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Radio days

First impressions (part 2)

Radio days
Noon Meem Rashed.

(part 2)

I plunged into the task and, in the next eight months and produced Euripides, Aeschylus, Moliere, Strindberg, and Shakespeare. Except for Medea and a shortened version of Hamlet, all the other plays were done in Urdu. I mention this not to brag about my work — which was not all that good by my standards — but to record that, thanks to Mahmood Nizami, Radio Pakistan acquired a substantial body of classical drama. God knows what happened to those recordings, or the scripts for that matter. When I enquired about them some twenty five years later, I was told that a lot of manuscripts were found missing when the office was shifted from Sir Fazl-e-Hussain’s house to its new building. As for the recordings, they were damaged along with many other recordings during a particularly severe monsoon season.

Nizami Sahib ran his office without the militaristic severity that his predecessor did. I think of him with a great deal of affection. He was, to my mind, one of the greatest stalwarts of broadcasting. Under his tutelage many excellent programmes went on the air.. Producers worked exceptionally hard at whatever task he gave them. And they worked not for a reward or promotion, but simply to receive an appreciative nod from Nizami Sahib.

 * * * * *

The vernacular press never let go of any opportunity to remind the Radio authorities that they were straying away from the ‘true’ path. Protest letters from self-styled defenders and protectors of Islam arrived every day. The script, with variations, was nearly always the same; the tone was stentorian:

“…..We deplore the present-day attempts to belittle and destroy the Islamic way of life. We object strongly to the disbelief, doubt and dirt that radio pours into the ears of our youngsters and our women” etc..

(This letter, a portion of which I have translated, was sent to Ijaz Batalvi who was a producer in Lahore in those days. He showed it to me in London several years later.)

The zealots put a lot of pressure on Lahore Radio about banning the broadcasting of music which, they claimed, was infidel, in nature, and, in character. I well remember the day when I was sitting in Noon Meem Rashed’s office trying to write a publicity note (by 1949 I had been engaged as a part-timer by Rashed Sahib) when a producer, known for his pedanticism, came in and asked his permission to sit down. Noon Meem Rashed, the redoubtable poet, was a very strict disciplinarian.

“Sir”, began the producer breathlessly,” I want to talk about this music business.”

“What about it?” asked Rashed Sahib

“Sir, I think the main reason why these Maulanas resent it is because of the names of the Ragas — Shiv Rangini, Narayni, Madh Vanti — they are all Hindu names. Sir, why should we not give these ragas Persianized names, according to their moods? I have made a few attempts, but you, Sir, have a vast knowledge of Persian and I want your advice…”

Rashed Sahib took off his glasses and stared at the producer like a sergeant-major eyeing a retarded recruit. “Rajah”, he said, clearing his glasses, “you have missed your vocation, tum footpath pe logon ki hajamat kia karo.” (you should sit on a footpath and shave people’s heads). ‘Rajah’ is a prefix used by most barbers in Punjab.

I was told in the “Duty Room” (this was the place where you heard all the gossip) that Zulfikar Ali Bokhari, the Radio supremo, addressing a gathering of producers, had stated that ‘Aimen’ was the greatest Raga created by Mussulmans and that they should only concentrate on this raga.

I doubt if ZAB, who knew his music, made such an asinine remark, but I know that in the daily feature, Pakistan Hamara Hai, Iqbal’s verse was nearly always set to raga Aimen. Hameed Naseem, the main producer of the programme, often told the cast that the true implication of the word aimen was security and well-being. “It’s like finding a shaded spot in the midst of a scorching sun” was the metaphor he employed while extolling the beauties of the raga.

Bare Ghulam Ali Khan read the writing on the wall and left for India where he was revered. He may or may not have had a contretemps with ZAB, as was rumoured, but the fact remained that ZAB was not enamoured of Bare Ghulam Ali Khan’s art.

I must say that Zulfikar Ali Bokhari stood up to the challenges of the fanatics boldly and resolutely. After his departure the broadcasting service was run by the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

 * * * * *

“The only thing that really matters in broadcasting,” said Hugh Carlton Greene, (one time head of BBC but known largely as Graham Greene’s brother) “is programme content. The rest is house-keeping.” This is the universal truth about broadcasting. The programme content, he stressed, such as that resulting from making the microphone available to the widest range of subjects, and to the best exponents available, whether of different views, on any given subject, should be its recognised aim.

I am aware that our political analysts are openly contemptuous of BBC’s objectivity, but I will stick my neck out and say that when it comes to social or political or religious issues, the BBC has always maintained a reasonable rebalance between differing views. The BBC’s reputation as the finest broadcasting service in the world cannot be challenged. There are two reasons for this. It does not try to please all of the people all of the time, and it keeps enlarging the audience’s range of choice.

 * * * * *

Once television got a foothold in our country our radio audience was reduced drastically. We are not the only country where this happened. I remember well that the popular press in England printed headlines like “Auntie Is On Her Deathbed.” (The BBC radio was usually referred to as ‘auntie’.) In actual fact, the BBC radio showed itself capable of drawing steadily increasing audience, some of which were, by any standard of comparsion, larger than television audiences.

 * * * * *

Radio Pakistan, which came into being as a public service, dwindled all too soon into a mouthpiece of the government. If the standing of Radio, which has been a poor cousin of the state-run television for ever so long, is to be restored, it must accept the responsibility to cater to those whose taste and education enables them to take pleasure in close and responsive listening to broadcasts of artistic and intellectual distinction. This will only come about when the gods that be, realise that broadcasting programmes which raise contentious issues are not tantamount to the downfall of the state.

 (concluded)

Read the first part here

Zia Mohyeddin

zia
The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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