Applause of starlight for the voice of the moon | Dawn

Oct 2014

A personal tribute to Habib Wali Mohammad

This is a personal remembrance and tribute for Habib Wali Mohammad who passed away on Sept 4, 20l4 in Los Angeles, whose voice remains part of the ether and not just a sound in a studio.

For reasons that may become evident in the following recollection, Habib Wali Mohammad`s voice often felt as if it fills a void. From outer space. We assume the moon is silent because it probably is. But if we want to link a male voice sound to the splendid, isolated glory of the jewel in the night-sky, we could do no better than listen to Habib Wali Mohammad.

Almost exactly 40 years ago, in 1974, I completed writing the screenplay for Pakistan`s first English language cinema feature film " Beyond the last mountain " which I also directed and produced.

We commenced work on writing the lyrics and composing the music for the three Urdu songs, two of which would be filmed in voice-over form and only one in lip-synch on screen.

Young, already- reputed poet Obaidullah Aleem (then a producer at PTV, Karachi; alas, now deceased) and already popular composer Sohail Rana (now in Canada) were invited to work with Asad Mohammad Khan, the eminent Urdu writer ,( and the dialogue-writer for the Urdu version of the film titled " Musafir " ) and myself. All three Urdu songs appeared in both the original English and Urdu versions of the film.

At my residence, through long nights of discussion and debate in 1974 on the exact words and phrases that could express the theme, specific facets of the story and the character`s sentiments at a point of the narrative, we worked together in exciting, sometimes disputatious but eventually productive harmony. Two songs were specially written for the film, and all three songs became quite popular on their release by EMI with the two films, in 1976.

One was " Hum raahi aisi rahoan ke, jinki koi manzil hi nahin (We are travellers of paths that have no destinations ...) an early, still-lasting special favourite of film actor Nadeem. The song was played in voice-over, on an early morning beach scene in Sandspit on lead actor Usman Peerzada, doing his first cinema film, as were the fellow actors: Shameem Hilaly, Marrianna Karim, Muneeza Hashmi and others. The song was evocatively, endearingly sung by the gifted Akhlak Ahmed.

The other song was " Hari hari mehndi ke neeche, surkh gulaab ... teri ankhoon jaise.." (Beneath the green henna, red roses as charming as your eyes) sung vivaciously by the rising star Mehnaz (both singers alas , also now deceased).

The third song was an almost instant choice, and it was already pre-written, as if in anticipation of the film`s theme. This was a ghazal by Aleem, which was also the title of his anthology " Chand chehra sitara ankhein "(the face is the moon , the stars are the eyes).

To quote from page 67 from the book of the film published in 2001 by Royal Book Company, Karachi: "To Obaidullah Aleem this is his most important single poem: it is a well-known work in the literary world for (then) over 10 years. Written exclusively in blank verse, " Chand Chehra " was a challenge to the music director. Perhaps never before in our country has blank verse been given a musical form (as a complete song). Sohail Rana establishes a precedent with a strong, mature and unforgettable composition. In rendering this song, Habib Wali Mohammad has also taken his own talent to a new level of achievement. His voice captures the loneliness and melancholy but it also inspires vivid images of courage and resolution, all the ambivalence contained in the poetic work.

The lyrics almost perfectly captured the tension, the uncertainty, the pain and the quest of the lead character of the film, Hamid Ahmed, searching for coherence in the re-shaped Pakistan of post-1971, and for justice , after his father`s assassination.

Just as the choice of the theme song was virtually instant, so too was the first choice for the singer by Sohail Rana in the person of Habib Wali Mohammad, a choice immediately endorsed by the rest of us. The " Chand chehra " ghazal is unusual, complex and formidably challenging to set to melody and music, leave along to singing.

As with the distinctive background music of the film and as in the other songs too, here too we used, again for the first time in Pakistan, the beautiful sound of the harpsichord. To fetch the instrument, we arranged for Sohail Rana to especially fly to London, courtesy PIA, to purchase it and bring it post-haste for the recordings in Karachi.

In Sohail Rana`s own words quoted from page 66 of the book about the film, cited earlier : " This unique instrument has an extra-ordinary sensitivity and a range great enough to remain versatile throughout history and remain forever haunting. Today it is contemporary and fresh due to musical geniuses such as Henri Mancini, Paul Mauriat and Maurice Jarre. Now in Pakistan for the first time, the harpsichord, along with a variety of other pieces, expresses the particular vision of this film.The harpsichord was deftly played by Akhtar Ali.

Once Sohail Rana applied his immense talent to creating the unique composition and orchestration , it was only Habib Wali Mohammad who could have rendered so sensitively and so memorably the entire ghazal in a voice and tone that melded the sense of yearning and despair and desire into a singular masterpiece of sound.

The words commence with a lament and a question." Mere khudaya, mein zindagi ke khawab likhoon, ke azaab likhoon? ... Ye mera chehra, ye meri ankhein, bujhe huwe chiragh jaise, wo phir se jalne ke muntazir hein ... o chaand chehra, sitara ankhein .(My dear God, should I write about the dreams of life, or about its nightmares ? My face, my eyes are like darkened lamps which want to light up again ... the face is the moon ... the stars are the eyes...) In its final form, one used the song by dividing its verses into three phases, at different points of the unfolding story, to serve as a linking narrative heard in the backdrop of action. It was Habib Wali Mohammad`s soulful rendition, softly yet clearly pronounced, subtly cadenced, powerfully rendered, that gave each moment and passage a special depth and resonance.

The first part of this now-little heard classic is available, along with the other two songs on Youtube. It is planned to shortly upload the 80 percent of the film that has survived after its public release in 1976. About 20per cent was damaged during storage. Meanwhile, dear Habib Wali Mohammad sahib, now so close to the moon: thank you for the legacy you have left for us. May the light of the stars applaud forever your inimitable talent.

As published in Dawn Images on Sunday 19th October 2014