“Urdu will survive as a spoken language”
By Arif Waqar
Raza Ali Abidi migrated
from Roorki, India, to Karachi as an 11 year old boy and discovered his
story-telling abilities during his early teens. He started his career as a
translator and proof-reader in the daily Jang, under the watchful but
benign supervision of Mir Khalilur Rehman, and gradually rose to the
status of a news editor.
1972 was a watershed
year in his life when he moved to broadcast journalism and joined the BBC
Urdu Service in Bush House London. In addition to his routine broadcasts
of news and current affairs, he produced four major documentary series,
all of which appeared in book form at a later stage. A compulsive
traveller, he is a keen observer of the phenomena around him. Thanks to
his radio orientation, Abidi developed a style in writing, characterised
by short and crisp sentences, which was more than welcome in the print
medium. His pen has produced genres as varied and diverse as travelogues,
short stories, features, documentaries on popular music and, most
importantly, children’s literature.
Even a casual glance at
his works shows us a tremendous variety of subjects: Apni Awaz and Jan
Sahib are collections of his short stories; Jahazi Bhai is history and
travel; Janay Pehchaney contains character sketches of Mushtaq Ahmed
Yousufi, Saqi Faruqi, Iftikhar Arif, Gopi Chand Narang and many others.
Malika Victoria aur Munshi Abdul Karim is the Queen’s affair with his
Urdu tutor, and Naghma Nigaar is a popular history of the film poetry
right from Agha Hashr and Qamar Jalalabadi to Sahir Ludhianvi and Mujrooh
He has recently
published his memoirs that tell us some interesting tales of his newspaper
nights and the radio days.
The News on Sunday: You
spent the early years of your career in print journalism. You were already
working in the editorial capacity and your style had matured as a
newspaper man when you moved to the BBC where a whole new approach was
required to convey your ideas to your listeners. How did you cope with
this change? What did you learn and unlearn in the process?
Raza Ali Abidi: Although
I was a newsman when I started my career, the process of discovering
myself never stopped. I found out right in the beginning that there was a
hidden feature writer within me. That proved to be an added quality when I
moved from the print to the electronic media. Both the skills worked so
well and the combination proved to be a real asset for a broadcasting
house which was not solely a news channel at the time when I joined the
Urdu Service of the BBC.
The best thing I learned
in my early days of broadcasting was the technique of storytelling. This
proved to be captivating and fascinated my audience. No wonder the
Americans call the news items “stories.”
TNS: Who was your ideal
in broadcast journalism? What aspect of their skill impressed you in
RAA: I was very young
when I started listening to radio. The Second World War was on and my
father used to sit glued to his radio set to find out the latest on all
the fronts. That was the time when I sat beside him and admired the great
newsreader of All India Radio, Devki Nandan Panday. I have never heard a
better radio voice since.
Back home, I was an
ardent listener of Radio Pakistan Karachi. That was the time when most of
the broadcasters tried to imitate Z.A. Bukhari. Then came S.M. Salim with
his soft and velvety voice and a natural tone that was so close to an
intimate chat; he inspires me even to this day.
TNS: Your documentary
series Sher Darya or The Lion River — a journey along the path of river
Sindh — ran for 60 consecutive weeks. If you transcribe all the scripts,
that will cover thousands of pages. How did you manage to squeeze all that
material into a compact book?
RAA: The best thing
about broadcasting is that people know only what you tell them. Every time
I ventured out to bring material to compile my radio documentaries, I came
back loaded with tons of written as well as audio material. That was the
time when the art of storytelling came to my rescue and helped me sort out
all those parts which fit into the tales of my journey. Fortunately, my
feature on the Grand Trunk Road, called the Jernaili Sadak was so popular
that my bosses gave me a free hand and I took the liberty to run my
documentary on the River Indus (Sher Darya) for sixty weeks.
TNS: There seems to be
one problem with your books though: they don’t fall into a particular
category. They are neither travelogues nor history nor geography in the
strict sense. Does this genre-defying nature of your books bother you at
RAA: I pity my
publishers who are supposed to describe the genre of the book to get their
ISBN and they always stay confused. Sometimes they call it history, at
other times they consider it a travelogue or even an autobiography.
I always say this: A
travel writer describes the scene; I invite the scene to describe itself.
That, I think is the beauty of the script basically written for radio. You
are compelled to ask the people to talk.
TNS: In the decades of
1970s and 80s, you were entrusted with the gigantic task of handling the
listeners’ mail — BBC Urdu service used to receive more than 1100
letters a week. One wonders if that many letters could be read every week.
How did you manage that?
RAA: I think the BBC
should conduct a research to find out why on earth were so many listeners
writing letters to us, and why did they kept writing when most of the
letters were never put on air. The number of letters increased to an
extent that we had to broadcast two programmes a week just to accommodate
as many letters as we could. I still remember that once the Urdu service
received 60,000 letters during the year which greatly disturbed our
competitors, the Hindi Service, just because it outnumbered the Hindi
I also remember that
once we had to hire temps just to open the envelopes and sort the letters.
Once we offered the listeners a picture postcard of the cast of our
popular programme Shaheen Club. We were flooded with requests and the BBC
had to spend a fortune on the postage. We were told later on not to print
any more postcards.
Mind you, we had a whole
department called the Audience Research where language staffs of five
people was supposed to read all letters, log them and prepare an annual
report reflecting the views of the audience. The whole department was
later moved to India and Pakistan where it was less expensive.
TNS: There has been an
acute shortage of children’s literature in Urdu. Why is it so? Is it
more difficult to write for the kids?
RAA: It is a complex
question, and so is the answer. The authors, the publishers and the book
sellers get nothing out of children’s literature. Prices are low
therefore the margin of profit is also low. If the publishers are noble
enough to pay the authors their share of royalty, it is peanuts, just
because the cover price is not more than a few rupees. So, no one bothers.
The same is true about
the electronic media: no writer wants to specialise in children’s plays
as there is neither money nor overnight popularity in this area. I cannot
recall more than a few authors who earned their name by writing for the
younger generation. A simple answer to your question is this: it is
difficult to write for children.
TNS: You have travelled
throughout the world and surveyed areas with a sizeable Urdu Diaspora.
What does the future hold for Urdu in the subcontinent and other parts of
RAA: I wrote a whole
book called ‘Urdu ka Haal’ (The Present Situation of Urdu Language) to
discuss this issue but, strangely enough, nobody took notice of the book.
It was neither discussed on any literary platform nor reviewed in the
I believe Urdu will
survive as a spoken language. Written Urdu, unfortunately, seems to have
no future: it is being overloaded with non-Urdu words, especially the
English expressions, and is losing its charm and flavour. A renowned
columnist in one of the leading Urdu newspapers in Pakistan failed to find
an Urdu word for ‘Indians’. People have just stopped using the Urdu
equivalents of everyday words. On the contrary an interesting thing is
happening in India: not only in the popular cinema but on mass media too,
the Indians are using more and more Urdu words without any hesitation.
They say ‘Khabren’ instead of ‘samachar’ and ‘shukria’ instead
TNS: You have been
wandering freely around various cities of India and Pakistan, thanks
largely to your British passport. Do you foresee a time when a common
person in South Asia would be able to travel like you?
Not in my lifetime. Can you imagine a gigantic book fair is taking
place in Karachi and more than a dozen huge Indian publishing houses are
begging for Pakistani visa and things are being delayed on one pretext or
another? Here in the UK, we have British passports but the Indian High
Commission in London considers us Pakistanis and we are treated as God
knows what, just because we once had Pakistani passports.
TNS: Your short stories
are a breed apart. Some people find them influenced by Chekov and others
see traces of Katherine Mansfield in them, but they are certainly unique
in Urdu. Do you think you are influenced by any Western or subcontinental
RAA: I read and admired
Ivan Turgenev during my teens and his short stories and novels inspired me
a lot. I read most of the French and Russian fiction and still read
European short stories from where I derived many themes.
It was the beginning of
1950s when I read Shafiq-ur-Rehman for the first time. Now I can imagine
how a boy of fourteen can be attracted to his style of romance and humour.
He certainly is my mentor.
TNS: Any future projects
in the offing?
RAA: A major book is in
the press these days based upon my first ever BBC serial called‘Kutub
Khana’. It was a major research that looks into the 19th
century Urdu books which are very well-preserved here in the
British Library. Starting from Mir Amman’s ‘Baagh-o-Bahaar’(1804)
going upto Hadi Ruswa’s ‘Umrao Jaan Ada’ (1899), this work is an
overview of the entire stock of printed books reflecting the historical
ups and downs of that turbulent century.
This series ran during
the 1970s and went on for 140 weeks due to its immense popularity. Now it
has been compiled in book form, called‘‘Kitaaben Apne Aaba ki’
(Books of our Ancestors). It contains a detailed description of more than
a hundred books with long excerpts of both prose and poetry.
TNS: After the
publication of ‘Radio ke Din’, did you feel that you forgot to include
RAA: Yes, I failed to
mention one sad story of the audio archives of the Urdu Service. Hundreds
of old tapes and discs were kept in a basement room of Bush House, the
building where the BBC World Service is based. The temperature and
atmosphere in that cellar were not suitable for preserving the tapes,
and, as we discovered in the late 1990s, fungus attacked the whole
stock so badly that the entire lot had to be destroyed. Some of it was
digitised but a big lot is lost forever. It saddens me when I think that
the destroyed material contained jewels like the first ever interview of
Dilip Kumar, the early recordings of a young Z.A. Bokhari and Balraj Sahni,
the radio plays from the 1950s, in which Qurratulain Hyder and Ijaz
Batalvi played as actors, and several other items of archival importance.
Literati for a review of The Radio Days)
Even as a teenager,
Sabeen Mahmud did not tread the beaten path. Particularly as a teenager
who had studied at the Karachi Grammar School. Her first job — at the
age of 15 — was at Solutions Unlimited, an Apple dealership where she
learned not only about the software but also happily soldered and tinkered
her way around the hardware. “I’m a tech geek,” she says without
hesitation. In her free time, just for fun, she’d accompany her father
when he took his car to the mechanic, or she’d rope in the neighbourhood
chowkidars for a game of cricket.
self-confessed “post-modern flower child and unabashed Mac snob” is
the director of T2f, which she describes as “a community space for art
and culture and the promotion of ideas of rationality, science and
evolution.” T2f is a project of PeaceNiche, a non-profit NGO founded by
Sabeen in 2007. Its website defines its raison d’etre as social change
through intellectual poverty alleviation.
The journey from tech
geek to activist-tech geek was a circuitous one. During her four years at
Lahore’s Kinnaird College, Sabeen reluctantly studied English literature
and philosophy, all the while trying to drop out. “Being at a girl’s
college was a culture shock at first, and I wasn’t interested in
studying,” she says wryly. “Now I’m firmly against formal
education.” She’d save up money and hop on the train for impromptu
visits home. Her salvation was her beloved Mac, which she’d taken with
her to Lahore, and she found herself a job designing layouts for an Asian
women’s group’s quarterly newsletter. Once a week, she’d take the
laptop, grab a rickshaw and head to the printers, and see the results of
her work materialise before her eyes. The school of life was far more
exciting than anything that college had to offer.
However, it was the
regimentation of academic life that Sabeen chafed against. “I was
intensely curious about art, music and science,” she says. Over the
years, Zaheer Kidwai, her employer at Solutions Unlimited had become her
friend (over their mutual love of Pink Floyd) and mentor. “Zac believed
that in order to provide tech solutions to your clients you first have to
immerse yourself in the arts. He encouraged his employees to accompany him
to mushairas and lectures on critical appreciation. We were also exposed
to philosophical debates at his home which was frequented by well-known
figures from the arts,” says Sabeen.
After she returned from
college, she began to once again work with Zac, but a moral dilemma began
to nag at her. “It bothered me that while in the evening I’d be
protesting some MNC’s policies, during the day I’d be sorting out
their computer systems,” says Sabeen. She looked around for something
else in which to pour her energies and it dawned on her that there was
nowhere one could find art, culture and intellectual debate under one
roof. That realisation, plus some seed money borrowed from a couple of
well-wishers set the ball rolling. The Second Floor — it was located on
the second floor of a building — thus came into existence, to be renamed
T2f two years later when it moved to its new premises, comprising the
ground and first floor.
T2f is very much an
extension of Sabeen’s personality. Individualistic, multi-dimensional,
and infused with a healthy irreverence for absolutism of any kind (except
perhaps in technology. She says, “We’re Apple evangelists, and can’t
get enough of Steve’s shiny toys”).
A sample of the
smorgasbord of events during a typical week at T2f would read something
like this: a study circle for classical Urdu poetry, an art class, an open
mic night, a musical tribute to The Beatles, a film celebrating Charles
Darwin, and a discussion about Anarchism. The place is a mecca for
emerging artistes who are given the space free of charge for rehearsals.
“After four years of
running this place, what I love most about it is that it gives a little
bit of happiness to people,” say Sabeen. “I’m also a huge believer
in the power of one, changing the world one man or one woman at a time.”
Sabeen’s ability to
think outside the box came in handy while sustaining T2f through the early
years of financial drought. “We learnt to do more with less,” she
says. “I handle all the writing and design, and both these locations
have been built without the help of an architect. I’ve taken out loans
on loans. You have to have a gambler’s nerves.”
She credits her street
smartness to her mother. “Although she spent a lot of time with me when
I was young, she let go of me at the right time.” She got her first
bicycle at the age of 7, and by next year was riding by herself to a bike
repair shop in the neighbouring locality. “Also, we had just one car
which my father would take to the office so for after-school sports
practice I had to make my own way by hitching rides with friends,” she
The fact that they
“weren’t the average KGS family” instilled the habit of living
within a limited income. She would save her weekly pocket money of five
rupees to buy accessories for her bicycle. “I’ve bought Macs on
five-year loans since 1990. Everything I wanted I had to save for, but my
mother gave me the confidence not to feel bad about it,” she says.
George Soros’ Open
Society Foundation is now funding T2f, the first time the project has been
the recipient of such funding, and the first time that Sabeen has been
able to pay herself a salary. Eight board members oversee the running of
the project whose accounts are professionally audited. “We’ve also
paid generator tax that Orix, which leased us the generator, had never
even heard of,” says Sabeen.
Revenue for T2f is also
generated through proceeds from performances (usually split down the
middle with the artistes), donations, the on-site café, and the sale of
limited edition T2f T-shirts etc.
While she believes that
Karachi could do with more such spaces and has herself been offered a
place in a considerably more middle-class area to open another T2f, she
believes that PeaceNiche is not financially secure enough to handle two
places. “In any case, I don’t need to go there to validate our
existence as an NGO or to attract people from varied socio-economic
backgrounds,” she says firmly. “There are darzis and sabziwalas in
this street too, but they need to cross this threshold and we need to draw
them in. That’s why I’d like to put up an art exhibition on the walls
She finds it gratifying
to see the ownership that people take of T2f. “I’ve had people come up
to me and say we learn more here than we do at college. That kind of
statement is my sustenance,” says the social entrepreneur who has little
patience with formal pedagogy.
As a T2f T-shirt
succinctly says, “T2f: Coffee – books – conversation, Bring your
Just don’t run down
Nida Butt staged a
successful musical in Karachi a few months back and wanted to bring the
show over to Lahore.
According to her own
account published in ‘Instep Today’ (November 18, 2011) she faced
great difficulties and was penalised in advance for the sins she and her
production were most likely to commit.
The performance of
‘Karachi, The Musical’ by Made for Stage was eagerly awaited in Lahore
because it happens to be an original musical. An original play has been
written and the musical score specifically composed by Hamza Jafri, unlike
the other musicals staged in the past which have been imitation of the
western plays, is a pioneering effort of sorts.
In the musicals staged
here, invariably, the musical score has been lifted and played in the
background while the actors on stage lip-synched the songs and the
compositions. The incidence of these musicals has increased because some
of the most popular ones have been made as films and the DVD copies of
these films are readily available in the local markets. It was easy to see
the production, copy the musical score and stage the production
accordingly with a creative effort more in synch with adaptation.
The musicals staged in
Pakistan like ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’,
‘Miss Saigon’ etc, all fell in the same category, though there have
been attempts at not mere lip synching, which has become almost the norm,
but at playing and singing the original score by the local musicians and
actors. The greater majority are adaptations or loose/liberal spoofs of
the plays written in other languages and presented to us in the English
All these productions
have been successful in attracting funding, reception by the audiences,
evaluation and coverage by the media, probably more successful than the
plays, which have been staged by the other theatre groups in the country.
This also vows for the great entrepreneurial abilities of the producers
and the team handling these productions compared to the other set of
producers who perhaps are more idealistic, starry-eyed and inadequately
equipped to meet with the conjoined challenge offered by economics and
It is always the mixture
of creativity and sound economical judgement that has made the performing
arts to survive. The pragmatists and the idealists are supposed to come
together in an unholy union to oversee the conversion of an idea to a form
— in this case, the production and the play; in other cases, cinema and
One was looking forward
to view this production both original in its script and in its score. As
reported, the play set in Lyari and based on the characters specific to
the urban slums of the country used language, turn of phrase, and
situations all identifiable. On top of that the original musical score
drew from the various contemporary musical influences easily referable
through the proliferation of the media and ready availability of these
musical scores and numbers.
But it was not to be —
because the authorities at the Alhamra raised certain issues regarding
censorship, which were off putting, infuriating enough to scare the
The question of
censorship has been a vexed one in the country. Originally, there were
stifling censorship norms with the district administration ultimately
responsible for censoring a performance for public viewing. But as it was
argued by the theatre and dance buffs that since cinema was censored by a
specific authority constituted for the purpose —the Censor Board — the
theatre and live shows should also be censored by
intellectuals, writers and film-makers, in short the experts from the
At the Alhamra, special
committees were formed to censor the scripts and also the production (the
dress rehearsal) a day before it opened to the public. This arrangement
continued with varying success over the decades of 1980s and 1990s,
observed more in its breach than observance. These committees constituted
writers, theatre personnel with representatives of the Home Department and
Alhamra, and were usually honorary affairs, held irregularly with constant
problems of quorum. More often than not, it eventually fell in the lap of
the Arts Council official or the Home Department personnel to vet the
production for the purposes of staging the production.
The experts started to
disengage themselves for no ideological purpose but because of lethargy,
apathy and burden of additional responsibility. This apathy was also
caused by the fact that the scripts were overly censored with hardly any
meat left and the actors found a way round them by increasing
exponentially the quantum of adlibbing. The final production, very
different from the one based on the approved limp script also varied from
production to production, depending on who was in the audience compounded
by the fear of an inspection or raid by some concerned official.
Such has been the state
of censorship in Lahore and despite all the changes in the law and the
format its execution has eventually boiled down to the tier actually
responsible in the staging of the production — that is the authorities
at the Alhamra. It has been left to their discretion as to what is fit to
be shown and what is not.
The system like other
systems has not worked according to intention and many flaws in its
execution has frustrated theatre producers, especially the amateurs who
being idealistic are not consonant with how the society functions. The
professionals have worked round the system, staging plays and shows which
may be at variance with the intended policy of the government or the
councils themselves. Contrary to the loud paranoiac chants for stricter
censorship these policies have to be reset and then made to work
guaranteeing freedom of expression.
One basic human instinct
is to remain immortal. This struggle against death manifests in multiple
forms. Ranging from archaic attempts in magic for prolonging one’s life
to inventions in the field of science for warding off illnesses are all
attempts to live forever. But man knows that his life span is a hundred
years; in fact a lot less. Thus the desire to live till eternity is
expressed through other means; one is through procreating, so that a man
remains in the world in the form of his children, grand children and so
forth; the other is through art, which guarantees a lasting life for its
Aristotle says that
“every art is concerned with giving birth”. But in the process of
art-making it is a solitary man or woman who produces a piece of work,
unlike the other scheme of creation where both man and woman take part.
Similarly writers, poets, sculptors, singers, composers, dancers and
actors perform as single person, even if at some/later stage other
individuals join the act. This makes a creative person proud of his work
and confident that it will ensure him a name till eternity. It is not
surprising that artists, often, come across as highly selfish and self-centred
people. The nature of creative process demands a focus on one’s
individuality; thus if a person becomes too engaged with himself and
dismissive of others (in some cases abandoning friends and family), it is
understandable though not appreciated.
Some artists also try to
deviate from this norm of singular productive person, a practice that can
be traced in works like the Arabian Nights, Egyptian sculptures, Ajanta
frescos, folk music and many others. Examples like Renaissance studios and
workshops of painters during the Mughal period also illustrate the way
multiple people were engaged in producing a single work, but there is a
subtle difference between the two approaches. In the European workshops of
Renaissance, artists collaborated but the final work was attributed to a
single artist. Whereas in the Mughal era, more than one painter was
involved in making a miniature and no single individual could claim to be
This duality points at
two separate societal behaviours. In the West an individual is more
important, whereas in our civilisation the collective is considered
Moving from the
‘arrogant I’ to the ‘humble we’, three artists collaborated to
create works which are being shown in the exhibition ‘Conch Curve
Creation’ from Dec 14-26, 2011, at the Drawing Room Art Gallery Lahore.
Dua Abbas, Wardha Shabbir and Ali Asad Naqvi jointly worked on 13 drawings
on paper; one among the three initiated the imagery which was extended by
The three artists have
recently graduated from the National College of Arts, and possess their
distinct styles and vocabulary.
While looking at these
joint endeavours, it was easy to detect the hand of the maker with each
image, line and stroke especially if one was familiar with their degree
shows. Thus the sensitively rendered female figures with suggestions of
seascape were unmistakeably by Dua Abbas, the intricate flora was by
Wardha Shabbir and geometric patterns were put by Ali Naqvi.
As is inevitable in such
exhibitions, some works had unity of visual material whereas several
pieces appeared as residue of their separate identities. Yet a viewer was
able to merge and mend the three components of work in his attempt to find
some sort of uniformity of imagery — but more importantly of meaning
(which seemed to be the last priority in the project). Of course, one
could question the relevance of meaning in a work of art, especially with
reference to a collaborative effort like this, because the whole idea of
working without a prior plan is to invite fresh views to formulate a new
vision (something that ideally would have been an outcome of the show, if
majority of the works did not appear variations of the same image).
Probably the absence of a theme or idea was why the works looked more like
exercises of identical nature, because once the artist is conscious of his
role, of putting a mark, he is more inclined to retain his signature
So, in a paradoxical
way, the three artists tried to melt their identities in single drawings,
but their individual contributions remained visible, rather too obvious,
at places. They were more accentuated by their choice of mark-making,
since each artist did not deviate from his or her chosen material and
medium. Without a ‘cause’ or content, these attempts were like
excursions into the unknown, without forsaking the artists’ personal
voices. Howsoever singular and strong may have been the makers’
identities, their experiment was brave in the context of our self-centred