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A family tradition

Remembering Hakim Ahmed Shuja and his contributions for theatre, radio and film

A family tradition
Hakim Ahmed Shuja.

A few months ago, the death of Yawar Hayat also brought into focus the other illustrious members of his family. They had to be because Yawar Hayat could not have been the person that he was he had not played in the lap of his elders and imbibed the finer aspects of the thespian arts in his infancy. The soil had already been ploughed and fertilised by his upbringing and what he needed was to just sow the proper seed in the right season.

Among the elders, his uncle and father-in-law, Anwar Kamal Pasha was a very successful filmmaker. It can be said that he stepped into the world of cinema after partition when Pakistani cinema was in the process of recovering from the depletion of manpower and assets. The industry was placed on surer footings by many like him, with their ceaseless effort at making popular and entertaining films with great music. But even more remarkable was Hakim Ahmed Shuja, Anwar Kamal Pasha’s father, who played a connecting role between the craft of theatre and film as well as between the highbrow literary expression and more popular version of theatre and films.

Hakim Ahmed Shuja is not that well-remembered nowadays. This is a bit surprising because he was a very well-respected and popular figure in his prime. One of his contemporaries, Imtiaz Ali Taj is better remembered now than Hakim Ahmed Shuja — though both shared similar passions and contributed a lot to the thespian arts at that time.

The only reminder of that full life is the autobiography of sorts that he wrote, for it gives a good account of the detail of his life and works. Khoon Baha, as it is titled pens the scene — especially the artistic, literary and thespian scene — of the first half of the twentieth century in Punjab. Particularly moving is his account of his meetings and association with Agha Hashar, the great playwright who was known to other members of Pasha’s family. When Pasha met Hashar through them, he was encouraged to write plays. Pasha actually emulated Agha Hashar for he had been coaxed by Hashar to write more and with the dramatic intensity that was Hashar’s main forte. After a few years, Hashar then moved into Pasha’s house and lived there where the association, literary and dramatic was cemented further and Pasha was able to write directly under his guidance.

Hakim Ahmed Shuja is not that well-remembered nowadays. This is a bit surprising because he was a very well- respected and popular figure in his prime.

Agha Hashar was the last of the Mohicans who epitomised the Parsi theatre traditions and achievements but his last days were marked by the ascendancy of the talkie, and theatre was on a decline. Till then and a little afterwards, it was keenly felt that the heightened melodrama of the Parsi Theatre had to be merged with realism that was also creeping in literature of the times. Imtiaz Ali Taj and others of that era influenced by the introduction of the radio play were trimming down on the larger-than-life treatment of stage plays and were writing about people and characters who were ordinary folks grappling with the chores that they were destined to spend their lives handling.

Hakim Ahmed Shuja is not that well-remembered nowadays. This is a bit surprising because he was a very well- respected and popular figure in his prime.

These were unflattering low-brow characters dealing with situations that only affected them, or at best, their families and not touched the destiny of mankind on the whole as was the sweep of Parsi theatre. Hakim Ahmed Shuja too was caught between the two worlds — one promoting realism, and the other, a certain heightened expression that decried dealing with life as an ordinary mundane affair. More spirit and zest had to be added to it all for it to be infused with purpose and meaning.

Like Imtiaz Ali Taj, Hakim Ahmed Shuja also flitted between theatre, radio and film. The films made particularly in Punjab — Lahore in specific — had a certain flavour and both Imtiaz Ali Taj and Ahmed Shuja wrote scripts/ screenplays/dialogues for these films. They were able to make a mark for themselves in the perspective of a growing film industry in the subcontinent, especially in the films using Urdu/Hindi as their language.

Hakim Ahmed Shuja took great pride in the fact that his plays were staged both on popular forums by professional directors as well as in educational institutions by eminent intellectuals like Patras Bokhari and G.D.Sondhi. Some of the plays he wrote were Karwaan-e-Hayat, Baap Ka Gunah, Bhisham Pratigya, Aakhari Firaun, Meena, Santosh and Tara. The films that he penned were Dhanwaan, Do Auratain, Aansoyoon Ki Dunya, Prem Yatra, and Salahuddin Ayubi.

Agha Hashar was often criticised by those advocated of realism to be an escapist and not-in-synch with the social and political trends that were being thrown up by the twentieth century in colonial India. So, to counter that Hashar wrote many a play on local heroes and local situations with critical import to the history of the peoples of this land. These plays were also very popular and did well at the box office. It seemed that Hakim Ahmed Shuja was receptive to this criticism and was also inspired by the characters from history. He wrote on them as a way to express the national sentiment that was growing by the minute in colonial India.

His elders had deliberately left Persian and opted for Urdu in the light of the experiments being done by Azad and Hali in Punjab. Shuja had heard from his elders that in one of the literary meetings held in Lahore, Iqbal had read his famous poem with the verse:

Moti samajh ket shaane kareemi ney chun liye
Qatre jo they merey erqe infaaal key.

which became the cause of his early recognition and fame.

Hakim Ahmed Shuja was educated in Lahore, Aligarh and Meerat, associated with the likes of Abul Kalaam Azad, Allama Iqbal, Hakim Ajmal Khan, and Muhammed Ali Jauhar and from a very early age was published in the most respected of magazines like Makhzan and Punjab Review. Taasuraat, Tasawwurat, Tajalliyaat and Tabarrukaat were his poetical works.

Hakim Ahmed Shuja died on January 4, 1969

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore


  • qazi amjad daskalo

    salam, nice article! hakeem ahmad shuja has many great contributions to south asian film and literature, some of which are not mentioned. for example ‘lahore ka chelsea’ is an invaluable literary memoir of old lahore, by him. also his play ‘karvan hayaat’ was adapted as a 1935 movie in india starring k sehgal who also sang a sung written by hakeem sb. later sohrab modi’s film ‘sheesh mahal’ was scripted by him and his one poem was also adapted as a hit song in it. so many examples of his genius, a great literary son of lahore who deserves full recognition. punjab govt should seriously think about this.

    • Yes, fine article. No doubt Hakim Ahmed Shujah has been and remains a great name in Urdu literature/film/theatre in Pakistan and India and also played a special role on the national Urdu Language Committee to develop ‘official Urdu’ in line with Pakistan ideological concerns. Certainly deserving official recognition. I recollect that some years ago, in fact Punjab Government did announce that the Egerton Road, Lahore, would be renamed ‘Hakim Ahmed Shujah Road’ ~ that would have been a useful way of acknowledging his contributions- but I dont know what happened ? Was Egerton Road formally notified as Hakim Ahmed Shujah Road or not? It is still not too late.

  • Syed Anjum Ali Bokhari

    Masha’Alllah- I also wrote to earlier praise your memorial article about late Yawar Hayat and must also offer my praise for this new one commemorating the great Hakim Ahmad Shuja, an outstanding literary figure of Lahore. I would also like to correct that he died on February 4th 1969.

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