Zia Mohyeddin, one of Pakistan’s greatest figures in arts and culture, passed away in Karachi on Monday at the age of 91. He gave Pakistan a new genre of entertainment: literary readings that only he could provide on the basis of a long career in acting on stage. He added commentary to what he read from English and Urdu literature, spellbinding audiences little used to this kind of entertainment. He would reenact Shakespeare for an hour, pausing to talk about Hamlet as a “troubled” and morally uncertain soul. And there was Lear too, problematic as all his tragic heroes, undermining our mistaken belief that tragedy underlines fallen greatness. Zia said it was the classicism of Shakespeare that he had grown to live with.
He was always cut-and-dried, absolutely restrained even when he was triggering belly-laughs with his “new” rendition of Mushtaq Yusufi. In recent years, he recreated scenes from Shakespeare on a darkened stage spotlighting his classic profile, his face chiseled with age and words issuing from his lips in cadence. He didn’t read, he enacted and evoked as packed halls listened. His figure recalled his years in London when he had caught the attention of E.M. Forster in whose Passage to India he was to act as Dr. Aziz. Writing in Government College journal The Ravi in 2013, Zia remembered his early days. Born in Lyallpur, now called Faisalabad, prior to Partition in a Punjabi family originally from Rohtak, East Punjab (now in Haryana). His father, Khadim Mohyeddin, was a mathematician, musicologist, playwright, and lyricist associated with various theater groups. This background gave us a genius to remember. Zia spent his early life in Kasur and Lahore. He was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London from 1953 to 1956. After stage roles in Long Day’s Journey into Night and Julius Caesar, he made his West End debut in A Passage to India in 1960 at the Comedy Theatre, which ran for 302 performances.
Zia’s last camp was the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi. He was adept at recalling the greats of English and Urdu literatures and entranced his audiences with his delivery that did not gibe with the “traditional” style that was of hortatory in nature. To him it was always the classical restraint that clinched the effect: it was the understatement that would be the most difficult to teach; for him, the Urdu couplet must have an un-doggerel, conversational rhythm. He read Ghalib or Mir to transform them with his non-formulaic conversational rendition; then brought out Faiz’s ingrained feminine instinct of bearing the pain.
Zia Mohyeddin was a genius that Pakistan will remember forever because no one like him will come again. He guided us to the secret of his craft saying: “the rhythm of poetry creates the rhythm of the music and the meaning of the poem creates its ambience.” How very different from our ghazal performances in which the singer, more often than not, is totally indifferent to the meaning of the poem. He wanted the singer to know the meaning of what he sings; and if the song was mystical he wanted the singer to be mystical.