Amjad Ali’s new book is a selection of interviews of some of the greatest in Pakistani and Indian music
It’s always tricky for a reviewer to review a book whose author is known to them. In Amjad Ali’s case, it’s even trickier. I have known him for the last couple of decades, both professionally and personally. An artist, an art lover and a social activist, he has remained associated as a broadcast journalist in the capacity of senior editor and producer with German radio Deutsche Welle’s Urdu-language service for more than three decades. His book Milay jo Kakashaan mein (Those who met in Kahkashaan) is a selection of interviews of some of the greatest in Pakistani and Indian music, which he has done for his weekly DW radio programme Kahkashaan (Galaxy).
The book has interviews of luminaries of Pakistan and India such as singers Noor Jehan, Lata Mangeshkar, Muhammad Rafi, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; musicians Naushad, Khayam, M Ashraf, Nisar Bazmi, and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan; and lyricists Majrooh Sultanpuri, Nida Faazli, Qateel Shifai, Gulzar, and Ali Sardar Jaafri.
Unlike his interviews with political personalities where he asks probing questions to bring out what he himself calls “the contradiction in their words and deeds”, Amjad Ali’s conversations with the literati and artistes are those of an admirer of their work. His questions here are less probing and are more of an attempt to know more and more about their life, their age, and their colleagues. He may say all he did was ask - in awe, for sure. But this act of his turns the tap on. This style of his has made his interviewees, to quote poet Amjad Islam Amjad’s flap, more and more loveable to the readers.
Each interview is prefaced by a brief biography and preceded by a personal introduction in which he narrates why a guest was on the show, the thinking behind some of his questions and how he sees them himself. He does succeed in getting more of an ‘insider’s view’ than usual by being admirably specific about musical and poetical matters – asking musicians and poets about their skills, riaz exercises or specific compositions and subjects. In his trusted company, even the most reticent of guests relax and open up. Even simple questions bring out much that is eloquent, informative, revealing, entertaining, and of keen interest to the readers.
Art truly transcends borders here. The love and respect maestros from Pakistan and India have for each other is quite evident. They know each other. They admire each other’s work. They learn from each other distantly and, where possible, personally.
Through these illuminating reminiscences, we know the singers, musicians and lyricists as they saw themselves and other leading lights of their age. Humility is a trait that almost all of them have. So self-effacing is Naushad, for instance, he always speaks highly of others. His description of super star Kundan Lal Sehgal shows how compassionate he was but how excessive consumption of alcohol consumed him so early in his life.
We have masters who never rushed their output, and could go years between their creations. This wasn’t because ideas and images didn’t flow. They weren’t ones to dash things off. They had chosen perfection unambiguously. ‘Instant’ was not their cup of tea. They wanted professional ethics to be followed.
These are honest talks by celebrities about their rebellious nature, struggles, perseverance, persistence and believing in oneself; a symphony of inspiration, in effect.
Art truly transcends borders here. The love and respect maestros from Pakistan and India have for one another is quite evident. They know one another. They admire the other’s work. They learn from the other distantly and, where possible, personally. We do see certain complaints though, of not being acknowledged or credited for something they have done, sung or composed.
It’s not simply that Amjad Ali – courtesy, according to him, mostly of a colleague Shahnaz Husain – has had access to so many supremely talented people, it’s that he opens them up to go deep. These legends speak about what drives them, what helps them see the world in fresh ways, and what inspires them to turn their visions into art. Most of these masters are no more among us but there work lives on. Standing as a testament to human achievement, showing how creativity illuminates our world, these interviews — ones of lasting relevance — are as lively on the page, with beautiful illustrations of each interviewee made by Amjad Ali himself, as they were on air.
Milay jo Kakashaan mein
Author: Amjad Ali
Pages: 225 (hardback)
Price: Rs 695
The writer is a print, broadcast and online journalist associated with Jang Group of Newspapers as Editor, Special Assignments