Zia Mohyeddin as I knew him

His contribution to this genre of art is enormous and many students owe their training and success to Zia Mohyeddin.

By S. M. Shahid | March 2023

There has been an unprecedented outpouring of condolences on social media on the demise of Zia Mohyeddin: his fans and friends’ prayers for his eternal peace, eulogizing his work, mourners recalling their encounter and cherished moments with the icon. A few posts have highlighted his parentage, his year of birth (1931, though unsure whether it is June 20 or December 20) the city of his birth, educational institutions he attended, etc.

An excellent write-up in Dawn by Mira Hashmi, granddaughter of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, provides certain facts of his life that I believe not many among Zia Mohyeddin’s admirers would be aware of; information such as Zia’s father Mr. Khadim Mohyeddin not being happy with his son for his lack of interest in music. Zia himself has confirmed this in his writing: “In all my travels I have met no one outside the musical profession who cared so intensely about music. My father mused that countless treasures lay in store for me if I learnt to appreciate music. It took me a very long time to discover that he was right.”

On the contrary, he loved to participate in Urdu debates at the Government College Lahore. However, when he tried to delve into acting, he again confesses: “I was turned away (by the Government College Dramatic Club) on the grounds that debaters were not welcome.”

In the aforementioned article by Mira, the readers’ memory has been also refreshed by recalling Zia’s illustrious film career: his roles in Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “Julius Caesar”, his West End debut in E.M. Foster’s “A Passage to India,” David Lean’s Oscar award winning film “Lawrence of Arabia”, his work on stage and in films “Behold a Pale Horse”, “Khartoum,” etc. All this was during the 1950s and 1960s, following which he returned home to take up the stewardship of PIA Arts and Dance Academy in Karachi. But the tragic events of the 1970s compelled him to return to England where he resumed his work in films and television: “The Jewel in the Crown” and TV series “Family Pride” and “Here and Now” happened during this decade.

At the turn of the century when Zia was in his mid-70s, he was invited to the President House in 2004 where General Pervez Musharraf asked him to submit a plan for setting up a proper art academy in Karachi for promotion of theatre and music.

I had never met him before, so I was surprised when he phoned me one morning and wished to meet me to discuss the proposed music syllabus. That same evening he graced my place with his presence. As I escorted him upstairs to the study, the electricity went off and I had to guide him to the terrace instead of towards the study. I fetched a candle and a mosquito coil and we settled down to exchange notes on the syllabus for Napa Music Department. We also threw light in the dark on the future of culture and art in the troubled City of Lights!

A few months later, the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) was inaugurated by the President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The mandate of the Academy was exclusively theatre and music.

Theatre was his forte. So, he took no time to put together an impressive faculty of qualified and well known people – Khalid Ahmad, Rahat Kazmi, Talat Husain, Anjum Ayaz and others. But being a man with candor and sincerity he chose not to interfere in or supervise the Music department and left it to the two well-known music men who had remained close to him, actor and a fine composer Arshad Mahmood and one of our most sureela sitar players Nafees Ahmad.

Today, while I deeply mourn his death and marvel at his glorious career, I also ponder over what hampered the development of a result-oriented Music Faculty at NAPA that could claim to be at par with the Theatre Faculty. Sadly, I come to the conclusion that though Zia’s father Khadim Mohyeddin, a man madly in love with classical music, and Zia’s own cousins Ayub and Dawood Rahbar becoming accomplished musicians – Ayub who was my friend and I called him Ayub Bhai played Dilruba, an instrument with metal frets but played with a bow, and Prof. Dawood Rahbar who taught comparative religion at Boston University in the US, had become a fine classical singer – Zia chose not to follow the same line. Undoubtedly, he had a keen ear for classical music, since he had spent his childhood and boyhood in a home that reverberated with the sound of music. But he kept his focus on theatre and acting which remained his passion all his life. His contribution to this genre of art is enormous and many students owe their training and success to Zia Mohyeddin. His work enriched our life. We will miss him for a long time.