Those Lahore radio days
The other day I asked an old friend how life was treating him. “I am doing fine, thanks to my three Ms,” he replied. “Three Ms?” I asked. “Yes, memories, music and martinis.” I consider that an answer equivalent of game, set, and match.
In the same area falls Abul Hasan Naghmi’s book Ye Lahore Hai (This is Lahore), published a few weeks ago by Sang-e-Meel, an evocative account of Lahore and life at Radio Pakistan as it once was. Naghmi, who has lived in America for over thirty years, physically that is, because his heart is still in Lahore which he invariably calls “that beloved city of mine”, made his name when sound radio was king as Bhai Jan Naghmi, co-host of the Sunday morning children’s programme with Apa Shamim, in real life the silver-voiced Mohni Hamid, mother of Kanwal Naseer (nee Hamid).
Naghmi spent nearly seventeen years at the Lahore station of Radio Pakistan and wrote hundreds of scripts for plays, talk, and feature programmes. His voice was at one time recognised by every child who religiously listened to the Sunday morning show. The programme, like most programmes in those days, used to go live, a high-risk enterprise when there was a roomful of children, all wanting to read a poem, tell a story or share a joke. Once, recalls Naghmi, at the height of the electoral fight between Ayub Khan and Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, two children read out a poem but before moving away from the microphone, shouted “Maadar-e-Millat Fatima Jinnah zindabad”.
The young Naghmi crossed over into Pakistan, all by himself, from his native Lucknow, carrying nothing much besides a letter from Mirza Jaffar Ali Khan Asar Lukhnawi in the name of Shaukat Thanwi asking him to help the lad get going. Shaukat, whose programme Qazi Ji had once counted even Mahatma Gandhi among its listeners, was just a staff artist, people on a contract without any benefits. How could he help the starry-eyed youngster who was confident of his literary abilities? But Naghmi was determined to get into radio, and he did.
The Lahore station of All India Radio was established in 1937 and the venue chosen was Sir Fazle Hussain’s house near Simla Pahari. That was where it stayed well into the 1960s when it moved to a new location, close to the old site. But to Naghmi the old station that no longer exists is still there. He writes, “People say that the old Lahore radio station is no longer around. Perhaps they are right, but as long as I am alive and as long as memory doesn’t forsake me, every brick of that structure will remain whole and in existence. The old place where it was once housed will never die.”
He adds: “Lahore may be just a city, but to me it is the never-ending story of feelings, events and traditions that are part of my being, circulating in my veins with my blood. Lahore is my heartbeat and when I say, ‘Ye Lahore Hai,’ I am really referring to myself because I am Lahore. Lahore is my home and the heart of that home is that piece of earth (near) Simla Pahari that the world once knew as the radio station. That piece of land will always remain green.”
Naghmi brings to life some of the great radio voices of our time. Here is Akhlaq Ahmed Delhavi, the legendary announcer. He is leaving for the day, having signed off, and he is wearing a solar hat. “Akhlaq sahib, this hat is worn as protection against sunstroke,” someone says. “Yes, but I am afraid of moon stroke.” Another person asks, “Akhlaq sahib, done your day’s duty?” “No, my duty begins now. So far, it was all entertainment. Now I will do the day’s shopping, then go home to answer my wife’s questions. My son Ainee would be asleep and I would have to induce myself to do the same.”
And here is the great Mahmood Nizami, the Lahore station’s regional director. Naghmi, in order to make ends meet – he was already married and had young children – worked for Zamindar which paid off and on and what it paid, well, it better remain unmentioned. It was Nizami who hired him as a staff artist and assured him that he would be able to make at least a couple of hundred a month. Naghmi was on cloud nine. He had arrived. Once Nizami decided to put a number on everything that the station owned so that it would be easier to do the yearly inventory. When ZA Bokhari, the director general, visited the station, he remarked that wherever he looked he found a serial number. “That is right,” Nizami replied, rubbing his bald head, “the painters, mistaking me also for radio property were about to paint a number on my scalp but I jumped out of my chair in time and ran off.”
Everyone worked for Radio Pakistan –Saadat Hasan Manto, Shaukat Thanwi, Mirza Adeeb, Sufi Tabbusum, Ashfaq Ahmed, A Hamid, Nasir Kazmi, Syed Razi Tirmazi, etc – and they were all underpaid staff artists. And then there was Lala Hafiz Javed who had lost his job at the All India Radio, Lucknow, because so mesmerised was he by a ghazal Akhtari Bai Faizabadi had just done singing that he announced on a live microphone, “Allah be praised. Your voice is like pure light. I cancel the next programme. Sing another ghazal.” Professor Ahmed Shah Bokhari, the director general, wasn’t amused. (I’d have given Lala, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the Pakistan Times in 1967-68, a double promotion.)
Naghmi writes movingly about Ustaad Amanat Ali Khan, one of his close friends. Here is a strange story that Amanat once told Naghmi. “I have seen Bageshwari with these two open eyes of mine and I have spoken to her,” he told Naghmi one day. “Bageshwari who?” Naghmi asked. “Look, all the ragas and ragnis also exist in human form, though you may or not may not see them. One night I was riding in a Tonga on my way to a concert when I noticed that an extremely beautiful woman, enticingly perfumed, ravishingly made-up, wearing gold and priceless diamonds, walking behind me. My Tonga was on a trot and it was not possible for any human being to keep pace with it but that lovely woman was walking right behind me in measured steps. ‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘I am Bageshwari,’ she replied, ‘Tonight I have decided to smile on you. Sing Bageshwari tonight and your audience will be bewitched,’ she told me. And that’s exactly what happened. I sang Bageshwari and had them swooning in the aisles,” Amanat said.
As I write this, I have an old tape I have had for thirty years, with Amanat singing Bageshwari and I assure you, only a man on whom Bageshwari has smiled could have sung it with such breathless beauty. Times, of course, have changed.
Amanat Ali Khan died young but somewhere in another dimension, there is no question he is one with the goddess Bageshwari who had once smiled on him on the streets of Lahore.