In a crammed little room in Lyari’s Gul Mohammad Lane, Ustad Fateh Nazar, also known as Fateh Mohammad Naskandi, sits with a number of middle-aged students, talking about hitting the right notes in classical singing.
For Nazar, this is the lone legacy of his forefathers which he is keen on imparting to others before he too passes away. “I have nothing else to share,” he said, raising his hands.
"My property is worthless and distributed among my siblings, anyway. I only wish to keep classical singing alive."
Ustad Nazar, a frail looking man in his 80s, is one of the remaining few classical singers and music directors that Lyari has produced.
Apart from being one of the oldest areas of Karachi, Lyari has a rich musical history which usually gets lost amidst reports of violence that have plagued the area for a long time now.
With perceptions of the local residential environment marred by livid gangsters and burning streets, Indian classical singing in Lyari seems like an unimaginable phenomenon. But singers well versed in Indian classical music say that soon after partition it reached its peak, in terms of attracting students and artists from ethnically diverse areas of Karachi.
Over the years, Lyari’s music has mostly been influenced by the national, political and ethnic transformations that the country went through.
Through his non-linear narrative, Ustad Nazar discusses the highs and lows of the various eras and its impact on Lyariites.
“Right from our footballers to our hardworking youngsters, everybody’s interested in singing and dancing. We can’t change that about ourselves,” he adds smiling.
Post partition, Lyari became the main junction for budding and trained singers to meet, discuss and impart musical information. In the mid-1950s, musical baithaks were arranged either at someone’s home or inside vacant marriage halls.
At the time, apart from Lyari, Karachi’s other areas like the Catric Hall in Saddar, the Khaliq Dina Hall on M.A. Jinnad Road and the Adamjee Science College at Gurumandir were a few of the many places that saw people from all walks of life coming together to either play or listen to music.
Ustad Nazar, who at present patiently waits to train anyone who is willing to learn, says that many stalwarts performed to packed audiences at various colleges, schools and halls in the area.
Gradually, legendary singers like, Mehdi Hassan, who was then singing for a segment at Radio Pakistan, to eminent composers like Nihal Abdullah, began to pay frequent visits to such baithaks.
“They were the Radio superstars of that time, yet so modest. It was for the love of music, that people used to come to Lyari, to hear Hassan sahab sing,” says Ustad Nazar, smiling at the memory.
Speaking about classical singers in Karachi in general and Lyari in particular, Ustad Nazar said that, most budding singers from the area got their training from Hindu ustads. Master Mohan Lal, Maharaj Babu Lal and Master Prakash, also known as Babujee, were some of the known names who taught most classical singers in Lyari. Ustad Nazar adds,
All three of them resided in Karachi, before migrating to India a few years after the partition. They were more open about sharing their knowledge than their Muslim counterparts.
Among the Baloch, three maestros were ruling the roost in Lyari: Abdul Sattar Baloch, Nazar Mohammad and Ustad Mohammad Umar.
Ustad Umar had a music academy in Trans-Lyari (Gutter Baghicha) that inspired newbies and struggling singers. The building is still there, and now shares a floor with the football club in the area.
Though Hindi and Urdu remained the dominant languages in Indian classical singing, in Lyari, singers juxtaposed Balochi and Brahvi folk tradition with the genre, so that those less versed in Urdu and Hindi could understand the Balochi and Brahvi version of a Ghazal. Hence, despite a mix of various ethnicities in Lyari, from Kachhis, Sindhis, Pashtuns and later Urdu-Speaking migrants, Balochi became the focal language for ghazals.
One such maestro was Ustad Nazar’s father, Nazar Mohammad. Receiving his early understanding of classical music from Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1920, by singer and music director, Ram Lal, Nazar Mohammad aimed to build a music academy in the area.
After migrating to Lyari, his father eventually succeeded in building a music academy called the Nazar Mohammad Arts Circle, which lay a block away from Nazar’s present home in Gul Mohammad Lane.
Out of his four siblings, Ustad Nazar was the only one to show an interest in classical singing. He received his training from his father; however, there was a condition.
“He asked me to study and not bunk school to learn music. He asked me not to bother learning if I could not manage my education simultaneously,” he reminisces.
His father’s institute was renowned in its time, Ustad Nazar says, and anyone who showed enough interest in the genre was offered lessons. Over the years, as his father grew weak and could not continue singing, the music centre’s property had to be distributed among his children.
The division left no portion for the singers who flocked the music academy, now a four-storey apartment.
Disappointed at first, Ustad Nazar moved back to his home and there even today, teaches a small number of students. On losing the centre, Ustad Nazar shrugs:
I lost the centre not my skills. So, I lost nothing.
Parallel to the rising popularity of Indian classical music was the gradual spike in crime in parts of Lyari in the early 1950s. A knife was enough back then, for young men to scare visitors or bystanders near the baithaks, and rob them. And, due to the proximity to the port area, a drug trade simultaneously started gaining momentum in Lyari. However, Ustad Fateh Nazar said that, "It never collided with the music and culture of Lyari."
Music thrived irrespective for the simple fact that most drug lords and area goons were also into music, lending support whenever they could.
The trend of learning and imparting Indian classical music went up until the 1950s, but dissipated as nationalist fervour gradually replaced it. Those quick enough to understand the changing times switched towards creating a fusion of classical and nationalist songs; as a result, songs like Raj Karay Sardar, a song about the state-sanctioned violence in Balochistan became instantly popular.
‘Strangers in their own land’
It all began in the late 1950s. A nationalist movement gained momentum in Balochistan, strengthening the narrative that the province’s accession to Pakistan was enforced. It caused a ripple effect in Lyari as mentors like Lal Buksh Rind and Akbar Barakzai stood up for the rights of people in Balochistan.
This open support for Balochistan’s autonomy helped bringing in a new league of singers. Ghulam Mohammad — a budding artist at that time and a vocalist and trainer now — was one of the singers whose song Raj Karay Sardar was sympathetic to the plight of people in Balochistan, while hinting at state orchestrated violence. Ghulam said that songs like, Chokkein Balochani (We are children of the Baloch, sung and composed by Shafi-Sattar, hailing from Lyari), went on to become a national anthem and Bachhay Ro Ro, that he sang, were instantly famous, as each song, in its own way, spoke about the pride the Baloch take in their roots, and also of becoming “strangers in their own land.”
What made the songs an instant hit with the people was the poetry. Penned by revolutionary poet Meer Gul Khan Naseer in 1948 for Balochistan, the songs were sung by many singers at baithaks in Lyari way before an audio cassette series was arranged by composer, Zahoor Khan and released by the Awaami Adabi Anjuman in 1987.
Though there were Banjo maestros like, Bilawal Belgium, who composed music and worked at Radio Pakistan, most youngsters somehow felt they were marginalised. The reason for that, Ustad Nazar said, was their accent.
We are from Lyari and as much as we look beyond this fact and want to try outside, people won’t let us forget that. So instead, we stay here and cater to an overgrowing community.
As the area saw a large number of meetings and huge public gatherings in support of the province’s autonomy, Ustad Nazar arranged, what he called, a musical ‘Sangat’ for people from the area.
“I, on my part, didn’t want any violence. People were emotional at that point, and it was necessary to make sure that the movement’s ideology is not based on murder and butchery,” he added quietly, knowing fully well the present condition of the province and the number of lives lost on a daily basis now, irrespective of ethnicity.
The nationalist fervour spilled over in the 60s and stayed for the most part of the decade only to be scattered away by the foundation of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party in 1967. “It was the era of idealism, as people came forward in hordes to sing songs for the newly found leader,” he explains, his eyes shining at the memory.
Ustad Nazar and others like him chose to acclimatise with the times but it increasingly became a bit difficult. Songs from that time onwards were inspired mostly from the word on the street, quite literally.
Bhutto’s slogan of Roti, Kapra aur Makaan became popular among the poor masses, inspiring singers to cater to the rising mania. A year after PPP was formed, songs like, “Daal Roti Khayengay, Bhutto ko Layengay” became famous, bringing in a huge business for the audio cassette shops at Lea Market.
Sung and composed in 1971, another song, Jiye Bhutto, Jiye Bhutto, Sada He Jiye, sung by Ustad M. Shafi, Sher Mohammad, and Qassim Amir sold like hotcakes in an otherwise morose atmosphere, following the events in Balochistan. Later, there were Balochi, Sindhi and Pashto interpretations of the song.
However, the famous duo, Shafi and Sattar had parted ways, days before the song was to be composed owing to Sattar’s disagreement over Shafi’s composition of the song that was praising a man who was part of a government that brought Balochistan under direct fire.
Though many thought that Bhutto’s entry in Lyari was a “well-planned” method to disperse the nationalist movement, Ghulam Mohammad says that,
Bhutto’s entry in Lyari washed away anyone who thought they had a hold in the area — the nationalists, the religious, the posers, everyone. He strummed at the heartstrings of the people; no one can match that even now.
The 1970s was the era of idealism and passion, and so all political songs had music that appeased to every generation. In such a scenario, classical music drifted in the background. And with the increasing popularity of breakdancing, the banjo, congo and drums were now being preferred at live functions.
Simultaneously, basic Balochi music, known as Leva was also becoming popular at wedding functions in the area, which was considered an “okay” form of music by the trained singers of that time.
With Bhutto’s fall and subsequent hanging, Lyari continued to thrive in terms of music, but there was an uncertainty about it now, one, which was never there before.
The authoritative regime of General Ziaul Haq was not so keen on promoting music and dance and so, just like in other parts of the country, many of the Baloch singers, hopeful of making it in the mainstream music industry, were forced to be limited to their areas.
But within the confines of their own area, no songs were composed mourning the death of Bhutto. A journalist, Shabbir Ahmed, working with a local magazine from the area, Sada-e-Lyari, said that: “People were scared of a backlash. What they couldn’t say through music, they made up for it in street power, by holding protests etc,”
People over here, don’t lose hope that easily. They always bounce back.
says Ustad Nazar, as he explains how Bhutto’s daughter Benazir brought a new era of hope, and at times, disappointment.
Following her father’s hanging, Benazir was arrested a couple of times before being allowed to leave the country in 1984. Though, she settled in London, she returned to Pakistan in April 1986 to take part in the General Elections of 1988.
Weeks before her arrival, songs were composed, tried and rejected, as the excitement continued to grow. “While she was being welcomed by jiyalas at the airport, there were some who stayed back to plan for the days ahead,” Ustad Nazar adds.
Shabana Noshi rose to stardom with her song, Dilla Teer Bijja in 1986, which still plays in Lyari, irrespective of the tumultuous relation between the Lyariites and PPP cadre. However, the person who penned the poetry of the song, Hazrat Shah, died a decade later in his home, unrecognised for his efforts.
The very next year, Benazir’s wedding to Asif Ali Zardari at Kakri Ground in Lyari saw people from all parts of Karachi in attendance. It also presented an opportunity to a new crop of singers. One of the prominent singers of that time, Abida Khanam was asked to sing at the wedding which she did, amid loud cheers from the guests.
Lyariites belted out a song for any and all occasions – right from Bhutto’s wedding, to her becoming one of the youngest prime ministers in the country. Balochi and Sindhi songs were sung by local volunteers in the area which resulted in songs like, Ajj Tay Thee Vayi Bhutto Bhutto and Wazeere Azam Benazirein.
Ustad Nazar said,
If given a chance, Lyarrites would have sung about Zia’s sudden death in a plane crash too. But sadly, it didn’t happen.
It was Benazir’s death on December 27, 2008, just two months after her arrival that saw audio cassettes of her speeches being composed and sold in bulk in Lyari, while there was utter sadness all around.
Not commenting on Benazir’s death, Ustad Nazar spoke about the 80s instead. “Though the Zia era saw many street battles between Lyariites and the authorities; the gangs, in the meantime were also grouping up.”
Of Legends and Myths
Going back a bit, Kaala Naag was one of the notorious gangsters in Lyari who was known to be one of a kind. Running a network of pick-pockets and drug peddlers, he trained two boys from the area, Sheru and Dadal, who apart from being dacoits, were also known for taking care of the neighborhood.
Though Naag invested a lot of trust in the two, he could not ignore reports of their taking over his business, and concurrently running a gang of their own. With Kaala Naag’s death and his son’s subsequent taking over the business, battles between gangs became common.
A senior member of the PPP said that the area did not see any drastic changes during the presence of gangsters like Kaala Naag’s son, Allah Buksh and his partner Iqbal Babu. But it was in recent years, since the formation of the Peoples Aman Committee, that the area went through a stark transformation.
With the formation of PAC in 2008 by a transporter-turned-gangster named Faiz Mohammad alias Mama Faizo, the political and criminal dynamics of Karachi had very much altered. All over the city targeted killings and kidnappings became a norm, as various militant factions of political parties fought to protect their turf.
With a bitter struggle for territory and power lying just beneath the surface, a new series of ominous sounding songs started coming to the fore in Lyari. Scared to say something controversial, Ghulam Mohammad said that, things changed with time, “these songs are now part of Lyari, reflecting on what this city has become today.”
The most famous among these are the ones dedicated to the PAC leader, Uzair Jan Baloch. He took the reins of PAC after his father, Mama Faizo, was killed and dumped in Machhar Colony by Mohammad Arshad alias Arshad Pappu’s gang.
At present, there is, what many call, a political fight between two political parties being fought in Lyari. Connected to that, songs popularising the turf war have become part of everyday life.
One of the most famous among these songs is, Lyari Main Rehna Hai Toh, Uzair Bhai Kehna Hai by Abid Raaz, or the most recent, Doodh Maango Ge Kheer Daingay, Lyari Maango Gay Cheer Daingay. And it doesn't take a lot of effort to understand who these songs are meant for.
A music shopkeeper at one of the few remaining older shops at Lea Market, Ghulam Haider said that, there are three remaining production houses in the area. Mehran Music, Balochistan Music Center and Nisar Music Center are the only ones properly working at the moment. “Others couldn’t sustain here for a long time,” he adds.
During the electioneering months this year, a DVD of songs praising the PAC leader was released by a composer named Abdul Raheem PIA. One of the most famous songs was fashioned on Indian movie Rowdy Rathore’s song Chin Ta Ta Chita Chita with Balochi and Urdu lyrics sung by Abid Raaz. The song came just a month before elections when the PPP-Lyari romance had hit an all time low after the infamous operation in April 2012. Though the police failed to carry it out a successfully, Uzair’s prestige among the Lyariites bolstered henceforth.
“It was one of those fun songs,” says Ghulam Haider laughing, but adds, “however, this is not the real history of our music, it is way more sensible than this!”
For the first time in decades, there were no Jiye Bhutto slogans or Dilla Teer Bijja songs to dance to in Lyari during elections.
A series of albums called, Aman ka Paigham, were released by Abdul Raheem PIA. The songs were composed in various languages spoken in Lyari.
With the last of Ustad Nazar’s students leaving his home; and despite composing music for a number of movies like, Hammal o' Mahganj, Chimney Khan, Pyaar ka Saagar, Qurbaani and Khattu Ghar Na Aya; he says, he does not feel like making an effort anymore. As clouds gather around in Gul Mohammad Lane, Ustad Nazar goes and sits with Rasool Baksh alias Raju Bhai Jan who has a banjo repair shop in the area.
Sitting beside him, Ustad Nazar said that,
Though the area is rich with all forms of music, a lack of encouragement and rampant poverty is turning us into people we do not want to be.
“We are now left picking up the pieces of the dreams we dared to see.”