Montage of memories

November 22, 2015

Akhtar Waqar Azeem’s account is neither a history of PTV nor his autobiography. It recaptures the overall picture of a new medium developing in this country in the late 1960s and early 70s

Montage of memories

The year 2014 was the golden jubilee year for Pakistan Television (PTV) and people were expecting many books, autobiographies, memoirs and histories by those who pioneered this institution half a century ago, or worked for it in the early years of its existence. Experienced PTV producers like Yawar Hayat, Bakhtyar Ahmed, S.M.Anwer, Ghufran Imtiazi and Sahira Kazmi, early tv writers like Munnu Bhai, Bano Qudsia, Enver Sajjad and Athar Shah Khan, and seasoned actors like Qavi Khan, Nisar Qadiri, Salman Shahid, Abid Ali, Shujaut Hashmi, Sajjad Kishwar and Rehan Azhar must have many stories to tell. But none came forward to open his box of memories before the public at large, and we ended up with only a handful of newspaper articles on the subject.

Agha Nasir, the ex MD of PTV, had written a book in 2011, on the history of PTV, and it is the only source for any background information. Now, towards the end of 2015, Akhtar Waqar Azeem has come up with his memoir which was apparently written and designed for the golden jubilee year, but for some reason got delayed in publication.

While Agha Nasir’s book was an authentic research manual on the subject, Azeem’s memoir is more like a nostalgic trip down the PTV lane. He is less concerned about exact dates and minute details of events, and more interested in the overall picture of a new medium, developing in this country in the late 1960s and early 70s. Nor does he call the book a history of PTV, or even an autobiography. He says he has only preserved some cherished memories because "if we are cut off from our past, we also lose our connection with the present and the future".

It’s like a montage of memories in which images from various phases of PTV, slowly merge, and finally a multicoloured three dimensional picture is created in the reader’s mind.

The story starts in 1967 when Akhtar Waqar Azeem, a fresh university graduate, joined PTV as a producer, and got formal training at a makeshift studio in Chaklala. Two years later, fully equipped with all tricks of the trade, he was sent to the Karachi centre of PTV which was running under the supervision of a giant, Aslam Azhar. Azhar had seen the spark in young Azeem and wanted to groom him into a perfect programme producer. Like an army recruit, he went through laborious exercises -- of running after celebrities to get appointments for tv shows, attending late night rehearsals, getting up early to reach the playground to set up cameras and sound equipment.

Related article: Interview with Aslam Azhar

Azeem produced all sorts of programmes from sports to music to quiz shows, but his own choice was Sukhanver -- a literary programme decorated with musical compositions. An Urdu poet was invited every week to talk about his poetry and then his own selection of poetry was rendered by the best singers of the day. Since these poems and ghazals were composed by the top music directors, they would become a permanent source of entertainment as independent items. Several popular songs of Fareeda Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Mehnaz Begam, Naheed Akhtar and Nayyara Noor owe themselves to Azeem’s Sukhanver.

For the sake of completion, Azeem at times peeps at the pre-1967 era, through the eyes of his senior colleagues and takes his readers to the early days of television. One such flashback shows us the very first transmission sent on air by PTV. The day was November 26, 1964, the location, a tin shed in the back lot of Radio Pakistan Lahore. Tariq Aziz, the first television announcer in Pakistan, introduced the show, President Ayub Khan delivered his inaugurating speech, a table-tennis match was shown live, weather forecast. In the children’s programme, they are shown how to make a toy-aeroplane, Urdu news, Ashfaq Ahmed presented a quiz show, an English movie, announcement about the next day’s programmes, and finally the national anthem.

In the beginning, the daily transmission was only for three and a half hours, and Mondays were off for the cleaning and maintenance of cameras and other equipment. All programmes, including dramas, were live as there were no recording facilities in the early days.

Another flashback appears when the author describes the first colour transmission in 1976. Whether PTV should go coloured like America and Europe or stay monochrome like its neighbour India was a big debate in our newspapers and other intellectual forums. At this point, Azeem reminds us that a similar debate had taken place a decade earlier when the very introduction of television in the country was questioned. But the small experimental transmitter of only 10-mile range soon covered a big part of the Punjab province and, within a decade, it became coloured as well.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a great enthusiast of television and after Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi, he instantly wanted to start television transmission from Peshawar and Quetta. Aslam Azhar worked day and night to meet Mr. Bhutto’s deadline and thus Peshawar and Quetta started emitting tv signals in 1974.

In the beginning, the priorities of TV were set as Education first, then Information, and lastly Entertainment. But the economic needs and the commercial pressure soon reversed the order: drama and music became the first priority and education was dragged to the third position. To overcome this discrepancy, Azeem tells his readers that an educational channel was launched in 1992. A 24/7 news channel was started in the year 2000, and an English language full time channel, called PTV World, was started as recently as 2013.

Read also: PTV’s nostalgic journey

Akhtar Waqar Azeem was appointed at the highest, and well deserved, administrative post of Managing Director in 2003. It is interesting to note that all previous MDs had started their careers somewhere else, and then moved to PTV, but Akhtar started his career in PTV as a producer and then passing through the stages of Programme Manager and General Manager, he finally reached the top position, and in this regard he was the first ‘home-grown’ MD -- a son of the PTV soil.

50 years of PTV history is a long story and it wasn’t humanly possible to squeeze it in a book of only 287 pages. So, Akhtar has certainly missed some crucial moments, like Burhanuddin Hassan’s announcement of East Pakistan’s separation before a stunned gathering of Karachi TV employees, Zaman Ali Khan’s emotional decision to remain in West Pakistan, and Kemal ud Din Ahmed’s dilemma whether to opt for Dacca or Karachi.

The book is aesthetically-designed and well-produced on good quality paper with coloured photographs, but the price, 1200 rupees, is still very high for an average reader. It is hoped that the publisher will either bring down the price to an affordable level, or publish a low-priced edition separately.

Hum Bhi Vuheen Maujood Thay (Memoir)
Author: Akhtar Waqar Azeem
Publisher: Sang-e-Meel, Lahore (42 3 722 0100)
Price: Rs1200/
Pages: 267

Montage of memories