Habib Wali Mohammad – A Class of His Own
By Siraj Khan
A few years ago in my hometown Boston, on stage just before the start of Lagta nahi hai ji mera Habib Wali Mohammad cleared his throat and addressed the audience, "Is agli ghazal se mera rishta kuch khaas hai. Mein shehr-e-Rangoon mein paida huwa, jahan Bahadur Shah Zafar ki wafaat huwi thi. Waise umre daraz ke chaar din wali kahani mein bhi main Zafar se ziada peechhe nahi hoon ...".
While he was born about 60 years after the death of the last Mughal Emperor, their spiritual connection seemed to clearly exist. In the company of the likes of Mehdi Hasan, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Farida Khanam, Ghulam Ali and others, Habib Wali Mohammad pushed away the boundaries of the classical ghazal singing, developed his own style and class, and still managed to get into the top league of vocalists of Pakistan.
Indeed, to make a mark in the midst of all the torch-bearers of the gharanas, all of whom claimed to be the custodians of South Asian music, was obviously not easy for him. I was privileged to host many of his stage performances in Karachi, Dubai, Bahrain and the US. That he was a friend of my father’s was a great bond in itself. I recall many interesting and amusing anecdotes.
Many years ago, after he had seen our star glide through his repertoire alternating between ghazals and geets with remarkable smoothness, a journalist asked him about which gharana he belonged to. In response Habib said (smiling), "My only gharana is my ghar with Rehana (his wife’s name)". Indeed, his stage performances were always punctuated by his crisp one-liners, many of which I can still recall.
Once during his performance in Boston, the fire alarm went off and in compliance with the regulations everybody had to exit and get away from the auditorium. I too was rushing out and when I was outside he caught up with me panting without his shoes on. "Bhai mere, aur kitna bhaagna hai hamein?" We found out later that some kid had played mischief and activated the fire alarm. The program resumed. Habib, unfazed by what had happened, addressed the audience: ”Is bachhay ko mera gaana shayed pasand nahi aya. Shayed kisi aur khilone se iska dil behlana pare ga.”
Over to Bahrain in the 80s, in the midst of an engaging program, somebody in the audience requested for Laung Gawacha. Habib let go of his harmonium and said in Urdu, “Look, firstly, I am a Memon and as if even to speak and sing in Urdu is not bad enough, you are now asking me to perform in Punjabi. Secondly, this song has been sung by a very attractive lady who has an equally beautiful voice (referring to Musarrat Nazir) and just look at me and my voice. Can I be excused?”. The audience was in stitches. He then kept on singing as planned. Towards the end, he suddenly asked, "Woh laung gawacha wale sahib hein ya chale gaye?" The gentleman was still there. Habib said, “Well, I will try and sing the farmaish, but please close all doors so that nobody escapes. I need a captive audience for this one and also your prayers”. Once again, there was an outburst from the audience. His rendition was flawless, delivered from the top drawer.
He was equally at home with all ghazals, whether it was the romantic verses of Ghalib or somebody more contemporary like Parveen Shakir. Much earlier during my days in Dubai, he was performing at a mehfil at our humble abode. As a host, I asked him of his preferences, do’s and don’ts. He had just one request. That we do not serve tea to the guests in cups and saucers. Rather use styrofoam hot cups and plastics spoons. “The clutter of the ceramic and the spoons really upsets me and affects my performance”. During the program as somebody requested for Raatein thi chandni joban pe thi bahar, Habib quipped, ”Lagta hai ke bhanwre ke sath aap ki kuch purani yaadein wabasta hein.”
Habib was a simple man, preferring the small joys of life to the big ones. He and his wife were staying with us once. We chatted on Friday evening and retired early in view of his concert next evening in which about 400 people were expected to attend. Activity in the kitchen downstairs made us get up in the morning and I went down tiptoeing so as not to disturb our guests. What I found was that Habib sahib was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes from last night’s dinner and the begum was making parathas for breakfast for everyone.
Over breakfast, I asked him which one of the Baazi hits he liked more (referring to Ashiyan jal gaya or Joban pe thi bahar). His response was, “Thehr bhi jao sanam” sung by Mala and picturized on Nisho and composed by maestro Sohail Rana. Such was his wonderful sense of humor. These are absolutely wonderful memories. Their only daughter Ruxana is married to my close friend, Yunus Bengali.
Legendary composer OP Nayyar was a great fan of Habib Wali Mohammad. OPN shared with me once that he had composed two songs in the 1940s, which he had also penned himself and recorded in the voice of Habib under his assumed name of Kamal Roy, so that his parents wouldn’t know that it was their son singing. CH Atma was also present at the recording studios. ( HMV 78 rpm record No N 88095). Check these out:
Side 1. Kit Gayi Man ki Naav Maanjhi soojat nahee kinara
Side 2. Aag lagi man mein moray
Habib left for the US soon thereafter for higher studies. When he returned in 1947, the landscape had changed. Kamal Roy was an open secret by then, but now he was also armed with his MBA, so his parents were more receptive to his ghazal-singing exploits.
The list of Habib Wali Muhammad’s ghazal and geet hits is rather long. From Ghalib’s Ye na thi hamari qismat, Marne hi duwaen kyun mangoon by Jazbi, Parveen Shakir’s Gori karat singhar, Jigar's Mera jo haal ho so ho barqe nazar girae ja, Afshan Sohail Rana’s Gajra bana ke le aa malinya, Rahe talab mein kaun kisi ka, Kab mera nasheman ahle chaman, Mujhe bhulane wale, the patriotic evergreens like Sohni Dharti Allah Rakhe, Ae Nigar-e-Watan and so many others. His musical collaboration with composer Sohail Rana was highly productive and if there was one creation which alone can keep his name alight forever, it is the gem from their 1973 film Badal aur Bijli, popular not just on both sides of the border, but across the planet.
Waqt ki qaid mein zindagi hai magar, chand gharrian yahi hein jo azaad hein
Inko kho kar kaheen janejaan umr bhar na taraste raho, aaj jaane ki zid na karo