Zia Mohyeddin column
He ought to have
been here, on these pages, in his lifetime. He was very much a part of the
list of literati we wanted to meet and interview but never actually did. It
was somehow assumed he would be there; always.
In a way he was, doing his
work, leading a fulfilling and active literary life. However, the general
public, the younger generation born after the heydays of PTV, could not place
Shehzad Ahmed. The limitations of journalism in English language are partly
to blame for why a detailed conversation with this scholar poet never came
about. Like in many such cases, we never could spot a person who was
competent enough to interview him.
Otherwise, he was only a
phone call away. And I did make that phone call about a year back to get his
impressions on A. Hameed who too was being remembered in death. He asked me
to call in twenty minutes. I kept wondering what he wanted to do in those
twenty minutes. When I called again, he started uttering
perfectly-constructed sentences, like a well-rehearsed lecture. Being
accustomed to a language of plebeian variety, it was a pleasure to hear him
speak. Later, it took a while translating those perfect phrases into English.
The urge to interview
Shehzad Ahmed grew after this brief talk.
The announcement of his
death on the Facebook came as a shock. Shehzad Ahmed’s various
contributions are being counted after his death; the obituaries far more
comprehensive in their assessment of the poet, the scholar and the
His claim to fame remained
poetry though he had degrees in the disciplines of psychology and philosophy,
both from Government College Lahore. It was the institution that must have
culled out the poet in him. His first collection of poems Sadaf came rather
It was at Government
College that he met Zafar Iqbal, a giant of a poet, and they became friends
for life. Iqbal claims to have learnt a lot from him in poetry. “In his
early years as a poet, he was quite impressed by Allama Iqbal but later he
found a voice of his own and became known for it.”
Their friendship lasted for
59 years. “As a poet, he was steeped in tradition but he took it forward by
imbuing it with modernism,” he remembers. “His poetry was cerebral,
thoughtful, relying also on psychology and philosophy,” says Iqbal, adding
this might have brought dullness to his poems but he did not stop writing.
Critics would take an
exaggerated view of this dullness but Shehzad Ahmed remained a successful
poet who went on to publish a dozen books of poetry. He was also a mushaira
person and was considered an important poet. He was what Zafar Iqbal called a
This aspect of his
personality had something to with Amritsar, the place where he was born,
according to Dr Saleem Akhtar. “He was a great friend, a witty man with a
brilliant sense of humour who also used to love food. A famous anecdote goes
that once when he was required to wear glasses for the first time, Sufi
Tabassum remarked, “Yaar Shehzad, this makes you look like a bijju
(hyena)” and Shehzad Ahmed retorted: “Sufi Sahib, if I take the glasses
off, you will look like a bijju to me”.”
Akhtar agrees with Iqbal
that he gave us the modern ghazal and in that he stood alongside Nasir Kazmi,
Ahmed Faraz and also Zafar Iqbal. “Mindful of tradition, he made sure that
while the basic structure of ghazal remained intact, he still presents the
modern sensibility, using images and similes that keep haunting you long
after you’ve read the poem.”
It is strange that with
this kind of reputation as a poet, today, not one of his poetry collections
is available in the bigger book shops of Lahore. His prominent collections
apart from Sadaf include Jalti Bhujti Ankhain, Tuta Huwa Pal, Utray Meri Khak
per Sitare and Bichr Janay Ki Rut.
Other than poetry, his
preoccupations that have not received as much attention are his academic work
related to psychology and science, particularly physics and astrophysics, as
well as his work as a translator. Akhtar recalls that he was a student of Dr
Ajmal in psychology and did some original work on Freud, his daughter Anna
Freud, Jung, Erich Fromm and others. He wrote about eight nine books on
psychology/parapsychology and all of it was research work. His work as a
translator has not been acknowledged; one of the famous books he translated
was that of Dr Abdus Salam named “Arman Aur Haqiqat”.
During his last years, he
was working as a director of Majlis Tarraqiey Adab and he ran the institution
with utmost care and perfection. He did many things including reprinting old
works, finding new authors etc. “He did not have the temperament for a
regular job and called himself a “free spirit” but in his later years,
because of health issues, he chose to work at a public sector institution
because of the regular salary it entailed,” says Dr Saleem Akhtar.
Shehzad Ahmed had a heart
attack in 1984 and became clinically dead for some time. This often happens
to people but he claimed to have “experienced” this bout with death and
then coming back to life. He confided in Dr Saleem Akhtar that in this
interval he found himself in a strange place. “He was frightened when a
voice commanded him to fly. He said he could not but the voice insisted and
he attempted and, after a little effort, he started to fly perfectly. It was
at this moment that the electric shock revived his heart and he came back to
Ahmed’s subsequent years
were spent with a sense of purpose because he believed “God had given him
another life for a reason” and he worked with renewed energy.
This time, it looks, we
have lost this soft-spoken, mild-mannered intellectual for good.
Many of us spend
our childhood and the greater part of our adolescence reading western authors
such as Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and move on to authors such as John
Grisham and Jeffrey Archer.
The transition to reading
contemporary South Asian writers writing in the English language such as
Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Arundhati Roy has varying effects on
different people. For some, the experience helps to shape their perceptions
of identity and authenticity.
Noor Ejaz Chaudhry, who
recently completed her A Levels from the Lahore Grammar School, grew up
reading authors like Roald Dahl and abridged versions of classics such as
Jane Eyre and Emma. Pertaining to the effect reading South Asian writers had
on her, she said, “I could relate to these authors in more ways than one,
primarily because of the social setting they present. The people in these
books have an air of vivid reality while the context depicted by western
authors is relatively Utopian. A plethora of emotions captivates you as you
read these books because you can picture these things happening right before
your eyes.” Noor’s transition has had a profound and far-reaching impact
“I’ve realised the importance of local literature and culture.
I’ve seen what ‘depth in writing’ really means. Since the ninth grade
when I read my first South Asian writer, Bapsi Sidhwa, I haven’t once
touched a book written by a western author; that is the level to which I’m
taken by South Asian literature. More so, this transition has pushed me to
venture into the world of Urdu literature.”
In contrast, others have
had divergent experiences. “I could relate better to some descriptions of
family life, social pressures and geographic landmarks. Beyond that, I
actually preferred western fiction. When I read The Secret Seven, The Famous
Five or more mature books by Jeffrey Archer, it felt like I was reading
genuine fiction that was not taking itself too seriously. Hence the books
were enjoyable for providing me with a sense of escapism. I felt these books
were universal and the themes were not restricted to one cultural realm. But
when I read South Asian writers, I felt the themes tended to be similar and
more serious than I would like in my leisure reading,”said Jazib Zahir, who
works at Tintash and teaches at LUMS.
For many, the balance does
not have to be titled in favour of either South Asian or western writers.
Quddus Mirza, renowned
painter, art critic and teacher at the National College of Arts, is no
stranger to the universal appeal of all true forms of art and books are no
exception. “I think I can relate to many writers from different countries
and languages, not necessarily only those from the subcontinent. One can
associate, identify with and connect to great pieces of literature no matter
where they are produced. The local context, vernacular background and
indigenous characters are just an extra detail — like the accent of a
language. I feel that literature touches your essence as a human being, the
deeper it reaches, the more universal it is.”
Asif Nawaz Shah, a
17-year-old A Level student studying at Aitchison College, Lahore, is of the
view that in many ways, South Asian writers like Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid
and Jhumpa Lahiri are products of a modern, westernised South Asia. “As I
was reading the works of American and British writers such as Isabelle
Allende and Iris Murdoch at the same time as I read those of South Asian
authors, I was able to appreciate the similarities between the two. Certain
writing techniques and ethnic sensibilities may distinguish the two. However,
I believe that with the exception of works like In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
by Daniyal Mueenuddin, South Asian literature often closely resembles Western
literature in terms of plot and the existential crises which the characters
may face. Mothsmoke is an example of the portrayal of a Westernised society
in South Asia.” The recognition of these similarities means that Shah can
relate equally well to both western and South Asian literature.
There is no one way in
which literature can be perceived— the fact that the reader plays an active
role in defining his or her experience alludes to its fundamental beauty and
power as an art form. The transition from reading western writers to those
from South Asia is a unique one indeed. For some, the latter speak with a
voice that is somehow ours. Others prefer the mental transportation into
another realm provided by western books. Others, still, can associate with
literature from both cultures equally well.
Khan’s name is never associated with Baroda. Baroda gained its musical
prestige because of one man. His name was Faiyaz Khan.
I became aware of Ustad
Faiyaz Khan through my cousin — and dear friend — Daud Rahbar, who as a
university student had developed a passion for classical music by listening
to all the maestros on the radio. He would, meticulously, go through the
‘Indian Listener’ (the fortnightly journal produced by All Indian Radio)
and mark out the time of major classical recitals.
When he heard Faiyaz Khan
on the radio, he forgot everything he had heard before. His rich voice, his
nom-tom alaap and the sober manner in which he expanded the raga bowled him
over. From that moment on, he practised singing like Faiyaz Khan. He
collected all the 78 RPM records of the ustad that HMV had produced and,
making sure that no one else was around, played them constantly in his room.
For him gaiki (classical singing) began and ended with Faiyaz Khan.
I remember accompanying him
on one of his walks through the deserted maidans that stretched for miles on
the outskirts of Model Town in Lahore. He would sing Faiyaz Khan’s darbari
or chayyanut with all the gusto he could muster, his right hand playing the
tabla on his chest.
Daud Rahbar’s father, an
eminent scholar of Persian and Arabic, was a professor at the Punjab
University. He was not averse to classical music (indeed, before his wife’s
untimely death, he used to hold musical soirées in his spacious house at
which the best known ustads would gather to perform) but he had now shunned
music from his life. His elder brother, my father, had not. It was because of
my father that I had been initiated into the world of classical music when I
was eight years old.
I find it extremely odd
that while I forget the name of someone I met last week I can still remember
some of the bandishes I heard seventy plus years ago. Pandit Omkarnath
Thakur’s ‘mitwa’ in raga Neelambri; Hirabai Barodekar’s ‘Chalo
milke karen...’ in raga Hindol, D.V. Paliskar’s ‘Ban mein charawat
gaiyyar’ in raga Malgunjee etc., etc.
I entered Government
College Lahore at the age of sixteen. Daud Rahbar was then a post-graduate
student, who had won distinction as a classical scholar. He was also a star
debater. He would bag medal after medal and trophy after trophy in all the
debates and declamation contests that he took part in. He wrote poetry and
excellent prose. I looked upon him as an icon. When he asked me to accompany
him on tabla, in a practice session, I felt chuffed. I dared not tell him
that I only knew the rudiments of a few taals I had learnt seven years ago
and had not practised since.
My uncle’s house was
spread over an acre and a half. It had an orchard with pomegranate and lemon
trees, a vegetable garden and a tennis court. In the hot summer afternoons we
would sit in the shade of a Jamun tree in the far corner of the tennis court
(we dared not use any of the rooms inside the house for fear of being
ridiculed) and make music. Daud Rahbar would sing Faiyaz Khan’s bandish of
‘more mandar’ in raga Jaijaivanti and I would provide elementary
one-two-three-four teentaal beat, but my efforts were always unsuccessful for
I would lose the tempo whenever he shifted from vilampt to drut. He would
start again, this time; Faiyaz Khan’s bandish in raga Lalit, ‘Tarapat
hoon jaisay...’ He would sing
in an even tempo so I could keep time. To this day I am grateful to Daud
Rahbar, my mentor in many ways, for never ticking me off about my inability
to accompany him properly.
The only other person, I
know of, who felt as passionately about Faiyaz Khan is the musicologist,
Kumar Prasad Mukherji. Curiously enough he was the same age as Daud Rahbar
when he fell under the spell of the ustad.
Like Rahbar, he too, is the son of a famous Professor — the
economist D.P. Mukherji.
In his book “The Lost
Word...” Mukherji says that when he heard Faiyaz Khan it was like a blow to
the solar plexus. He found the regal personality of Faiyaz Khan and his
command over the raga to be overwhelming. He heard him sing Yemen (we call it
Aimen) followed by Darbari. What he felt was not mere joy or ecstasy but
something that shook him to the very core of this musical being, something
that was an invasion of his soul. From that moment on he sang only in the
mould of Ustad Faiyaz Khan.
Mukherji tell us that one
of the greatest assets of Fiyaz Khan, apart from his majestic voice, was to
bring the character of the raga while allowing associated ragas to appear and
disappear. When singing Chayyanut, for example, he would flirt a while with
Kedara and Kamod, but never to disadvantage. In Jhinghoti, he would give us a
glimpse of Tilak Kamod but only a glimpse, not a close-up. For Mukherji Ustad
Faiyaz Khan was the master of ragdari. His voice, he writes, seemed to grow
in depth and dimension as it descended in the mandar saptak. “I felt as if
I had been carried on the crest of a wave to deep, deep waters. When he sang
in the faster tempo, it was like being swept away in a tornado.”
Mukherji went to Ustad
Faiyaz Khan in the hope that he would take him on as a shagird. He arrived at
the Empire hotel in Lucknow with great trepidation and only sixty nine rupees
against the hundred and one rupees (the customary amount for a poor pupil)
which itself was a trifle compared to the ustad’s usual fee in those days.
He was astonished when the ustad took the money, added thirty two rupees from
his own purse and gave it back to Mukherji, saying to himself that Allah
would promptly despatch him to Jahnnam if he robbed the pocket money of
Baroda where Faiyaz Khan
lived had no radio station. When it was installed Khan Sahib recital did not
have a time limit. The station director would often receive a call from the
palace. The Maharajah was listening with his family. Closing time would
depend on Khan Sahib.
In the section devoted to
Faiyaz Khan and the Agra gharana there are countless stories
about the ustad’s generous nature. In Mukherji’s estimation,
Faiyaz Khan possessed a charisma which does not lend itself to analysis.
Anyone remotely interested in our classical music ought to go through Kumar
Prasad Mukherji’s book. It is a treasure he is not likely to come across
ever again in his life.