Sohail Rana may be a nostalgic name for many but the music composer still commands respect, a fact that can be judged by his amazing number of fans both in and outside Pakistan.
The living legend migrated to Canada in the early '90s after a glorious innings, 'for the higher education of my children', and returned recently after a span of 14 years to Pakistan. In this exclusive interview to Images on Sunday, the maestro discusses the declining standard of music, the frequent use of electronic musical instruments replacing the beautiful sounding sitar, sarod, shehnai, sarangi, etc, and many others issues... but most importantly his decision to settle abroad.
'I never left Pakistan. It is my first home, my beloved, and no one can ever leave his/her loved ones. Since Pakistanis can have dual nationality in Canada, I didn't give up my citizenship. It was just like moving from one room to another for me and my family. I moved because I wanted a good education for my children and stayed back a little longer because my family needed me. Music is in my blood and I have set up a music academy there where people of all ages and from all over the world — Pakistanis, Indians, Afghanis, Bengalis and even Canadians — come to learn eastern music. At first I kept coming back to Pakistan every year until the mid-90s when it became impossible for me to make frequent trips. Now that both my sons (Adnan Rana and Sajeel Rana) have finished their education, here I am,' he said.
Sohail Rana's life in music started off with failures and challenges, perseverance and struggles. With the blessings of his elders, Rana continued his musical journey, accomplishing his mission with dignity, grace, endurance and faith. Son of the renowned Urdu poet Rana Akbarabadi, the young Sohail arrived in Pakistan soon after Partition, 'I studied at the Sindh Madressatul Islam and felt honoured to attend the institution that also nurtured Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. After matriculation I went to D.J. Science College, did my graduation from National College, and finally attended Karachi University.'
Sohail Rana was brought up in a literary environment, and besides displaying a flair for writing poetry at a young age he also had a passion for sketching and painting. He owes his entry into films to his best friend, Waheed Murad with whom he had a great time playing cricket, attending musical evenings or parties during their college and university days. It was during this time that Waheed offered Sohail Rana his very first composing assignment for the film Jab Se Dekha Hai Tumhain (1962). 'At the time I was only 19 years old but Waheed Murad saw the composer in me. He was a complete film personality —producer, actor, director and writer. He sat with me while I composed music, something only Raj Kapoor sahib used to do in the subcontinent. That's why each and every film Waheed made had the feeling of a team, which kept us together for so long. Then I introduced Masroor Anwar to Film Arts (Waheed Murad's production house) from where the trio of Waheed, Masroor (Anwar) and I began our collaboration,' he said.
The team was further strengthened by the inclusion of Pervez Malik, and went it on to produce Heera Aur Pathar (1964), Armaan (1966), Doraha (1967) and Ehsaan (1968), bringing about a revolution in the Pakistan film industry. 'Besides scoring music for Waheed Murad, I also worked for Shabab Kiranvi's Dil Deewana, Syed Kamal's Shehnai, Nigar Pictures' Mere Humsafar, P.M. Productions' Saughaat, Eastern Films' Bees Din, Iqbal Shehzad's Baazi, Asad Jafri's Dil De Ke Dekho, Mohsin Sherazi's Badal Aur Bijli, Javed Jabbar's Musafir/Beyond the Last Mountain and A.J. Kardar's Qasam Uss Waqt Ki. It was in Waheed Murad's directorial debut, Ishara, that I made him and Deeba sing Jaise taise beet gaya din. There were a few more while two films — Hulchul and Guriya — were never released.'
Sohail Rana produced the film Doraha and also composed for Pakistan's only English film, Beyond the Last Mountain (Musafir). He also scored for Sohail Hasan's Hisaab (1986) but considers Badal Aur Bijli (1974) his last bow after 24 films. 'During the making of Doraha, I felt quite uncomfortable with the environment and the attitude of the people, so I decided to leave the industry. Waheed Murad was very upset at my decision as they were all moving to Lahore despite my warning. A few years later, Waheed said that I had made the right move.'
So why did he leave films altogether, he could have kept a low profile and then returned? 'My ustad-i-mohtaram, Indian composer Naushad sahib had, in reply to one of my many letters during a correspondence that lasted 25 years, warned me that the film industry forgets even the best of the lot and that I should strengthen my base and branch out. His words woke me up and I left films when I sensed that the concept of teamwork was dying out. The environment of our film industry began to change gradually in the '70s, and since I was busy in television, I pledged only to return when a conducive atmosphere would re-emerge. I am hopeful and believe that if more dedicated, educated and talented people such as Javed Sheikh, Javed Jabbar and Syed Noor venture into the industry, our films will be able to make a triumphant return.'
Be it Ahmed Rushdi singing Ko Ko Korina, Mehdi Hasan rendering his voice for Mujhe Tum Nazar Se or Mujeeb Alam crooning Hai Beqarar Tamanna, Sohail Rana always used the best and most suitable singers for his compositions. However, he preferred Mala for his biggest hits in female vocals, including Akele Na Jana, Bhooli Hui Hoon Dastaan and Thehr Bhi Jao Sanam during the era when Madam Noor Jehan ruled the roost as a playback singer.
Was it because he was following his contemporary O.P. Nayyar in India who never recorded with Lata Mangeshkar and felt more at ease with Asha Bhonsle? 'It is not entirely true for I had composed Akele Na Jana with Madam Noor Jehan in mind. Both Waheed and I wanted Madam to sing the song but eventually had to record it with Mala who also did an excellent job. I was even asked by a scribe at a party about this to which I said that it was my misfortune as a composer that Madam couldn't sing for me. Overhearing our conversation, Madam gently interrupted and modestly said 'Perhaps Sohail Rana didn't think my voice was good enough for his composition'. I reminded Madam about Akele Na Jana and she said that had she known the phone call was from me and Weedu (Waheed Murad), she would have taken us all in her car to her villa for homemade food and rehearsals. However, after that in Phir Chand Nikle Ga, Guriya and Badal Aur Bijli, I had the privilege of having Madam sing not one but four of my composed tunes.'
To this day Rana says he earnestly owes all his achievements to his parents, mentors, teachers, artistes, critics, assistants, friends, his supportive and understanding wife, Afshan Rana (an accomplished sitar player herself) and above all, Allah. He feels obligated to his four gurus (teachers) and still considers himself a student of the medium.
'The whole world has been my teacher, including the kids who used to feature in my music programmes on PTV.
But I will always be indebted to Ustad Feroze Nizami who also taught Madam Noor Jehan and Mohammad Rafi, Ustad Mobin Khan, Ustad Manzoor Hussain Abedi and Mauseeqar-i-Azam Naushad sahib whose work I have been following from Sharda, Rattan to Taj Mahal, his final bow.'
While working for films and EMI simultaneously, in 1968 Sohail Rana entered a new dimension by starting a music programme for children on television called Kaliyon Ki Mala. While playing the harmonium and conducting music from the black-and-white era of television, he carried on with the programme under different titles (Saat Suron Ki Duniya, Sang Sang Chaltay Rehna, Hum Hi Hum, Rang Barangi Dunya, Saray Dost Hamare, Sang Sang Chalein, etc) for 20 years, playing the accordion in the coloured TV era with loads of students who went on to make a name for themselves in music, namely Nazia Hasan, Zoheb Hasan, Afshaan Ahmed, Fatima Jaffery, Zeba, Zuby, Rakhshanda, Mona, Amjad Hussain, Anwar Ibrahim, Hadiqa Kiyani and Adnan Sami Khan, etc. 'I composed over 2,000 songs for children and tried to be their role model through music, teaching them many things which hopefully inspired at least three generations. Later, those who tried to emulate me lacked the very sense of commitment towards Pakistan, our culture and the future generations.'
What prompted him to venture into children's music in the first place? 'There is an old saying 'With the same stones, you can make a Gothic cathedral or a Roman castle... it's nothing but the arrangement of stones'. I applied this to music...with the same seven notes you can create a symphony, lullaby, national song or a nursery rhyme. It's nothing but the arrangement of the seven notes. I wanted to groom the children into better people and found that nursery rhymes such as Ba Ba Black Sheep and Humpty Dumpty helped them in no way whatsoever. I didn't want to entertain kids through a half-hour TV programme but to educate them, and I am glad that now when I meet young people everywhere, they tell me how much they liked my programme and that is reward enough for me. I could have done what some of my contemporaries were doing then with songs like Gadhay ki dum kidhar gaye, but that was never my idea. I tried to teach children our history, traditions, love and respect for elders and patriotism through my television programme. I used music as a tool to reach out to young minds and hearts. I believe I was chosen for this work and fulfilled it to the best of my ability and with complete honesty.'
And then there is Bara Mahinay Islami Hijri Kay Yaad Rakhen. 'I used to have trouble memorising the names of the Islamic months myself and in order to remember them I composed this song which became popular when children sang it on TV. I am glad that many of my songs including Hamaray Quaid-i-Azam, Iqbal Hamara, Shawa Bhai Shawa, Dosti Aisa Naata, Morni O Morni and Sang Sang Chaltay Rehna are still popular among kids of even this generation.'
Sohail Rana composed many patriotic songs during the '60s and the '80s that gained enormous popularity. Renowned singers such as Mehdi Zaheer, Mohammad Ifrahim, Shehnaz Begum, Mehdi Hasan, Alamgir, Nayyara Noor, Amjad Hussain, Mohammed Ali Shyhaki, Waseem Baig, Habib Wali Mohammad, Akhlaq Ahmed, Iqbal Qasim and many more sang numbers such as Allah O Akbar, Zameen Ki Godh, Sohni Dharti, Jeevay Pakistan, Yeh Des Hamara Hai, Tera Pakistan Hai, Jaanan Likhoon, Main Bhi Pakistan Hoon, Rang Barange Phoolon Ka Guldasta, Aae Nigar-i-Watan, Suraj Kare Salam and made them evergreen. 'A friend once advised me to move into fields other than films because film music is not a long-lasting field like folk and classical music. Therefore, while I was scoring music for films, I was also branching out. I worked for the preservation of folk music, classical music and also put my heart and soul into composing national songs.'
Sohail Rana's canvas has always been much larger. He is both innovative and traditional, and is still remembered for his creative and popular work be it ghazal, geet, an instrumental such as Khyber Mail or a Mass Gymnastic Display, a devotional hit song such as Shehbaz Qalandar or an anthem for the South Asian Federation Games, Asia Kay Saat Mulk Saath Saath. He also undertook commercial tours abroad, touring the whole world and had the distinction of working with orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973 and conducting folk dances orchestras, especially the ballet Heer Ranjha, performed at the Sydney Opera House, Australia to Madison Square Garden in New York. He was also the resident composer for Pakistan International Airlines from 1972 to 1974, composed the inflight music for PIA and also served as an advisor to the President of Pakistan on brass bands.
During the early days Sohail Rana had pledged to his parents to take music as a mission and to conduct an orchestra at the UN someday. His dream came true in 1987 when, for his untiring efforts as a cultural ambassador for world peace through children's music, Rana went with his wife to New York to receive the Peace Messenger Award by the then United Nation's Secretary-General at the UN head office. He also received several awards and honours at home and abroad, gold discs from EMI and Pride of Performance Award by the President of Pakistan in 1981.
His last show before settling abroad was way back in Islamabad when SAF (South Asian Federation) Games were hosted in Pakistan in 1989. He participated with a group of 95 singers, a 35-piece orchestra and 115-piece brass band. When asked why the field hasn't progressed in the last 20 years, he said, 'It is very sad that our composers didn't give enough importance to composing national songs. It is obligatory on us to compose patriotic numbers, educational songs alongside entertaining music because we owe this to our country. I am aware of the decline in music everywhere and hope the tribute I recently conducted for a local TV channel might inspire our youth. I will visit Pakistan again and compose new national songs, children's music and maybe something for other music genres.'
Sohail Rana urges his contemporaries and younger generation to look into the copyright laws and avoid its infringement. 'Something should be done locally for the copyright act because its violation is very rampant in both Pakistan and India. In the '80s, I had personally and promptly dealt with one of the copyright violators but since I have been out of the country, those elements and other ones have again started making CDs and DVDs of my songs without my written permission. I would like the judiciary to take strict action against this 'crime' because if exemplary punishment is given, others will not think of doing the same. We should also have a censor board for music albums where at least two top music composers, two renowned poets and a judge be inducted as a committee to check the new releases for quality, which should only be released after their approval.'
What changes has Sohail Rana observed on his recent visit? 'Pakistan has changed immensely for the better. I will take back a lot of good memories with me and who knows, the love of the people I received on this visit might even make me return for good to Pakistan that has given me everything from recognition, identity, appreciation and love. I want to remain available to my people, to my passion (music) and to Pakistan. I hope to return soon to my homeland which has once again become a democratic nation, where people know exactly how to stand up for themselves.
With such an attitude, I am sure no country in the world will be able to suppress this nation. I am also pleased to learn that Mehdi Hasan sahib is being looked after by the government and also hope they would make such endeavors particularly for the welfare of music composers, poets and singers. They are our intellectual property and like any other property, they must be given protection. When I went away Pakistan was asleep. I am very happy to know now that it is awake.'