Zia Mohyeddin | Anis Hamdani/White Star
Zia Mohyeddin | Anis Hamdani/White Star

The poet is Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The man reciting his poems is Zia Mohyeddin. And the ragas that are heard as the poems waft out of the album range from the lilting jhanjhoti to the wailing lalita. What more can a lover of music, and literature, ask for?

If there is such a thing as Pakistani culture, then Faiz and Mohyeddin are two of its most prominent representatives. Mohyeddin is an artist who is steeped in literary tradition. When it comes to doing justice to the art of reading Urdu poetry and prose, he has no parallel. And the late Faiz is one of those few poets that he has always read with an extra bit of adabi [literary] charm.

There’s a reason for it: Faiz’s poetry talks of the harsher realities of life in words wrapped in the gentlest of tones. Mohyeddin has done a great deal of film and theatre, and these days heads the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) — so he knows how messages are conveyed through subtle tonal variations and cadences.

EMI Pakistan’s super-ambitious new project brings together Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Zia Mohyeddin, Nafees Ahmed and Arshad Mahmud

Now consider this: this new audio project commissioned by EMI Pakistan Ltd is super-ambitious. It has poems set to about a touch more than 30 ragas played on the sitar by Nafees Ahmad (who has outdone himself here). Listening to it is a sheer auditory delight! Mohyeddin starts off with the first line of a nazm and the sitar goes mellow in the background. Once he finishes the act, the sitar either takes over or merges into the last line of that nazm effortlessly.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz | White Star
Faiz Ahmed Faiz | White Star

Those who have a profound interest in eastern classical music will know that all ragas basically carry moods. The musician tries to give shape to each mood which is often referred to in Urdu as shakl banana. Therefore it becomes exceedingly important for a musician or an artist to select the right raga for the mood that the poem is suffused with. There are only a handful of connoisseurs of classical music and poetry in our country, and Mohyeddin is one of them. It’s no surprise that he, along with his companions Nafees and eminent composer Arshad Mahmud (who humbly calls himself the recording engineer on the album), choose near-perfect ragas for Faiz sahib’s shairi.

Those who have a profound interest in eastern classical music will know that all ragas basically carry moods. The musician tries to give shape to each mood which is often referred to in Urdu as shakl banana.

Here’s why: any fan of the poet will surely know what the poem Mozu-i-Sukhan (Poet’s Muse) is about. As the title suggests, it underlines the two opposing spectrums of life: worldly woes and personal preferences (including amorous sojourns). The raga that Mohyeddin picks to illustrate these points is chanderkauns, because it has a feathery touch to it, and the artist doesn’t want to lose out on the personal, lighter side of the poem’s drift.

Arshad Mahmud | Arif Mahmood/White Star
Arshad Mahmud | Arif Mahmood/White Star

By the same token, the qat’aat (short poems) used in the project are set to raga gorakh kalyan. Faiz sahib’s qat’aat have become proverbial, such as the one that begins with the line Raat yun dil mein teri khoi hui yaad aai (last night, your memory illuminated my heart). The raga brings forth the swiftness of the metrical movement of the four lines.

That being said, at the heart of it all is Mohyeddin. Over the years, his art as an eloquent poetry reader has enthralled audiences all over the world. But this time round, his admirers will feel something more than the usual stylised recitation: Mohyeddin has kept the literariness of poetry pure and sonorous and, at the same time, the stresses and pauses that are enhanced in a recording studio manage to transmit to audiences the meaning of lines in a smooth, silken way.

Nafees Ahmed | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Nafees Ahmed | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Literature and music buffs, brace yourselves for something really special.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 12th, 2020