Nasir producing a play for Studio Number 9

Tuning a radio set in the past needed some of the same skills required to crack a high security safe. One hand on the knob and the ear close to the box; as the knob played back and forth, so did the chances of hitting the right station... BBC, All India Radio and bingo “Yeh Radio Pakistan Hai!”

Radio Pakistan is an organisation that came into being the day Pakistan was created. On the night between August 14 and 15, 1947, the first announcement was made from Lahore by celebrated broadcaster, Mustafa Ali Hamdani, followed by a similar announcement in English by Zahoor Azar, a CSS officer who later became the Director General of Radio Pakistan.

Agha Nasir, one of the pioneers of this institution, gave us a brief history of how the Karachi station came to be set up. “At the time of partition, there were only three radio stations in Pakistan, in Dhaka, Lahore and Peshawar. The fact that there was no radio in the then capital Karachi was a major concern. This was addressed on a priority basis.

“Zulfiqar Ali Bokhari, brother of the famous writer Patras Bokhari, was a legendary broadcaster who worked with All India Radio. After Partition he opted to come to Pakistan and became the first Controller of Radio Pakistan. He can rightfully be credited with the concept, establishment and development of Radio Pakistan.

“A place in the Intelligence School, established by the British forces during the Second World War was borrowed to house the Karachi station. Studios were set up in a barrack; offices were set up in tents. There was no furniture; only darris and chatais on which producers and artistes sat and held discussions and meetings.

“The place allocated, the next step was how to set up the radio station. All factories which were in the business of making transmitters and broadcasting equipment were either destroyed in the Second World War or had closed down. So Bokhari sahib sent one person to Europe, another to the Far East and he himself went to India to buy equipment to set up a radio station. He literally bought spare parts and machines using his connections in Bombay, even from kabaris. All gathered in Karachi to set up the broadcasting station. The few engineers available at that time worked day and night and within a year a radio station was ready to go. In a couple of years the Broadcasting House, as it came to be known, was shifted to Bunder Road.

“During the mid 50s to the mid 60s, Radio Pakistan was at the zenith of its success and popularity, not just because there was no competitive medium or source of information, education and entertainment, but also because it ran in such a perfect manner that it was at par with many international radio services.”

Talking about his introduction to this organisation, Nasir tell us that “as a college student I wrote drama scripts and sent them to radio but none of them were broadcast. One day I came to know that the new drama producer Shamsuddin Butt wanted to see me. When I met Butt sahib, he started off by saying, ‘Maulana hum aap ka drama karna cha rahey hain.’

“It was not as simple as I had imagined; he made me revise the script five times. Finally he approved the script and the play was to be broadcast the following Sunday. A few days later, I got a call from the Administration Section to sign the contract. When I arrived at the station the next day, I was told that the Assistant Regional Director (ARD) wanted to meet me.

“Saleem Shahid, the ARD, better known by most as husband of TV artiste Khursheed Shahid and father of Salman Shahid, congratulated me and said, ‘You have been selected as a producer for Radio Pakistan and my advice would be to join today.’ The catch was that if I joined that day, a day prior to the broadcast of my play, I had to forego the 25 rupees, (which was a handsome amount in 1956) as being an employee of the organisation one is not entitled to any payment for one’s play. Well, I decided to join. My play was broadcast on my first day in office — and I didn’t get paid for it.”

Nasir firmly believes that the credit of developing and maintaining drama in Pakistan goes entirely to Radio Pakistan. The decade of 1955—1965 was the period considered to be the ‘golden era’ of drama in Pakistan. In fact if there had not been drama on radio there would have been no drama in Pakistan today.

This was made possible by the contribution of many playwrights like Nasrullah Khan, Saleem Ahmed, Syed Ahmed Riffat, Intesar Husain, etc. In those early days their literary achievements in drama gained them great fame and popularity. Likewise Fatima Khanum, Santosh Rassal, Humaira Naeem and Nuzhat Irshad became household names in the field of acting, as did their male partners namely S.M. Saleem, Zafar Siddique and Abdul Majid. They were all very talented people and had a commitment towards development of drama. Film producers and directors, recognising the value of radio artistes began to borrow the talent for the film industry. For example, Mohammad Ali who was a product of radio later became a super star in the film industry.

In addition to the drama authors and artistes, two more people can be credited for creating the golden age of drama.

Zulfiqar Ali Bokhari or ZAB as he was called was the Director General of Radio Pakistan. With his golden voice and deep passion for drama, he not only produced and penned plays for radio, but performed in them as well. He played Bahadur Shah Zafar in Saleem Ahmed’s play 1857 and Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Urdu translation of Julius Caesar with equal aplomb; his rendition of both the father and the son in the play Light House key Muhafiz, an adaptation written by Nasrullah Khan, was remembered and talked about for months.

Shamsuddin Butt, a quiet, reserved person, was the first Pakistani selected by an American University for a master’s degree in radio drama.

The title of the incredibly popular drama series Studio Number 9, which was broadcast live from the Studio No 9 of BH, was his brainchild.

This play went on to become a legend; a piece of popular culture that still remains embedded in the memory of a certain generation.

Nasir assisted Butt in drama production and when Butt left after two years, Nasir was made the main drama producer for Studio No 9. He continued to produce one play every week. “The job was not easy,” he recalls. “One had to select the play. Get the script written, from whoever was available from the list of writers. Cast it, rehearse it and broadcast it. It was a seven-day drill without a single day off. The play would go on air on Sunday evening and we would start working for the next drama from Monday.” For this gruelling work he received a princely salary of Rs 200 per month, but it was worth it. “It was a genuine privilege to be associated with Radio Pakistan; all the intellectuals, writers, and poets were keen to work for this institution as it not only ensured publicity but provided a serious medium for airing one’s views.”

Nasir produced one play every Sunday for almost six consecutive years — adding up to an impressive portfolio. Full of energy and enthusiasm his selection of scripts included several classics such as Anthology of Sophocles, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ibsen’s Doll House, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Tolstoy’s Lower Depths and Chekov’s Three Sisters. From the local front he picked Rustam aur Sohrab by Agha Hashar and Anarkali by Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj. The quality he provided placed radio drama on very high pedestal.

“In addition to Studio Number 9, there were some very popular series and serials on radio. Hamid Mian key Haan, written by Intesar Hussain, was a weekly serial which became the longest running programme broadcast on Radio Pakistan — it ran for over four decades.

Another programme I produced was Damsaz Dambaz, again by Intesar Hussain. On the same pattern, we later produced Alif Noon for television. Another series, Muft ka Jhagra written by Saleem Ahmed, starred two great voices of radio: Arshey Muneer and Akhtari Begum.

Dekhta Chala Giya was a daily programme, a diary of a sailani (traveller), who would roam around the city and find interesting stories.

This was done by S.M. Saleem who came to be known as the Dilip Kumar of Radio Pakistan.

“Every so often we would run a drama festival called Jashne-Tamseel. A different play was broadcast every day for seven consecutive days and the plays were of such high standard that people made it a point to get home in time for the drama. Shops would shut down early and traffic would thin out, giving a curfew-type look to the bustling city. That was the power of drama in the hey-days of Radio Pakistan!”