are producing.”

What Mikail is doing today is precisely what his paternal grandfather did several decades ago. Living with his family in a congested house in Karachi’s P.I.B. Colony, Anwar took to drawing sketches on walls. “Everybody at home would constantly be fretting over finances,” remembers Anwar. “I chose to draw instead, sketching out my family members on the house’s walls. Even in our destitute circumstances we had people like Maulana Maudoodi, Sadequain and the painter Shakir Ali visit our home to meet our grandfather. When Shakir Ali saw my drawings he told me that I should fill them with color and bought me my very first paint-box.”

From painting, Anwer moved on to writing comic scripts. “The atmosphere at home would always be depressingly somber. Bajia wrote serious novels and Zehra was inclined towards poetry.
I figured that somebody ought to delve into comedy,” he says. Although Anwar started off with ghostwriting scripts for The Zia Mohyeddin Show, his first notable foray into comic script-writing came with the hilarious ‘50-50’. Director Shoaib Mansoor and Arshad Mehmood approached him to write for the show, persuading him to just pen down the antics that he pulled at home.

The rest is, of course, showbiz history. 50-50 was a huge, rollicking success and it was followed by a plethora of comic shows, dramas, parodies and occasional tussles with the government when Anwar’s scripts became a bit too politically conscious. “I’ve always just spoken the truth,” the fearless satirist declares. “I’ve never apologized for my scripts because I don’t believe I do anything wrong. I don’t make a hue and cry when my shows get banned. Instead, I come up with new ventures, often along the same formats as the previously banned show. They’re immediate hits. The audiences appreciate my sugarcoated truths although the government might not.”

Today, Anwar is famous the world over for his wit and sarcastic jibes. He is unarguably Pakistan’s leading comic script-writer and an intuitive genius who brought actors like Bushra Ansari and the late Moin Akhtar to the fore. The writer credits his success to his mother. “Amma was a very creative woman. She filled her time with reading, sewing, embroidering and gardening. In our small house in P.I.B. Colony, we had a miniscule verandah that she filled with about 200 plants. She’d water them and weed them everyday. My dedication and love for writing comes entirely from her.”

In fact, the entire family remembers the valuable lessons taught to them by their versatile mother. “My mother taught me that it was important to try to do my very best at any thing I do,” says Anwer’s youngest sister, Zubeda Tariq. “She never taught me how to cook but once I had decided that I wanted to cook well, I worked hard to make sure that I really did.”

While Anwar’s career took off early, Zubeda preferred to live a conventional married life and raise her children before ultimately becoming Pakistan’s cook extraordinaire. Through trial and error, she learnt how to cook while preparing dinners for her husband’s colleagues and friends. Eventually, her fame as a cook lead her to write cookbooks for a well-known cooking oil company and, with the influx of a myriad cooking channels, skyrocketed her to become a favorite on daily cooking shows.
“Zubaida was always more interested in housework than in reading or writing. But now she teases us all by saying that while you all write and have books to your credit, my cookbook has sold the most!” laughs her brother, Anwer.

The writers in the family
Jokes aside, there’s really no competition when it comes to the books that have emerged from this family. Zehra Nigah, Fatima Suriya Bajia and Sara Nackvi, the three prolific writers in the family, have each carved a niche of their own and have their own particular fan followings. Zehra Nigah, for one, is one of the most prominent poets of the modern-day Urdu ghazal. Her tryst with poetry began at the early age of 14 and she attended her first mushaira when she was 16, where people were taken aback by her prose and voice. Generally focusing on social and political issues, her poetry interweaves imagery with reality, in a melodic, dulcet rhythm. She has, thus far, written three poetry books, Shaam Ka Pehla Tara, Waraq and Firaq. “Zehra wrote the lyrics for Strings’ song ‘Dhaani’ and often comments on the lyrics of any new song that Bilal and Faisal come up with,” says Anwar. “She and I have a unique rapport. I call her up when I begin a script and run it by her and similarly, she calls me whenever she begins a new ghazal.”

Yet another child prodigy – there are plenty of those in this family – Fatima Suriya Bajia wrote her first novel at the age of 14. “I have been writing since I was six years old,” she tells me. Showing me her right thumb, she continues, “If you take my thumbprint, you won’t be able to see any lines. I’ve written so much that all the lines have dissolved.”

Bajia’s marriage ended early in divorce and she chose instead to become a maternal figure to her nine young brothers and sisters. Her writing career progressed on with novels and quite a few TV scripts – almost always focusing on serious, socio-political issues. With time, she also sought out a career in teaching and as a social activist. Although now, at the wizened old age of approximately 80, she hasn’t written commercially in a while, her social work continues. Her home is constantly clustered with people; lawyers, artists and social workers, all seeking her help in some matter or the other. “My life is always hectic,” she comments. “But I like it this way. And I am so proud of all my children – my brothers and sisters.”

Bajia’s late sister, Sara Nackvi, pursued a career in science until her death some five years ago. Starting off with a small job in Radio Pakistan, Sara went on to become a journalist for the BBC and assistant to scientist Abdus Salam. She was one of the rare few to be guided through the inside of a rocket by NASA’s Alan Shephard and to witness China’s nuclear program. And throughout the course of her career, she wrote in science magazines and penned books.
“I think there isn’t any other family in Pakistan where three siblings have been presented with Pride of Performance awards. Bajia, Zubeda and I received these awards but I feel they should have gone to Sara Nackvi and Sughra Kazmi,” opines Anwer. “Both of them started their careers from scratch and worked very hard to establish themselves.”

Unlike her siblings, who molded their careers out of their childhood hobbies, Sughra Kazmi never had a predilection for designing clothes in her youth. “I entered this field purely out of necessity, in order to support my family,” she states matter-of-factly. Mrs. Kazmi started off by selling rag dolls through the government’s Small Industries cooperation, headed by Bajia at the time. She dressed the rag dolls in traditional bridal wear and tribal clothes, replete with intricate embroideries and embellishments. Soon, the dolls became a highly demanded export product – and so did their clothes! Mrs. Kazmi translated her designs from doll-sized clothes to ensembles for women, ranging from everyday cottons to formals and bridal wear.

The bridal wear in particular became hugely popular and Mrs. Kazmi became a couturier for the country’s who’s who. When Bunto Kazmi joined in, the business grew all the more. Daughter of Sara Nackvi and daughter-in-law to Sughra Kazmi, Bunto expanded production and diversified the designs. “Bunto is very well-read. She brought in new inspirations and concepts to the designs,” praises her mother-in-law.

On the other hand, Bilal Maqsood’s initial foray into music wasn’t quite as hunky-dory. When Strings’ first music video released on to TV, the family’s elders were appalled. “I had my parents’ support but the rest of the family was completely opposed to my career choice,” says Bilal. “It took them a long time to accept my music.”

Upholding the family name
When Bilal Maqsood first learnt to talk, the first thing he asked his father for was a tabla. During his school days, he would visit Anwar’s office at EMI and witness the recordings of artistes like Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali Sabri and Munni Begum. A rarity in his family, Bilal was never a bookworm – he opted for music.

Bilal met Faisal Kapadia when the two were students at Karachi’s Government Commerce College. Much to their parents’ relief, the duo decided to form a band rather than do what most students were doing at the time – join a political union. But Strings’ first video on TV had the extended family in an uproar. “I told Bilal that our elders had gained respect through their literary achievements,” explains Bajia. “Why did he want his descendants to say that their grandfather had been a mere musician? In my mind, modern music was nothing but obscene music videos and lurid lyrics.”

Zehra Nigah seconds Bajia’s disdain for today’s music. “People these days appreciate nothing else but vulgarity. They’d rather listen to ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ than a well-phrased ghazal. We were afraid that Bilal’s music would also turn out to be like this.”

Luckily for Bilal, the family members were won over by Strings’ music – always melodic, with mild elements of the classical and never even remotely obscene. “Strings has never produced a particular kind of song just because it is popular. There may be a certain market for vulgar songs but we would never just do a song in order to win over audiences,” declares Bilal. “My family eventually understood this. They never had any objections to our song lyrics, which are mostly written by my father, once by Zehra Nigah and occasionally, by myself.”

Bilal’s recent song-writing venture, ‘Mein Toh Dekhoon Ga’, has his family and listeners, alike, in raptures. “The song was written with a lot of feeling and sincerity and I think the listeners realize this,” says Anwar, who, according to Bilal, is his greatest critic. “Bilal has made us proud,” smiles Bajia. “He may be a modern musician but he has upheld the family name by never doing anything vulgar.”
And for this family, upholding the family name is very serious business. Through their innumerable achievements, this family has, for decades, raised the bar and set new standards in literature, art, writing, cookery, music, et al. Anwar’s pride in his family is apparent with the way he decorates his house. Bajia keeps a thick, hardbound diary with her, scripted by her poet grandfather and filled with pages upon pages of Urdu writing. Yes, these siblings are very proud of their heritage. And with a heritage like theirs, why shouldn’t they be?