New Age Islam
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Islamic Society ( 29 Jul 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Lata, Rafi and the missing Islamic motif

By Jawed Naqvi


July 30th, 2010


Saturday will mark the 30th death anniversary of Mohammed Rafi, India’s singing legend who was loved beyond the borders of South Asia. Though he was paired with many playback singers over a career spanning four decades, his more memorable songs were rendered with the iconic female vocalist, Lata Mangeshkar. Rafi was a Punjabi Muslim, Lata a Maharashtrian Hindu. Their love songs still inspire millions.


The Lata-Rafi pairing was not some deliberate shoring up of maudlin secularism in the clichéd Hindu-Muslim mode. Just before them, the duets of Kundan Lal Sehgal and Khursheed Bano were a rage in a self-assured India. After the trauma of 1947, Rafi and Lata, unconsciously and unobtrusively, came to symbolise the multicultural resilience and the feasibility of the experiment called India. And nearly all their duets were similarly — unconsciously and unobtrusively — a musical rejection of the idea of Pakistan, not necessarily the way its founder conceived it, but the way it evolved.


For decades after Partition there were other ways in which India claimed the higher moral ground over Pakistan in the realm of popular and classical cultural motifs. I am privy to an ongoing discussion between worried artists, mostly from Pakistan, about the state of affairs. To back up their thesis they listed several grievances with their country.


Only on Sunday, says Waseem Altaf who seems to have initiated a Web discussion in Pakistan, he was watching a TV programme on the novelist Quratulain Haider. She went to Pakistan in 1949 where she joined the Press Information Department. In 1959 her great novel Aag Ka Darya was published. It raised important questions about Partition. It was this more than anything else, feels Altaf, that made it impossible for her to continue to live in Pakistan. So she returned to India and permanently settled there.


Similarly, Sahir Ludhianvi, a much-loved romantic poet, had settled down in Lahore in 1943, where he worked for a number of Urdu magazines. Everything was going well until his writings, influenced by Communism, appeared in Savera. A warrant for his arrest was put out by the government of Pakistan. In 1949 Sahir fled to India and never looked back.


Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the magical classical singer, was a Pakistani citizen. He became so disillusioned by the apparent apathy towards him and his art in Pakistan that he applied for and was granted a permanent Indian immigrant visa in 1957-58. He migrated to India where he lived happily till his death. Perhaps all who migrated to India lived a full life and were conferred with awards and affection.

On the other hand, Saadat Hassan Manto, whose acerbically crafted stories of the Partition still evoke and define the tragedy, migrated to Pakistan after 1947 where he was tried thrice for obscenity. Disheartened and financially broke he died at the early age of 42.

Zia Sarhadi, the Marxist filmmaker who made memorable films like Footpath and Humlog, was a celebrity in Bombay when he chose to migrate to Pakistan. Rahguzar, his first movie there, turned out to be the last he ever directed. During Gen. Zia-ul Haq’s martial law he was picked up by the Army and kept in solitary confinement in terrible conditions. The charges against him were sedition and an inclination towards Marxism. On his release he left the country to live in the UK never to come back.

The scholar poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was arrested in 1951 under the Public Safety Act and charged in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case. Later he was jailed for more than four years.


Ustad Daman, the popular Punjabi poet, had a charisma of his own. His radical views landed him in jail on one occasion following the discovery of a bomb planted in his room by his detractors. Pandit Nehru wooed him to take Indian citizenship but he stayed put in Pakistan in spite of the challenges he faced.

It was common to find Pakistanis seeking refuge in India right up to Zia-ul Haq’s martial law regime. Indira Gandhi ensured that the special guests were well looked after. In the 1990s, the tide turned and this is what the excessively nationalist Indian intellectuals fail to accept. They seem to have little idea of how deeply the rise of the Right-wing in India corroded the very idea on which India was founded.

The events in Ayodhya found a bewildered Jyotindra Nath Dixit, a fine diplomat who was foreign secretary when the Babri tragedy happened in December 1992, telling his team to simply admit to the worried world that the Indian dream had suffered a setback, not a reversal. Was he right? Time will tell.


Perhaps it is already too late. The Right-wing rumblings in India, a country many Pakistanis till recently saw as an escape from Zia’s bigotry, was beginning to look like a replica of Pakistan. That’s how Fehmida Riaz, sensitive to India’s Nehruvian tryst, not the least because she had found refuge there through much of Zia’s military excesses, was moved to speak up. She wrote:


“Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle

Ab tak kahaan chhupe thay bhai

Wo ghaamadpan, wo jaahilpan jisme humne sadi gawaee

Ab pahonchi hai dwaar tumharey

Arey badhaee, bahot badhaee”


On one occasion when Fehmida was reciting the poem at a mushaira in Delhi, an enraged Army officer believed she was insulting his patriotism and whipped out a pistol. She was quickly rushed out and escorted to the safety of her hotel room.

The Lata-Rafi fan club is substantially curtailed today. Along with it the era of their multicultural representation of India has all but waned. It would strike anyone from that era as something odd to read a newspaper headline, as one did on Wednesday, to the effect that the Indian government wants to correct the absence of an Islamic motif from the Commonwealth Games due in October in Delhi.