He has composed, acted, sung and taught. He is a good conversationalist as well if one is inclined to add that to the list. However, Arshad Mahmud chose his first love, music, as his career and accomplished a great deal in the past four decades, give or take a few years. His love for Faiz, who played an important role in his life, is obvious, as he refers to him at regular intervals in our conversation.
Mahmud says music has been his lifeline forever. He grew up with it. Everyone in the family was against his taking it up as a career. “My mother didn’t know I was composing music and discovered my secret in 1989 and immensely liked one of the songs I had composed, and ultimately accepted the fact that her son couldn’t live without it.” Realisation of his potential for music came in 1972 when he had just begun composing for the PTV. “Do you know that I could play the harmonium at the age of five on my own?” he asks proudly.
A product of the PTV, he says he wouldn’t be what he is today without its help; he has fond memories of the organisation while working at Lahore and Karachi stations, but he could never manage good relations with its establishment. “I do not find today’s comedy programmes very funny as there is a lot of overacting. My acting career began with Aangan Terha, which was a comedy and no one over-acted in it. Before that was Such Gup, a comedy show which was extremely popular and clicked because the team was good.”
All artistic pursuits, he says, are collaborative and work well when talent, script, acting and production are combined. In the initial stage of his career he composed Nayyara Noor’s songs in Such Gup, and later composed music for Akkar Bakkar Bambay Bo, which preceded Such Gup.
For a composer the most important thing is the muse — when it comes that’s when creative music is made, emphasises Mahmud. “Technology does not make a difference; it is the talent in you that brings out everything. Your talent can’t be subdued and the pleasure of doing something can’t be taken away. The melodic structure comes when you are alone because it is a process that is laborious and demands total involvement.”
He composes music according to the requirements of the voice and emphasises that musical instruments and human voices have their own individual areas in which they sound the sweetest. Composing for a person according to her/his range is essential to get the best out of them.”
He has also composed national songs and says that a composer can compose any type of music for any genre. Music is a means of communication, so if it is a ghazal the music should convey feelings. Background music has to have a theme, such as the long play Choti Choti Batein directed by Sahira Kazmi, and the serial Tanhaiyan by Shehzad Khalil, both had original background music for the first time in the history of PTV. It was a milestone for the PTV and Arshad Mahmud as well since he had composed the music. His compositions for the SAF games in 2001 received raving reviews. As it was played in a huge ground the music was, in his own words, “inflated”. The stories were enacted in ballet form and were based on a blind dolphin and a bear, Saifal-Muluk and Sassi Punnu. “The space was huge and there were a lot of problems. Movement for the performers was difficult as the space had to be covered quickly and composing according to that was equally difficult, but I did it. Orchestration-wise it was fantastic with nearly 30 musicians participating.”
His association with film acting has been brief, the most prominent ones being Inteha and Khamoosh Pani.
How does he find composing music for orchestras? “I teach it at Napa, it is interesting but, unfortunately, orchestra music has never had too many sponsors as it is not popular with the masses, thus there is no national orchestra in this country.” He is hopeful that there will be one in a few years and that the national orchestra can eventually perform for visiting foreign dignitaries as it does in other countries.”
He feels quite at home doing jingles for commercials just as he does composing music for poets. “I have composed for Faiz and am still asked to do commercials which shows I can cope well with both.” As for the change in the prevailing music, Mahmood feels that one should not control the trend, it should be allowed to flow with the times.
Mahmud’s biggest ambition in life is to see Napa becoming an outstanding academy; if not a world class then at least the best in the region,.“This is my dream,” he says starry-eyed. He plans to make another album of Faiz’s poetry, something that has been in the pipeline for years but its implementation tends to take a backseat due to his busy schedule. He plans to use his students in its making. “Our youth has to be involved in everything as they need to carry the torch further: in the words of Faiz ‘Qatl gahon say chun kar hamaray alam, aur niklain gay ushhaq kay qaflay.”
He emphasises that the purpose of his teaching in Napa is to give sanctity to the professions related to performing arts, in an institution where students should be disciplined and hardworking. “Performing arts actually consist of music, dance and theatre and an institution should have the best teachers to train and impart knowledge. We have the best and have also invited Naheed Siddiqi to teach dance.” Placing Napa on a scale of 5 to 6 he wants to take it to 10 quality-wise.
Mahmud is satisfied with life but not with his achievements. He feels one can never be satisfied and thus one strives to do more and more. “In life, my wife, my children and my car give me immense satisfaction, but I cannot say the same for my music.”
He is unique in that though he has not done music for films, he has composed for four great poets: Amir Khusro, Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz, focusing specially on nazm, as it has a style of its own. “Dasht-i-tanhai, Mujh sey pheli si mohabbat, Aik bar phir kaho are great nazms composed by others. I did Bahar aiee, Aaj bazaar mein, Utho ab mati say utho and had to work on them a lot.”
Mahmud recalls Faiz’s name with fondness and exclaims that Faiz was like a father and meant a lot to him. “I knew Faiz Sahib before I knew his poetry. If Faiz was not a poet he would still be a great man.” As Mahmud matured he started understanding his poetry and his awe and respect for the poet increased. “He was a good friend, affectionate towards me and encouraged me to compose, after seeing my talent.”
He is disappointed that he did not get to spend more time with Faiz, but he was young at that time and regret always jumps in later. “I learnt a lot from him, important things such as patience, rationalising one’s problems and being cheerful, even in the face of adversity. This has stood me in good stead today, as it will in the coming years.”