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Mohammed Ali Shyhaki: Still Shyhaki-ing it!

Updated February 15, 2015


Photography: Jaffer Hasan
Photography: Jaffer Hasan

Mohammad Ali Shyhaki says he has always had a melodious voice. “When I was born, the nurses would tickle my leg as they loved to hear me cry!” he laughed. Music, he added, has been in his genes for ages as both his maternal grandfather and father had well-tuned voices.

Today, the man who made waves for more than a decade, is all but forgotten. Shyhaki, ‘the singer with the golden voice’ is sad but not bitter, saying that fate gave him as much fame as was intended for him.

The family name Shyhaki comes from his Iranian father who served at the Irani Consulate in Karachi and married a half-Iranian living in Pakistan. When Shyhaki was four, the family went back to Iran but returned in 1971, when his father was again transferred to Karachi.

“I studied at Cantt Public School and then St Patrick’s College, joined Karachi University but got admission in NED the next year and graduated as an engineer from there in 1981,” he said.

The life and times of Mohammed Ali Shyhaki, an artist who embodied an era known for long sideburns and locks, bellbottoms, fitted shirts and desi pop music

While in school he sang in school parties and in college he founded a band called Bugs which did covers of The Beatles and Elvis Presley at the Hotel Continental and at private parties. “We sang free at first to promote ourselves and became famous soon after,” he reminisced.

A star in the making

While singing at Hotel Metropole, the then GM of PTV, Abdul Karim Baloch, approached him and extended an invitation to visit the PTV Karachi centre.

“When I got there, the people at the reception wouldn’t let me in as I didn’t have the GM’s card,” he said, “I went back dejected, but Lily Raza the make-up artist at PTV, got me in later and Mr Baloch took me to producer Arfeen who was doing a live music programme with composer Karim Shahabuddin at the time. The composing, writing and singing of the song was done just before the programme went on air.” It didn’t work out. “I couldn’t take the rush and did not go back again,” he said.

After a year Shyhaki was contacted by Lily Raza again as they wanted him back. Ameer Imam was doing a programme called Naghma Zar which had Mehnaz as the main singer and Sohail Rana as composer. “My song Chaltey Chaltey Rehna Hai became a tremendous hit and I became the talk of the town,” he related.

“An artist has no security or future, he is like a horse, if he falls and hurts himself there is no one to take care of him and his family. At the same time the government says they are an asset — what hypocrisy!”

But that was it and a year passed with no further offers from PTV. Then Ghazanfar Ali, an apprentice producer, invited him to sing a ballad-type westernised song by composer Niaz Ahmad in the Tara Ghansham Show.

“I was to record the duet Pyar Kiya, Mein Ne Dil Diya with Tara,” said Shyhaki, “But she couldn’t sing it properly and left and I had to sing it solo.” The song was an instant hit and kickstarted his singing career in the mainstream media. Alamgir’s song Dekha Na Tha was also a hit then and both songs were played in the intervals of the cricket match with West Indies.

A starry-eyed Shyhaki remembered his next  programme, Dum Dum Dee, a children’s show in which he acted and sang as a magician. Nazia Hasan also participated as a child artist. After a year while he was preparing for his NED finals, Shoaib Mansoor came looking for him and invited him to perform in Rawaan Dawaan, a motivational show.

They went on locations doing shoots on 16mm film and converted it on video at the studio, a difficult technical procedure, remembers Shyhaki, requiring a lot of expertise. But then those were the days of passionate hard work.

The three-month programme focused on Alamgir and Shyhaki and their new trend of pop music which had become popular. But, says Shyhaki, “My songs were all original. Karachi was the best of all the PTV centres then.”

Then, Shoaib Mansoor began a new programme with him called Jharnay which brought about a revolution in music in Pakistan. The Iranian political revolution had also begun during this time and Iranians studying in this region were told to return to Iran by their government.

Shyhaki was given a Pakistani passport because his maternal grandfather was a Pakistani, and continued to live here. Jharnay continued for five years and it became extremely popular and was also the first programme in colour. Shyhaki was the mainstay while Alamgir and Khalid Waheed were guest performers.

After Jharnay came Fifty-Fifty in which Shyhaki performed as well.

Then Shoaib Mansoor was transferred to Islamabad and Sahira Kazmi took over. Shyhaki acted in Doosra Kinara with her and Saba Pervaiz, doing a singing role. Rang Tarang, a music programme by Sahira, followed that and Shyhaki performed in it regularly. “I was the singer of those days,” he says proudly. He released 26 albums during this time and they all did extremely well.

From singing to acting

After singing came acting. Shyhaki starred in a total of nine films. His first film was Son of Undata which had many famous actors of the time such as Sudhir, Zamarrud, Babra Sharif, Sultan Rahi, Ghulam Mohiuddin and Aasiya. He played one of the heroes and received good reviews.

His next film, Choron ka Badshah did platinum jubilee. “I had a singer’s role in it,” he said, “It was a low budget film but did very well.” 

Shor by Ghazanfar Ali had Babra Sharif, Latif Kapadia and Sultan Khan. It was not released as the distributors and Ghazanfar did not see eye to eye with each other, and it was later shown on television.

Dekh Tamasha was a Bengali art film and Pyar Do Ya Maar Do, had a commercial touch to it,” he added, “It was shown in Bangladesh. Then there was Sonya and Guide, both collaborative films with Thailand. I stopped acting when the film industry collapsed.”

If he were to make a choice between acting and singing, Shyhaki says he would choose singing any day. “Singing for me is like the ‘truth’ as you are representing yourself in it, but in acting you are presenting another character which is not yourself,” he responded, “Yet, as I love acting, I wouldn’t mind working in TV serials again. I did Mr Dee Jay 15 years back and Umeed a serial which I co-directed and produced six years ago — but that is something I will never venture in again as I lost all my money in it.”

Death of an industry

So what does he think is the future of music here? Apparently there isn’t any, says Shyhaki with a shake of his head.

“We are going towards oblivion,” he responded despondently, “Coke Studio is doing a good job but it should do more constructive work. The situation in the country is affecting everything and unless it stabilises, there will be no progress in anything.”

“An artist has no security or future, he is like a horse, if he falls and hurts himself there is no one to take care of him and his family,” he continued, “At the same time the government says they are an asset — what hypocrisy! My graph came down as it does for everyone eventually. I didn’t want to go to channels and ask them if I can sing as I have my pride. Today, there are so many channels and I am out of singing. Isn’t that funny?”

Having reached the pinnacle of success in music why has he never thought of opening a music academy to pass on his experience to students? “I was too busy to set up a music academy,” he responded, “And later when I had time there was an unstable situation in the city with music academies being attacked, so I decided not to open one.”

Dispelling the rumours that he was about to leave Pakistan again for a better future, Shyhaki explained he did go to Canada 15 years ago with his family at the insistence of his then wife but didn’t like the place. He returned to Pakistan after five years as he found it too quiet there, and had no recognition either.

For 25 years he tried to make things work with his wife but the marriage did not work out. Second time round, however, he is happy, has a daughter and has no plans to leave Pakistan and start from scratch. “Everyone here knows me,” he said, “Fame is an addiction, you know.”

Having earned a degree in engineering he never had a chance to work as an engineer. “My singing is down now but I cannot pursue a career as an engineer as I don’t have experience,” he said, “And though I am not religious, I have left everything to God. He is my best friend even in trying times, so I have faith in Him. I’m surviving, and with His help will continue to do so.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 15th, 2015

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