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DAWN - Features; July 08, 2008

July 08, 2008

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Z.A. Bukhari: from ‘Chief Moulvi’ to director-general

By Rauf Parekh


In his memoirs Daastaan Kehte Kehte, Sabih Mohsin has penned a few sketch-like accounts of some giants of our literary and political history. One of them is of Z.A. Bukhari and the title of this piece is also borrowed from that account.

According to Sabih Sahib, the titles ‘moulvi’ and ‘munshi’ were respectable ones and were used for highly accomplished scholars only. With the passage of time, these titles lost the veneration they carried and any Tom, Dick and Harry was called ‘moulvi’ or ‘munshi.’ Ultimately, these epithets became synonymous with the persons deprived of modern education and are now sometimes used derogatively for those who are considered orthodox or old-fashioned.

This kind of cacophony makes an interesting part of diachronic semantics but I would rather restrict myself to how Bukhari Sahib became director-general from Chief Moulvi.

The government of British India replaced Calcutta’s Fort William College, established in 1800 to teach vernaculars to the British officers, with a Board of Examiners. Its offices were set up at Shimla’s army headquarters with W.W. Hunter – the renowned author of the book Our Indian Mussalmans – as its head.

Under the auspices of the board, two departments were established, one to teach Urdu and the other languages learnt by the Muslims and the other to teach Hindi and the other languages favoured by the Hindus. The head of each department was designated as ‘Chief Moulvi’ and ‘Chief Pandit’ respectively. The teachers were called Munshi.

Born into a family of ‘pirs’ (saints or spiritual guides) in 1904 in Peshawar, Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari, or Z.A. Bukhari as he was popularly known, came to Lahore after passing his matriculation exam. His elder brother Ahmed Shah Pitras Bukhari, one of Urdu’s finest humorists, lived there. At Lahore, the younger Bukhari took admission into Oriental College and completed his Munshi Fazil, the highest degree at that time in the oriental branch of knowledge.

Z.A. Bukhari in his autobiography Sarguzasht writes: “As I came out of a tea house in Peshawar, I ran into my friend Qazi. Reading a clipping from Lahore’s newspaper Tribune again and again, he was smiling. On being asked, he told me that an advertiser had invited applications, care of a post box, for someone who knew English, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Pushto and Punjabi. The mere thought that how anybody could know that many languages was making him smile. And I thought ‘well, I at least know a little of all of them.’ I stormed into a typist’s shop, typed an application and mailed it mentioning the names of Mirza Mohammad Saeed Dehlvi and Dr Mohammad Iqbal as references.”

The rest is history. The ad was from Shimla’s Board of Examiners and Bukhari Sahib was selected for the post. It was back in 1925 and he was 21. He became a ‘Munshi,’ or a teacher and was ultimately promoted as the head of the bureau of translation, which was on a par with the ‘Chief Moulvi,’ or the head of the department. Despite being associated with a noble profession like teaching, Z.A. Bukhari took part in, as someone put it, ‘vicious’ activities such as the theatrical arts.

One of Bukhari Sahib’s British students at Shimla was later posted as ADC to the then governor of Punjab. And when the government decided to run the radio in a professional manner and from London sent Lionel Fieldon – a maverick war veteran – to set up a fully-fledged broadcasting station in 1935, that student of Bukhari’s recommended and introduced him to Fieldon. Fieldon was a bohemian person and other British officers disliked him because of his non-conformity. He later recounted his stint at All India Radio in his book The Natural Bent, an extremely important source for the history of AIR and broadcasting in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The book has long been out of print and is hard to come by these days. Sabih Mohsin had translated and serialized it in an Urdu daily but till date it has not been published in book form.

For 12 announced posts 6,000 applications – written in the same old cliché-ridden style – were waiting for Fieldon to arrive in India as controller of broadcasting. Z.A. Bukhari has narrated his first encounter with Fieldon in his autobiography in a way that leaves the reader smiling. To cut a long story short, Bukhari Sahib was appointed at the newly-established AIR’s Delhi station as programme director. After independence, he was made Radio Pakistan’s first director-general. Later on he served as Pakistan Television’s general manager.

Bukhari Sahib was a workaholic. With his indefatigable energies and love for broadcasting he worked at the radio station till late into the night. Nasrullah Khan in his book Kya Qafal Jata Hai has described how Bukhari Sahib would sit with singers, guide them, compose new tunes and would even sing with them. At radio he introduced many innovative ideas. He would write many programmes and broadcast them, too.

A hard taskmaster and a man who had been immersed in culture and literature, Bukhari Sahib did not tolerate slights in broadcasting and especially emphasized the correct Urdu pronunciation. Some experts were especially hired by him to check and correct the pronunciation of artistes. During Bukhari Sahib’s tenure, the radio station was a place frequented by intellectuals, writers, musicians, poets and scholars. Bukhari had turned radio into an institution where raw hands got their early training and went ahead in search of greener pastures. A great many of them became celebrities in their respective fields. In fact Bukhari Sahib was a great institution unto himself.

Mirza Zafar-ul-Hasan, Bukhari Sahib’s friend and colleague at Radio Pakistan and a writer in his own right, published a special issue of Ghalib, a quarterly published by Idara-i-Yadgar-i-Ghalib, on Bukhari Sahib after his death. Mirza Sahib also compiled Yad-i-Yar-i-Mehrban, a book on Bukhari Sahib. Both the publications contain Bukhari Sahib’s satire columns and some transcriptions of his broadcasts, including the rare ones broadcast by him in Urdu from the BBC during his stay in London.

Z.A. Bukhari’s other books include Jo Kuchh Main Ne Kaha, a collection of his verses and Raag Darya, a book on music.

Despite all the accounts written to describe Z.A. Bukhari – a genius, a wit, a highly refined and cultured person, a stern boss, a dreadful administrator, a magnanimous friend, writer, poet, composer, singer, columnist, playwright, drama artiste, a gifted broadcaster, humorist etc. – to his near and dear ones he remained an enigma, a huge jigsaw puzzle whose many pieces were missing and which nobody could ever finish to see the whole picture.

The institution known as Z.A. Bukhari died in Karachi on July 12, 1975.