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She who came before

April 08, 2013

NAZIA Hassan would have turned 48 last week. Despite the passage of time, what was special about her remains so.

Even last week, 13 years after her death, her many fans across the country marked her birthday on April 3; the queen of Pakistani pop, the sweetheart of Pakistan, the one who was there before.

Pakistan has, over the decades, produced a good number of musicians and singers, on both the classical and non-classical sides, who have played to domestic and international acclaim. But about Nazia Hassan there is a romance, a pristine quality, that has proved enduring.

How to understand this? First, obviously, the songs that made her famous were … well, good. They were fun, they were catchy, they made toes tap and shoulders move. She was young and beautiful and an imaginative performer.

She embodied a local version of the sort of pop sensations that were taking the world by storm during the 1980s, Madonna, for instance, who shot to international stardom — a position she has retained — with her 1984 Like a Virgin album. It might seem unfair to draw a comparison between the hugely successful and ever-inventive Madonna and Nazia Hassan, but I don’t think so; Nazia Hassan was Pakistan’s Madonna-esque pop icon.

She was one of the few bright stars in a decade that was otherwise blighted. Her first song ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’, from the Indian film Qurbani and which was sung when she was a heartbreakingly young 15-year-old, came out in 1980, with her debut album Disco Deewane following in 1981.

For Pakistan, these were sad years. It had caused half of itself to cleave its own path a mere decade earlier. A military dictatorship had a couple of years earlier deposed and hanged an elected prime minister — whose death anniversary was observed last Thursday.

I can’t say what older and wiser Pakistanis’ mindset was back then, not having been amongst them, but it could not have been a happy one. But for the younger generation, such as myself — the children of the Zia years — Nazia Hassan was a sensation to which we could relate. In her we had someone who sent out a positive signal, and sent it beyond our borders.

Disco Deewane made the charts in 14 countries and became the best-selling Asian pop album. Her listeners were not just in Pakistan; they were all across South Asia, and wherever Urdu is understood. And she was ours.

She wasn’t the first popular music icon in Pakistan. The Benjamin Sisters had been singing earlier, and the enduring Runa Laila too. Before Nazia Hassan there were Alamgir and Shehki and a few others who established success outside the domain of classical music.

And yet, Nazia Hassan remains in a league of her own.

In retrospect, she was a liberal ray in a country where ominous dark clouds were gathering fast. We couldn’t perhaps have known back then (though there was enough evidence to make an educated guess) how big a monster Ziaul Haq’s ultra-conservative leanings and jihadi rhetoric would create, but in hindsight, going back to Nazia Hassan’s songs is instructive.

From today’s standpoint, it seems rather remarkable that in those brooding days, a young woman was singing songs such as ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’, with its less than conservative lyrics. (Though maybe that was an indication of the remnants of the liberal, outgoing Pakistan that we lost; the backlash of conservatism that is in place now was then at its inception.)

More than anything, though, Nazia Hassan was a star that never tarnished. It’s a terribly sad thing to say, but unlike other heroes in the popular imagination, she never had the chance to grow old or cynical, to prove to have feet of clay or limited talent. That’s why there is a romance the world over about any star whose life has been cut short.

Here in Pakistan, the generation to which I relate has lived to see many of its erstwhile icons fall flat; (here I’m writing only about music, but that’s generally true too).

Think of the Music ’89 concert, for example, sponsored by the Benazir Bhutto government to showcase new talent for a local audience.

It gave the Pakistani youth the Vital Signs and the Jupiters, ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ and ‘Yaro Yehi Dosti Hai’.

Junaid Jamshed and Ali Azmat (the latter first with the Jupiters and then with Junoon), Salman Ahmed and several others appeared to have in them something of the charisma that could elevate them beyond the mundane.

But time dictates many an about-turn; Junaid Jamshed, who currently runs a prêt-a-porter clothing line, now apparently feels that women are best kept at home and in purdah.

Ali Azmat, with all that talent, has become something of an apologist for conspiracy theories; asked by a New York Times reporter in 2009 about why no musical act was talking about the Taliban even as several other issues facing the country had been taken up, he answered, “We know for a fact that all this turbulence in Pakistan … it’s not us. It’s the outside hands.”

Thankfully, though, the music industry in the country has far outstripped its dependence on the stars of yore, some of which have gone on to do remarkable work (an example being Rohail Hyatt, formerly of the Vital Signs, and his Coke Studio project). There’s all sorts of world-class music being created in Pakistan, by Pakistanis.

Nevertheless, Nazia Hassan stands in a league of her own. Perhaps Billy Joel’s lyrics can, in a different context to the song, be applied to her: “Only the good die young.”

The writer is a member of staff.