The genius of Baig lies in a number of facts. The fact that he did not have scholarly education and was actually the product of Maktab based education in UP, yet so accepted was his status as a man of knowledge that a majority not just assumed that he was a trained scholar but revered him as one.
It is fascinating that a single man could have tapped into so many areas of his brain that he had simultaneous grip over subjects as varied as wildlife, ancient mythology, anthropology, scientific discoveries or simply the people of the world. And was also a writer, a prolific documentary film maker and one of the most well-known faces of the Pakistani intelligentsia. The fact that he did this in an era when search engines did not exist, he could have easily put many a google to shame. And most importantly, that Baig did this all in the most pleasant of ways. Winning humility, undisputed finesse, articulate speech and that amiable smile. It is no small wonder that there was no street of Pakistan on which he would walk and go unrecognised.
Rumana Husain, an artist, says, “We knew him as a living encyclopedia but his other loves were nature, the environment, heritage. He had the answers on his finger tips for such diverse subjects, and that never ceased to amaze me. He was such a gentle and patient listener too. In my opinion he connected well with the masses because of his humility.”
Kasauti had a monumental and lasting impact on the nation. It was a program that was intellectually stimulating, yet had mass appeal. Usually, the packaging of intelligent information in media lacks the quality that makes people relate to it. Brainy shows for thinkers are always a bit boring to the average person. Too academic, lacking the outreach quality. Often, if not always, the best brains are happy in their comfort zone bubbles of academia, research and like-minded people. They’d rather not venture into the common-brain zone. And the common man is happy not having to tax their brains too much. Polarisation in effect. But Obaidullah Baig, Iftikhar Arif and Quraishpur’s trio changed all of that with this show that started in 1967. They made knowledge trendy. They made history, literature and the effects of these on society interesting. In a country that has sadly maintained its dismal rate of literacy; the show not only educated the masses but got the common man thinking.
Ghazi Salahuddin, Baig’s friend and comrade of 55 years and renowned journalist, anchored the second phase of Kasauti in the ‘90s. He thinks the same Kasauti would be obsolete today. “People’s attention spans are much shorter. Their interests have moved on to sports, technology and fashion. If today a quiz show like Kasauti were to be produced, the questions would be different, as would be the audience,” says Salahuddin, with a hint of disillusionment in his words.
Baig’s loss becomes much more profound when we realise the truth in Salahuddin’s words when he says’ “the real crisis in this country is the intellectual and moral decline.” With fewer and fewer people reading books in Pakistan, Baig as an archetypical role model becomes even rarer. With lesser people like him being churned out with each subsequent generation, his shadow looms large over the world of knowledge in Pakistan – an irreplaceable shadow. Here was a man who taught by example that even without formal higher education, a person could develop his mental faculties and build his reservoir of knowledge if he chooses to. Baig set precedents; precedents that need to be followed if we want a better society of thinking, well-rounded individuals.
Digressing a little, when I asked Salahuddin on what he blames this love lost for reading in Pakistan, he vehemently rejects the theory that it is due to the internet. “World over, people have access to the net. More than Pakistan. They tweet and facebook and still read. The bookshops maybe in danger, as is the romance of the hard copy of books with the advent of Amazon and the Kindle. But fact remains that more books are being authored globally than ever before,” he says. In his eyes, Pakistan’s reasons are illiteracy, the loss of our grip over both Urdu and English languages and misunderstood religiosity that discourages free thought.
In losing the man called Obaidullah Baig, Pakistan lost more than a beautiful mind. The juncture at which we have lost him is ironic. His death, in the words of Salahuddin, is “symbolic”. Symbolic of a nation’s intellectual decline.
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