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DAWN - Features; May 29, 2008

May 29, 2008


Film industry shrank with Dhaka fall — Himayat Ali Shair

By Naseer Ahmad

A popular Lahore-based columnist recently attended a literary gathering in Karachi and, recording his observations of the event in a column, said he was dismayed to see Himayat Ali Shair ‘acting as an old man’. The comment conjured up the image of an old man with a shaking body, trembling limbs and halting speech.

Having met him at his Al-Falah residence last week, I can assure the admirers of the veteran poet that he is enjoying perfect physical and mental health. The quantum of daily work that he is still doing must be the envy of a writer half his age. Of course, one should not expect him to look the way he did decades ago sitting in the company of film actresses – a bewitching smile playing on his broad face framed by a heavy mass of tresses -- or reciting verses at mushairas (poetry recitals) with a relish. He still laughs heartily and enjoys life to the fullest. He can still have an animated discussion on subjects as diverse as the formation of the Muslim League in Dhaka, the welfare state of Canada and the film world where he spent more than 15 years.

Asked if he had supported the Muslim League as a Muslim youth in pre-partition days, he uttered an emphatic “No”. “I’m a different type of person. People from all segments of Muslim society – including Deobandi and Barelvi ulema and religious organizations -- supported Congress in its struggle for freedom from the British. In 1906, some people gathered in Dhaka and formed the Muslim League apparently out of malice against the Hindus,” says Shair.

“In 1935 Congress announced that it would abolish the feudal system when it came to power, all Muslims landlords rallied to the support of the League to save their landed properties. Look, none of the Muslim Leaguers ever went to jail,” says the poet. “They had nothing to do with Islam. Nor had they prepared any manifesto spelling out the shape of the future Muslim state.”

Talking about the popularity of post-partition films and songs, he says Pakistani poets, musicians and artistes worked with a spirit of competition.

“We thought that if the Indian poets wrote good poetry, why couldn’t we? So did everyone in their respective role. Almost every big name in poetry contributed to films. Josh, Faiz, Jalib as well as Qateel Shifai and Saifuddin Saif wrote for films. And the result was often so good that it prompted the Indians to copy our efforts. On the other side of the fence were giants like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badauni, Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi.” Shair’s songs such as Jub bhee chahain ik nayay sanchay mein dhal jatay hein log…. , Tujh ko maaloom nahin tujah ko bhala kia maaloom…, Na chhura sako gay daman …. are as popular as ever.

Although Shair is generally identified with his commercial poetry written for feature films, his literary achievements are immense. He has to his credit seven collections of poetry, including Aag mein phhool, Mitti ka qarz, Tashnagi ka safar, Haroon ki aawaz and Harf harf roshni. His four prose books include a collection of his radio and stage plays. Besides, he is the only poet in Urdu literary history who has written his autobiography, titled Aina dar aina, in verse comprising as many as 3,500 couplets spread over 400 pages. A selection of his 100 songs, Tujh ko maaloom naheen, is still in great demand and Himayat sahib is working on its new edition.

His research work for PTV titled Aqeedat ka safar (700 years of Naat poetry) has also been published. Another series shed valuable light on 50 years of Naat poetry in Pakistan. His other TV programmes included Ghazal uss nay chheri (700 years of Urdu poetry), Khushboo ka safar (500 years of regional poets’ Urdu poetry), Mohabbaton kay safeer (500 years of Sindhi poets’ Urdu poetry), Lub aazad (40 years of agitational poetry). As many as 20 of his books are unpublished and he is working on them for their possible publication.

“When Bangladesh came into being and, as a consequence, Pakistani film industry shrank, I began to look for alternative means of living. After all I had eight children, four girls and four boys, to support.

“Besides, my wife had been insisting that I switch to some ‘decent’ profession, even if it is a low-paid one, as she feared the grown-up children might follow in my footsteps and enter the film world. Her fears were not unfounded as one day I also observed my son Roshan Khayal, a university student then, sporting well-known actor Mohammad Ali’s hairdo.”

So when renowned poet Shaikh Ayaz, the then vice-chancellor of the Sindh University and an old friend of his, asked him to join the university as an associate professor, Shair accepted the offer. There he taught Urdu from 1976 to 1987, when he retired and devoted himself to literary pursuits.

The list of laurels he has reaped over the decades is also long and impressive. Beginning with the presidential award for his poetry collection Aag mein phhool in 1959, he received Nigar Awards for films Aanchal and Daman in 1962 and ’63, respectively. The other awards for his literary and film efforts included Makhdoom Mohiuddin international award in Delhi in 1989, Life Achievement Award in Washington in 2001, Pride of Performance Award, Naqoosh Award, Allama Iqbal Award, the Long Life Literary Award in New Jersey in 1994, and the Inventor of Salassi (three-line poem) Award in Chicago in 1993.

Himayat Ali Shair was born in Aurangabad on July 14, 1926. He was three years old when his mother died. His father remarried after 11 years. His step-mother was kind to him, he says and fondly remembers his younger siblings living in India. He visits them after intervals of a year or two, and he returned from India early this month. His literary interests earned him a job in All-India Radio which he had to quit as a result of post-partition Hindu-Muslim tensions. He arrived in Pakistan in 1951 and began his remarkable career with Radio Pakistan at Karachi.