KARACHI: With the passing away of Obaidullah Baig, the country has lost more than a quiz show host.
He may have earned the most fame for Kasauti, one of the most loved programmes on PTV, but he was an eminent scholar and made his mark as a writer, columnist and documentary-maker. Most importantly, Pakistan has lost another of the dwindling generation of people for whom scholarship was its own reward and work, rather than recompense, the motivation.
Born on Sept 1, 1936, in Rampur state, UP, Obaidullah was characterised by an insatiable curiosity and concern about the world around him. This displayed itself in the many strands he followed over the course of his professional life. While much of his learning was non-formal, his ability to quietly command debate over a wide variety of subjects was respected and admired amongst those who knew him, as was his charm of manner.
Obaidullah Baig applied to work at Radio Pakistan in 1961. How he got that position is an oft-told story: the 25-year-old made no bones before the interviewers that he had no degree. Asked why he should be given the job, he presented his first novel, Aur Insaan Zinda Hai, as an answer. The volume had proved very popular, and comprised a series of short stories that had originally been published by the magazine As-Shuja under the title of Mahir Singh with Habibullah Baig as the byline. Obaidullah Baig also worked as a staff writer for the publication and wrote articles on various subjects under different bylines. His second novel, Rajput, came towards the end of his lifetime, and was well-received by critics for the high quality of research and the flair of language and style.
In 1964, Obaidullah Baig moved to PTV and embarked upon a series of documentaries on subjects, including wildlife and the environment. Amongst the ones that won awards are ‘Game Warden’, ‘Lakes of Sindh’ and ‘Wildlife in Sindh’. He went on to create documentaries for organisations other than PTV as well.
It was the show Kasauti, however, for which most Pakistanis will remember him as that turned him into a celebrity. Thought up by Obaidullah and scholar Quresh Pur, it was essentially the ‘20 questions’ game. With the latter as the programme’s anchor, Obaidullah teamed up with poet Iftikhar Arif to play the game in which a guest thinks of an object within a stated category and the guessing team has a limited number of questions that can be answered in the affirmative or the negative to make the identification.
Kasauti was picked up for PTV by Aslam Azhar, who became the managing director in 1967, and proved an instant hit.
Obaidullah was fond of recalling how, when Aslam Azhar wanted to test the guessing team’s abilities, they succeeded in a mere eight questions (it was a trident, under the category of weapons). The programme was immediately approved to be recorded and started airing shortly afterwards. After a first spell of several years, Kasauti was restarted briefly a second time during the 1990s with senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin.
Obaidullah’s work and contributions were officially recognised by the state in 2009 with a Pride of Performance award, and the following year he was honoured with PTV’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Yet he would often say that his family constituted the greatest source of pride for him. His spouse, Salma, is a senior television announcer and an Urdu teacher. The couple met in Lahore in 1974 at the Islamic Conference, where Salma had been sent by the Rawalpindi television station as a translator and announcer. They married on June 8, 1975.
Obaidullah is survived by his wife and three daughters, Mariam, Fatima and Amina.