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Himayat Ali Shair: a portrait

The poet was was not unsympathetic to the progressive movement; he wrote his early poetry under that influence

Himayat Ali Shair: a portrait

The central regions of the subcontinent have produced many Urdu poets. This should not be surprising because this area can be considered to be the birthplace of Urdu. While northern areas were greatly under the influence of Persian literature; in the far south, the local dialects in relatively quicker time matured to form a distinct expression. While in the north, poets still grappled with the nuances of various dialects, endlessly comparing them with mainstream Persian poetical expression. It thus gave us a major poet in the shape of Wali Dakhani, for instance.

Renowned poet and writer, Himayat Ali Shair was nurtured in the cultural setting of Aurangabad in the erstwhile Hyderabad State. At the time, the state did not just have a vibrant literary scene but had many strains of political activity in response to the Indian occupation. Himayat Ali Shair was not unsympathetic to the progressive struggle and wrote his early poetry, first published in a newspaper Jinnah, under that influence. His political inclinations cost him his job as an announcer and newscaster at Radio Hyderabad Deccan.

The erstwhile Deccan must have been less resistant to poets and writers switching over to writing for films. This trend started in the 1950s when writers and poets who only participated in the Indian People’s Theatre Association’s cultural activities crossed the blighted barrier and started writing for popular cinema. Shair had written a bhajan composed by music composer Prem Dhawan before he was invited to write lyrics for a film.

Shair came to Pakistan in the mid 1950s when films were made in numbers that helped Pakistani cinema register on the map of world cinema. He had a fairly successful run as a film lyricist, especially in the first two decades after his arrival.

Those who generally subscribed to the vision of the progressive writers and poets had a greater desire to connect with the masses because they were speaking the language of the common man. Hence, their writing was in sharp contrast to the major tradition of both Persian and Urdu because they were not talking about the concerns of the elite. The message was supposed to resonate with the people in the street.

Many major poets in India were able to write poetry as a serious concern and then also pen lyrics for commercial films. It was far easier for Sahir Ludhianvi , Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan to do so because films were considered to a be a popular medium and so a means of reaching out to the masses. Their lyrics actually uplifted the level of films that were being made then. With the same ideological background and these lessons learnt, Himayat Ali Shair must have found himself willingly participating in penning lyrics for popular cinema.

When Shair came to Karachi, he was well-known among the closer circle of friends and literary pundits and was waiting to be known in the wider circle. He joined Radio Pakistan but like the first time lost his job again because of his political views – this time he was also accused of being member of a political party.

But generally, this was not the case in Pakistan. The boundary between popular forms and those meant to be for the initiated had existed since ancient times. It had transformed into a more intense state as became apparent with Amanat Lukhnavi. He may have been a good dramatist, with his Urdu play and opera, Inder Sabha but was not considered to have made the prestigious transfer that was the destination of a major poet.

In India, the major poets crossed the line, but in Pakistan the reluctance remained and it could be because the films that were being made were not of the same quality or perceived to be of the same quality. So many including Faiz, kept away except an occasional fling with the medium. Some who ventured forth like Habib Jalib had their reputation tarnished and limited such exercises to one-off affairs rather than being seen as examples of film lyricism.

When Shair came to Karachi, he was well-known among the closer circle of friends and literary pundits and was waiting to be known in the wider circle. He joined Radio Pakistan but like the first time lost his job again because of his political views – this time he was also accused of being member of a political party, which was not permitted if one were an employee of the government.

He restarted his formal education, which was disrupted earlier, and did his Masters from Sindh University. His stint at the radio made him familiar with the medium and he wrote plays, geets, naghme and geeton bhari kahaniyan. And about the same time, he experimented with salasi, a poetical form consisting of three lines, which became his hallmark formal expression.

This was also the time that his famous poem Ankahi with the line ‘tujh ko maloom nahi tujh ko bhala kiya maloom’ was put to music by composer Khalil Ahmed and sung by Salim Raza. It was made part of the film Aanchal. Fareed Ahmed, the director of the film made him write all of the film’s songs. Aanchal’s songs became very famous and one of them Jis chaman main raho bahar ban key raho sung by Ahmed Rushdi won the Nigar Award, establishing him as a front rank film lyricist.

He got into serious trouble when he questioned the actions of the Pakistani state in East Pakistan, particularly in 1971:


Jawan ja rahain hain aap apni jaan sey

Nabard aazma hai koan pardae majaz main

Na jaane kitne raaz hain pinhan is aik raaz main


The Urdu-Sindhi riots, too, disturbed him greatly. He wrote:


Kis ko qatil kahoon, kis ko bismil kahoon

Yeh mera dost hai who mera bhai hai

Apni tareekh sey gar isi piyar hai

Apni tehreez ka woh bhi shedai hai

Bezabani ka hai yeh bhi mara hua

Woh bhi apni zaban ka tamannai hai   


He stayed put despite the status quo’s backlash, migrating to Canada much later. His going-away was a comment on the way the country had progressed in the years of his existence.

His published works of poetry include Aag Main Phool, Mitti ka Qarz, Haroon ki Awaz, Chand ki DhoopTashnagi ka Safar, Tujh ko Maloom Nahi, Jaag Utha hai Saara Watan, Aaina dar Aaina, Harf Harf Roshani  and lastly his Kulliyaat. His selection of poetry in Sindh “Dood-e-Chiragh-e-Mehfil” and a selection of seven hundred year naatia shairi in Urdu “Aqidat ka Safar” also form his repertoire.

His prose works include Sheikh Ayaz, Shaks- o-Aqs”, Khilte Kanwal Se Log and Kuch Peesh Rao Kuch Hum safar.

He also did significant work for television. Khushboo ka Safar, on five hundred years of Urdu poetry by regional poets; Mahabatton ka Safar, Urdu kalam of Sindhi poets; Lab Azaad, a selection of resistance poetry in Pakistan; and Nasheed Hurriyat, the role of Urdu poetry in the independence struggle.

He passed away on July 16, 2019.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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