Runa Laila(SJ Singh/HT Photo)
Runa Laila(SJ Singh/HT Photo)

Excerpt: Being Pakistani; Society, Culture and the Arts by Raza Rumi

While Alamgir was not famous across India, Runa Laila was wildly popular in the 1970s and her songs continue to fascinate. A look at these pioneers of Pakistani Pop
Hindustan Times | By Raza Rumi
UPDATED ON JUL 20, 2018 10:43 PM IST
312pp, Rs 399; HarperCollins
312pp, Rs 399; HarperCollins

The decade of the 1970s in Pakistan was tumultuous to say the least. The cataclysmic events of 1971 led to the birth of Bangladesh and the emergence of Bhutto’s Pakistan. The contradictions of Bhutto’s politics and the consolidation of a national security state took place during this decade. After the 1971 debacle, Pakistan’s first civilian martial law administrator, and later Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whipped up nationalism. However, his secular and liberal politics opened up space within the country and cultural expression blossomed. It was also a country eager to forget the trauma of 1971 and leave it behind. But Pakistan was not isolated as the seventies were a decade of transition in many other countries and towards the end of the decade the rise of neoliberal conservatism resulted in a shift towards conservatism even in advanced countries.

Bhutto nationalized many industries, launched redistributive programmes such as land reform and other changes, and also worked towards a consensus constitution that the country had been aiming to achieve since its creation in 1947. The cultural institutions received state patronage and Pakistan television emerged as a major platform for an unprecedented era of openness. Faiz Ahmad Faiz was assigned the task to devise a new cultural policy that remains one of the most relevant, yet neglected documents of our recent history. PTV was also a vehicle for propagating democratic and socialist ideas, while playwrights such as Enver Sajjad, Safdar Mir and others found ways to articulate their ideology through popular culture.

Concurrently, the global trends such as the rise of pop music, new movements in art and fashion also influenced urban Pakistan. Some of these symbols were state-led such as when Bhutto popularized both the shalwar kameez and the Mao jacket as formal apparel. But experimentation by musicians fused the folk with the changing contours of technology and Western trends. Initially, film music played an important role in hybrid forms and this is how Pakistan’s pop revolution commenced during the 1970s.

The seventies were also the peak years of Pakistani cinema. By the arrival of 1980s and the conservative dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq, the film industry declined and only in recent years has it been trying to re-emerge from the ashes. The 1970s pop was an offshoot of a vibrant film music scene and the thriving cinema culture. Pakistani urban-middle classes adopted fashion, lifestyle and listened to music from the Pakistani films of those years. Pakistani film stars like Waheed Murad and Shabnam popularized long hair for men and short-shirts for women in the country. A certain ‘hair dance’ also became popular in which, shedding all their inhibitions, young Pakistani dancers used to shake it literally.

The film industry provided directors and musicians a platform to fuse western sounds with the local culture and Pakistani art. This synthesis gave way to new innovations by Pakistani musicians. Ahmad Rushdi and Runa Laila became the voices of that era. Later, Alamgir emerged as the torchbearer of a new musical sensibility, which continues in one form or another even today. These feisty singers and their composers attracted younger Pakistanis.

The seventies, in terms of global pop music, were a decade of new, thriving trends and inventions resulting in the emergence of fresh genres and sub-genres. Disco emerged during this decade, as did multiple variations of rock music such as punk and soft rock, glam rock, hard rock, etc. The origins of hip-hop can also be traced to this time. Pakistan slowly absorbed such trends.

The Pakistani music scene witnessed a gradual transition from popular film music to our own version of pop. Initially, the film industry absorbed pop influences but the focus and individualism of the performer makes this genre distinct from its cinematic variety. Alamgir’s performance of ‘DaikhanaTha’ on PTV with a Turkish pop singer symbolizes the turning point in terms of musical expressions of this decade. This was foreboding as the decline of the film industry, and the music, in 1980s gave more space to the blossoming of pop as a genre.

The Magical Runa Laila

But even before Alamgir turned into a pop idol, the Bengali singer Runa Laila had made her mark and set many a trend. As the trailblazer of her particular genre, Laila remains unmatched for her versatility in rendering geet, ghazal and club numbers (to be called disco in the eighties).

Runa Laila on 13 April, 1979. (SN Sinha/HT Photo)
Runa Laila on 13 April, 1979. (SN Sinha/HT Photo)

Runa Laila, born in 1952, started her career in late 1960s as a playback singer in Pakistan’s film industry. She grew up in Karachi and received training in music at an early age. She received early music instruction from many teachers including Ustad Qadeer, also known as Piya RangHabib Uddin Ahmed, and Ustad Ghulam Kader, the elder brother of Mehdi Hasan. She even trained in the art of ghazal gayeki. Her parents wanted her to be an acclaimed dancer and ensured that she was schooled in Kathak and Bharatanatyam styles. However, her voice was soon recognized as her forte.

Laila started rather early and as a young child performed on a stage show, inter-school competitions and won many prizes. As she grew up, Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television (PTV) recognized her extraordinary talent and made her debut as playback singer for the movie Jugnu. As a teenager she sang ‘Unki nazron sey mohabbat ka jo paigham mila’ in the film Hum Dono (1966). Later, Laila performed on PTV as well and made several memorable appearances including in the ‘Zia Mohyuddin Show’.

What made Laila distinctive from her peers was the fluidity of her voice and style. From the conventional film geet to spirited songs such as ‘Mera babu chayl chabeela’, she covered a wide range. Two songs of that era ‘Tune kiyashay mujhe pilaa di hai’ (what have you made me drink) and ‘Dil dharke mein tum se yeh kaise kahoon’ (my heart flutters when I wish to tell you something…) are memorable for they changed the future direction of film music as a whole.

‘Tune kiyashay’as included in Tehzeeb (1971) was picturized on the Lollywood diva Rani. It was playfully inventive and the situation of a young woman getting drunk in her bedroom and celebrating it was unthinkable for decades to come. Laila’s other hit DilDharke which continues to inspire covers and pop culture today was again filmed in a bedroom setting where Rani seduces Waheed Murad. The film Anujuman released in 1970 and was an all-time blockbuster that established Laila as a formidable playback singer. There was no looking back.

In early seventies, Laila became a threat to established singers such as the maestro Madam Noor Jahan. There are many oral accounts as to how the evergreen Noor Jahan kicked her out of one of the studios while singing a duet.

After 1971, Laila stayed in Pakistan for a few years, eventually moving to Bangladesh. Her legacy has been permanent as no discussion on modern Pakistani film music is complete without her reference.

In 1974, Laila sang for Bollywood and gained much traction but it was in her new home in Bangladesh that she found another illustrious period of fame and experimentation. In India she made her debut with the film Ek Se Badkar Ek (1974) and worked with eminent composers such as Jaidev, Kalyanji Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Bappi Lahiri. In Bangladesh she continues to sing and is very much an iconic figure. Her versatility became the hallmark of post-1971 Bangladeshi film music as well as pop music. In the world of Bengali pop her songs ‘Sadherlaubanailomorey’ and ‘Bondhutin din tor barite gelam’ are extremely popular among others.

Few vocalists have crossed regions and boundaries with ease. Laila has been honoured with multiple awards in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Her exit from Pakistan, however, means more than a physical departure. It also ended an era of the hybridized Pakistani culture, the influences of East Bengal spelling a more religio-nationalistic identity that also affected popular culture.

Alamgir, the King

It is not surprising that the other icon of the seventies and beyond was also of Bengali descent. Alamgir studied in Dhaka and moved to Karachi for higher education. He was born in modern-day Bangladesh and completed his early education in Dhaka. As a talented artist, he became a major figure in Karachi’s pop scene. It was PTV that brought him a mass following. His first song for PTV was ‘Albelarahi’ featured in Pakistan’s first pop musical series ‘Sunday ke Sunday’. His second song ‘Pyar hai zindagi ka gehna’ was inspired by an English song. Alamgir earned the title ‘Elvis of the East’, given his style and the global context of the times. His music earned him wide popularity within Pakistan, notably amongst the younger generation.

In Karachi, he started singing at a small café called Globe Hotel on Tariq Road where his vocals and guitar skills were noticed, taking him to PTV. This is where he met the finest of our composers and another avant-garde artist Sohail Rana who chose him as a guitarist for the children programme’s Hum Hi Hum, which he presented every week. By the early 1970s, Alamgir was a heartthrob and crowds would gather on Tariq Road just to catch a glimpse of our own Elvis.

Alamgir, though inspired by Western pop, set his own style. He transformed the older modes of presenting music, and by dancing and engaging his audience, he set a new culture into motion. He was even ahead of the Western trends in those times as he chose his costumes, the stage ambiance and, well before the music video generation, presented a theatrical package along with music.

Alamgir merged the local influences such as Kishore Kumar, Manna De, Abbasuddin, Hemanta Mukherjee, Mehdi Hasan with the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Englebert Humperdink and Simon and Garfunkel, among others.

Film music was not where Alamgir could make inroads. Whatever little he sang for films was widely appreciated and acclaimed. In 1978, he received the Nigar Award, along with Mehdi Hassan and Noor Jehan for the song ‘Mujhe dil say na bhulana’ from another outstanding film of that time Aina. All in all, he sang over 400 songs on PTV, that too in many languages.

Alamgir later migrated to the United States where the rest of his family was located but he had also internationalized his oeuvre. Since the 1970s, he has performed in nearly forty five countries around the world.

Author Raza Rumi (Courtesy HarperCollins)
Author Raza Rumi (Courtesy HarperCollins)

The trendsetting work of Alamgir is less known today. He individualized pop music, taking it out of the cinema screens onto private spaces and later the television screen which as a mass medium had a far greater reach than even cinema. Aside from his individual performative experimentation, Alamgir collaborated with local and foreign artists and became a bridge, the harbinger of transition. The political environment unwittingly helped him. As more and more Pakistanis switched to television and video cassette recorders from late 1970s, pop acquired a more discrete and widely acceptable shape.

In recent years, the music revolution which is aided by the youth bulge and an explosion of creativity across the country can be traced back to Alamgir, his style and his ability to carve a niche within the conventional parameters of Pakistani music.

Read more: Fearing sectarianism, Pakistan’s qawwali struggles to survive after Amjad Sabri’s killing

Towards another Pakistan

The Pakistan of seventies was another country. Partying, dancing, drinking alcohol, and horse racing were not taboos. Cinemas thrived across the country. Pakistan also straddled the ‘hippie trail’ from Turkey to India, frequented by western tourists. It interacted closely with Western culture. Hippies were a common sight near hashish shops in Peshawar. Bars were commonplace in major urban centres. Musical fanfare at the shrines of Sufi saints defined the cultural outlook of the country. The urban middle classes also sympathized with radical politics and comprised perhaps the most politically active generations in Pakistan. But this changed all too soon.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as a powerful prime minister, steered the country towards a global Muslim identity. The new constitution included several ‘Islamic’ clauses, and Pakistan hosted the second OIC Summit in 1974 to showcase solidarity with the Muslim world. In the same year, the Ahamdiyya community was declared ‘non-Muslim’ by the Parliament through a constitutional amendment. In a move to appease the right-wing religious lobby, Bhutto started the Islamization process towards the end of his rule. This state action unleashed a never-ending process, which was appropriated by General Zia ul Haq who took over the reins of power in 1977. From that date onwards, the wave of Islamization changed the institutional and social landscape of Pakistan with serious consequences for the arts, culture and popular imagination of Pakistan’s identity.

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