About Khwaja Khurshid Anwar
By Dr Asif Javed
Years ago, I asked an uncle of mine as to who was the best composer in Pakistan. "Khurshid Anwar," he said. "And the best director?" His answer, "Khurshid Anwar." Now, there you have it. While some may disagree with his second answer, hardly anyone will, with the first.
My uncle belonged to a generation that had been dazzled by KA's music. While India had Naushad, S.D. Burman and Salil Chaudhry, Pakistan had been very fortunate to have KA who decided to leave a successful career in Bombay in the early fifties and returned to his beloved Lahore.
I never had the privilege of meeting KA. In fact, his most productive years were well behind him when I heard of him, but then, the passage of time has rarely diminished the aura of truly great ones. A lot has been written of KA; his vast knowledge of classical music, attention to detail, skillful use of singers and instruments. It is said that an artist's greatness may be measured by the respect that he generates among his peers. Using this approach, I have decided to write about some aspects of KA's life that are not well known.
Habib Jalib , poet of the people, says this of KA in his autobiography: "I was very fond of him; he had been one of the great musicians of India even before partition, was highly educated, had superb knowledge of music and was a good poet too."
Jalib regrets a misunderstanding that did not allow him to work with KA and blames himself for the lost opportunity. The two of them did eventually work together for a couple of songs written for a Hamid Akhtar movie. Jalib has a very high opinion of KA as a person too: "He was a decent man and had a strange sadness about him that would translate in to his compositions. His work will not be easily forgotten; people like him are immortals."
Jalib narrates an interesting episode when he was incarcerated in Camp Jail Lahore and in desperate need of cigarettes. He sent a note to KA who lived nearby. Lo and behold, the bearer of the message returned with ten packs of Gold Leaf in an hour. Jalib calls KA Sahib-e-dil.
Another contemporary of KA, Qateel Shifai who wrote songs for many of KA movies including Intizaar, has also praised him as a very talented composer who understood the fine points and intricacies of music. In his autobiography Aur ghungroo toot gaye, Qatil has analyzed the combination of Noor Jahan and KA in some detail and given more credit to KA for the duo's successful songs from the Intizaar era. Qatil Shifai notes that KA used to create specific tones that suited Noor Jahan's voice. He worked very hard during rehearsals before going for the final take. It was his extraordinary talent that gave us the evergreen music of Intizaar, Chingaree, Ghoongat and Koel .
The KA and Noor Jahan combination did not last long, however. The split was due to the crush that she had developed on KA. She had somehow convinced herself -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that the feelings were mutual. Qateel reports an amusing episode when NJ asked KA to take an oath on the Qur'an that he was not in love with her. KA did so saying that he only respected her and nothing more. Malaka-e-Taranum was not amused and almost passed out in exasperation. The die had been cast and one of the most successful combinations in music broke up.
KA moved on and continued to create melodies with less talented singers like Kauser Perveen, Zubaida Khanam and Naheed Niazi but for NJ it was never the same (except for a brief reunion in Heer Ranja and a few other movies). She remained in great demand but was not able to sing quality songs the way she did for KA for there was no one else of his caliber around. Qateel regrets that NJ never acknowledged KA's enormous contribution to her success. Qateel has made some other interesting observation about KA too: he had been a man of strange contradictions, he used to pray and drink , both fairly regularly, was very serious and by the time Qateel started work with him, his days of flamboyance were well behind.
The most revealing piece on KA has come from that firebrand journalist and writer, late Ahmad Bashir. Being honest to the core, AB admits that he was not part of KA's inner circle but he knew enough of KA; so here is his narrative: "KA took film making seriously, worked hard at it but was an average director; it is as a composer that he excelled and surpassed every one else. His unique style was stamped both in his direction as well as music. He based his tones on sadness that would make your heart bleed; Having spent time in Shimla in his youth, he had a touch of Shimla's folk music in his tunes. He was of romantic disposition and frequently chose romantic themes for his movies."
AB has also clarified KA's role in the famous Bhagat Singh conspiracy case. KA used to supply chemicals (stolen from his college lab) to the youth involved in the bomb making. After the discovery, KA managed to extricate himself with the help of an influential relative. Despite his intense dislike of the British, KA moved away from politics since "by nature he was principled as well as uncompromising and, therefore, ill-suited for politics." He turned towards music and what a legacy he has left.
AB continues: "KA was sur samrat and used to play with the tunes. It is amazing that he hardly ever gave the impression of knowing the heights that he had scaled in music. Either he was totally unaware of his stature, or perhaps, took it for granted and considered it unnecessary to discuss it. His tunes were usually simple but unique and were meant for ordinary folks. He was a shy man and would rarely sing in public; he used to create his tune in isolation, using match box as a rhythm instrument, took his time and only after considerable effort, would call upon the whole orchestra for recording. He was multi-talented, knew philosophy, poetry, script writing as well as direction but above all was a composer par-excellence".
AB's portrait of KA's last days is not very pretty, and should be an embarrassment to us all. This is what he recounts: "His last years were sad. He had hardly any work. He would go to Evernew Studio daily, sit in his office and returned in the evening having received no offers. Those who once admired him were loathe to recognize him and at times made painful remarks like, 'He is finished'. KKA endured this period of virtual unemployment with dignity and grace that had remained his trademark all his life. These were the 70's when the Pakistani filmdom had been taken over by makers of Maula Juts and Nasir Adeebs of this world were reigning supreme. Most films made in Pakistan were copies of Indian movies. KA simply refused to work with this kind of crowd and as a result remained out of work for most of this period. The creative soul in him must have been very restless for he approached EMI and persuaded them to produce 30 long play records that have the classical raags rendered by the representatives of all 30 families with an introduction by KA before each. KA with his rare insight, had been concerned about the fate of classical music in Pakistan since the ustads of various gharanas were a rapidly diminishing breed. This was a huge undertaking that also kept the composer in him going.
KA successfully saw this phenomenal project through that has secured the classical music for the future generations. We are told it has since become part of formal syllabus in Calcutta University's music program.
KA died on 30 Oct 1984, having been long forgotten by the glamorous but treacherous world of film industry that he had once helped stand on its feet. He had been sick for some time and had passed into a coma. "His death was not totally unexpected," laments AB, "For he had been dying slowly for many years and then one day, like a gentle note of his Meend, that fades away very slowly, KA quietly slipped into the night".
KA has been gone for 28 long years, and yet, his legacy survives. This is due to the treasure of melodies that he has left behind and his service to the classical music. It is fair to say that he left music in much better shape than he had found it and for this he will never be forgotten.
(The author is a physician in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)