Art? It’s dead Over the top
Mehdi Hassan is dead. So is the great and refined art of Ghazal singing. After a long and painful struggle with multiple diseases, lasting well over a dozen years, half a dozen hospitalisations and countless medications, his body eventually gave up. There are millions who have listened to and loved his impeccable and tasteful style of singing and with over 12,000 recordings he does stand in solitary splendor.
The newspapers have been full of condolences and countless articles about his pristine art and unique talent. One critic said, ‘the voice, the lyrics, the tune all enmesh to tug at the heart, and when language and country are no longer barriers, when style and form no longer matter and when the tears roll down and we are no longer aware of it….that was the music of Mehdi Hassan.’
But the feeling I am left with is one of anger because all those who are in positions of authority and influence and who are now bleating about, their eyes full of false tears, their faces portraying transitory grief are the very people who did nothing for Mehdi Hassan. There is talk of naming a road after him, a chair in a university and other well meaning gestures but my point is, where were these people when Mehdi Hassan was alive and later when we was fighting a losing battle? It is easy now for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Barrister Masood Kausar to say that the nation has been deprived of a towering personality but what did he or his government ever do to further the cause Mehdi Hassan advocated so passionately?
Of course when such tragedies occur many jump on the band wagon hoping to claim their 10 seconds of fame and photo op. The Sindh CM and his numerous flunkies have wasted little time to hang their heads in grief and look shattered. These gents, in whose province Mehdi Hassan lived and died, will not give five rupees towards his treatment but will happily blow 500,000 on a night of revelry, drinking and partying. Genuine art? Forget it. Even former President Pervez Musharraf is bereaved – might one add for just a few seconds. With us it is only the ritual that matters.
This is why we are so rotten and such hypocrites. The arts have particularly had a horrible time in Pakistan, the national stepchild as it were. While there has been incessant talk of how our dying heritage needs to be preserved and promoted – you all know the standard drill on subjects such as these, the arts and their brave practitioners have suffered pain, poverty, prejudice and disrespect. One after another we have crushed our poets, painters, singers, musicians, dancers and all those who breathe life into the arts. Today we have a barren cultural landscape. Our great masters of yesterday lie buried in forgotten graves, their names and their art more and more alien to millions who have no clue what heritage was once ours.
Musicians for example are not business-savvy. Most have no idea of how to deal with the ins and outs of financial wheeling dealing. The genuine ones are lost in their world and need all the support they can get because they are special. Their message invariably is love, their art created to remove barriers, overcome injustice, tyranny and bigotry. Tossed about they are helpless and only a few by dint of fortune or some lucky stroke of fate survive and even occasionally thrive – but this is rare.
Mehdi Hassan won three prestigious national awards, a Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, a Pride of Performance and a Hilal-e-Imtiaz. In 1979 he was given K L Saigal Award in Jullunder. Four years later the Nepalese government conferred on him the coveted Gorkha Dakshan Bahu. But awards don’t put food on the table. Mehdi Hassan faced considerable problems. I recall that Jagjit Singh came from India to perform and raise funds for him but his wonderful example neither inspired nor shamed us. Within Pakistan we did next to nothing. Commando President announced a cash award but I am pretty certain it never arrived. On top of it, thieves broke into Mehdi Hassan’s home and decamped with whatever he had.
I have talked more about Mehdi Hassan because it is the recent most addition in our book of national shame. They want to build some road with his name on it as they did for Madam Nur Jehan but what good is it going to do him or Madam? Why didn’t they name one when they were alive? How much pleasure it would have given the artists? What about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his beloved Faisalabad? What great monument has come up there to honor him? Are their birthdays celebrated with elaborate concerts nationwide where new artists pay their respects and relive their art?
When BB was in power, Madam asked me to write a column requesting the PM to grant her an NOC for travel abroad – like Lata had in India. I did, sent copies to BB. The net result was a big fat zero. BB missed a great opportunity and Madam trudged from petty clerk to petty clerk getting their signatures. Our reviling of the arts started just as soon as Pakistan did.
We hated writers like Manto. His writings disturbed us and so we cast him into oblivion. Manto died in poverty, his art, too genuine to be buried rose and today the world knows his caliber. His work of course remains banned in textbooks and official media. Shame on us. Faiz spent more time in jails on false charges and then was forced into exile. He is a national icon no thanks to us.
The list of our great heroes we have scorned is pathetically large. Pathanay Khan, a great Seraiki folk singer whose kafis were based on the Sufi poetry of Khawaja Ghulam Farid and Shah Hussain didn’t even have money to support his family. Poverty ridden he collapsed in a rickshaw and died in Kot Addu. Our now defamed Pir of Multan has done zero for Khan Sahib I am sure. Why would he? Ustad Mohammad Juman a modern Sindhi musician and classical singer died in 1990, in Karachi, in extreme poverty and total helplessness. Actresses Romana, Nimmi, Zakir Ali Khan, Sudheer, Mazhar Shah, Pervaiz Mehdi, Jaggi Malik and Adeeb suffered in their later years and died in poverty. Romana and Nimmi were seen begging in their last days. Romana eventually died of starvation.
Ustad Zakir Ali Khan, brother of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, passed away in abject poverty some years ago. He continued to wait for days on end for his meagre amount cheques to clear. He passed away in grief and disbelief that it was not possible that no one had come to his help, considering his contributions in the field of music. Singers and musicians of different gharanas (families), like Sham Churasi, Gawalior, Patiala and others, had devoted their lives to promote folk/traditional music. But now many have abandoned their profession in search of better livelihood. Ustad Amanat Ali Khan died in poverty. As I said the list is painfully long.
Moeen Akhtar, Papu Bural, Liaqat Soldier and Mastana are dead. Living legends like Reshma, Ali Ijaz, Roohi Bano, Humayun Qureshi, Alamgir and Afzal Ahmed, are all suffering in one way or another but we cannot be pushed. Nasir Kazimi died in March 1972 but was not eligible for medical treatment. Few people remember that the writers and intellectuals of Lahore had to come to the streets to demand a monthly allowance for the family. It never arrived. Nasir’s death almost coincided with the passing away of poet Majeed Amjad, but whether Amjad got any help is not known.
The poetry of Khwaja Shahid Naseer, an exact contemporary of Nasir Kazimi, combined classical diction with lyricism of the highest order. Working as a petty clerk, he died in 1973. His only daughter died of cancer and what happened to his family is heartbreaking. Naseer’s works remain unpublished. Ahmad Rahi, the finest post-Independence Punjabi poet too died in abject poverty and Ustad Hafeez Khan Talwandi, the last practitioner of the Dhurpad singing in Pakistan died three years ago. The family did not have enough money for a decent burial.
And the sad stories go on. We have no art – just tanks, rockets, jets, submarines and what I call ‘the Kulfis.’ This is all the art we need. This government and the ones before it – indeed the ones after it too, will pay lip service to the arts but nothing else. There is a lot that needs to be done on a self sustaining, institutional scale but don’t lose sleep over it. It won’t happen. Neither society nor the government will help. The arts will continue to wither. One day they will be completely dead.