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Spotlight: Anwar Maqsood

All through his life, Anwar Maqsood has demonstrated fearlessness and been a true champion of civil society. He has made the pen prove mightier than the sword, time and again, and with his brush on canvas he has earned a handsome living. His wit has embarrassed big names, and lent credence to the saying that exceptional courage shares space with madness, writes Adil Ahmad

It’s a sharp wit that shows no mercy. It can slit open the most hardened of nuts with effortless ease, and lay bare inflated egos bred on sycophancy. Anwar Maqsood has locked horns with the devil in his own domain and come away the victor, alive and well, to tell the tale with a barely concealed relish.

All through his life he has demonstrated his fearlessness, and been a true champion of civil society. He has made the pen prove mightier than the sword, time and again, and with his brush on canvas he has earned a handsome living. His unflinching patriotism, and the propensity to speak the truth no matter what the consequences, saw him rattle sabers with General Zia-ul-Haq himself; a period that he says was his artistic best. The more daunting the challenge, the better.

The challenges today remain as formidable as ever, and for the past almost five years Maqsood has been analysing the serious issues of our times through his television programme that has completed 257 episodes until the time of this filing. His passion for painting continues unabated, with his signature canvases prized by local and overseas aficionados. Maqsood wrote the satirical talk show for the state-run channel, but once the script came back from the censors just the salutation ‘Assalamalaikum’ remained unedited!

“They also insisted that I not invite any army officer as a guest. How could I not have as guests people from an institution that has ruled the country for 34 years out of its 57 years existence?” A private channel gave Anwar Maqsood complete freedom of expression and poetic license. “I told them I have been in this line of work for the last 42 years and I know where to draw the line.”

The relationship has prospered and the show has delivered some delightful bouncers, and googlies full of finesse, and continues to do so. Maqsood is presently very excited about his first stage play that he is in the process of writing for a January 2007 curtain raiser at the new Arts Council Auditorium. It’s a take-off on censorship and titled ‘Script-tease’.

Anwar Maqsood hails from a learned stock, and has amongst his illustrious sisters Fatima Surriya Bajia and Zehra Nigah. In Hyderabad Deccan his grandfather had served as a high-ranking civil servant, and a student of Daagh Dehlavi. It was normal for evenings to be spent in the company of Jigar Muradabadi, Maulana Maudodi, Maulvi Abdul Haq, and other such intellectuals. As a pre-teen, Maqsood loved imitating these eminent personalities in their mannerisms and speech.

“We had a huge compound in our house and my mother was very fond of keeping buffalos, we had over 100 of them. We grew our own vegetables, and the parade of the State Army would take place in our compound. There were ‘mushairas’ and classical singing gatherings at our home ever so often. My grandfather was inspired by the thought of participating in the building of a new nation, so we came here leaving everything behind, except our books.”

In 1948 Anwar Maqsood migrated from Hyderabad Deccan in a contingent that comprised 250 relatives, neighbours and friends, and included his great grandmother. “We travelled to Bombay by train, and boarded the steamship Dumra for the journey to Karachi. We brought very little with us except for 100 trunks full of books.” In Karachi accommodation was an issue. Occupying one of the many vacant homes left behind by migrants to India would have been a simple matter, but Maqsood’s grandfather would not hear of it. So the contingent pitched tents on a piece of land on Jamshed Road and settled in.”

The early years were tough, but Anwar says that there was passion in their lives and they braved the challenges. He did not attend formal school for the next five years, and then enrolled in the Bahad-e-Ajal school with Khwaja Moinuddin (Mirza Ghalib Bunder Road Pey, Taleem-e-Balgaan, Lal Kilay se Lalu Khet) as his class teacher. From him he received his real training in writing.

Stints in DJ College, Government College Nazimabad, and the Karachi University followed, with his passion for painting encouraged by Shakir Ali, a neighbour in PIB Colony. Maqsood would use charcoal to make pictures on the walls of his house that depicted the current mood in the family.

In those days, there was no running water in the house and the waterman would deliver it in a goatskin bag (mashak). The neighbours had a radio and Maqsood would make a hole in the wall to listen to the ‘Binaca Geetmala’ at 7:30pm every Wednesday. His grandmother would use the opening to listen to the news. Tragedy struck with his father’s death at the age of 41. The family was financially strapped. With the passage of time things improved with Bajia taking up a teaching job, and Zehra becoming much sought after at mushairas.

Elder brother Ahmed joined the government service. Anwar, meanwhile, took to supplementing the family income by designing and making sets of handkerchiefs, ties and cufflinks from material bought at the Lighthouse second-hand clothes market. In 1959, Maqsood had his first painting exhibition at the French Embassy, and within a span of half an hour he had sold 60 of his paintings, with Jamshed Marker buying 35 of them.

After graduation Maqsood got a job in a bank, but soon discovered that he was not cut out for banking, or any other employment for that matter! Nevertheless, he spent the next several years working for the Investment Corporation of Pakistan, and rose to head its shares department.

“It was a very suited-booted environment, but I refused to wear a suit and would attend office in my Peshawari chappals with my shirt worn outside the trouser.” The chairman Shakir Durrani was not amused, but Ashiq Mazari, a board member and chairman PIDC, came to his rescue and an exception to the dress code was made for him.

Anwar Maqsood’s entry into show business came in the form of The Knights, Pakistan’s first pop band established in 1960 in which he played the guitar. “I used to dress the part with hair down to my waist, golden shoes and black trousers!” The Knights were in great demand, especially on New Year’s Eve when they would get paid a princely sum of Rs300 to play through the night.

It was his fondness for playing bridge that got him together with Zia Mohyeddin. “Zia was very amused by my casual banter at the bridge table, and asked me if I would pen down my words for his Zia Mohyeddin Show.” Maqsood began writing the script for Mohyeddin and that began an enduring relationship with PTV that saw him write some memorable plays including Fifty-Fifty, Sho Sha, Aangan Tehra, Silver Jubilee, Show Time, and Studio Dhai. In 1967 he played the lead role in PTV’s first long play titled Mehmaan.

Anwar Maqsood’s most satisfying spell as an employee was with a music recording company, where he recorded the entire range of Eastern classical music with Khwaja Khursheed Anwar as part of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s project. At EMI he looked after the artist and repertoire department, and stayed there for eight years until rampant piracy forced the firm’s closure. For a while Maqsood worked as the editor of the Hurriyet magazine, until a play on words regarding a hotel promotion caused a mob to assemble and demand his head, with his presence of mind saving the day for him.

His caustic wit has embarrassed the heads of state and their cohorts time and again, and lent credence to the saying that exceptional courage shares space with madness. Maqsood once kept General President Zia-ul-Haq glued to his seat for two hours beyond the budgeted time. Later when the president expressed his displeasure, Maqsood innocently remarked that Zia had budgeted for 90 days and had remained for 11 years, so where was the problem?

Anwar Maqsood married his cousin Imrana in 1967. She is a gifted writer, and he says that the general impression is that this was an arranged marriage! He has two children and six grandchildren. Son Bilal has acquired his father’s taste for music and crossed borders in his own rights with his band. Daughter Arjumand sings classical. Eldest grandson Mekail is eight years old and already a gifted artist, drawing kudos from M.F.Hussain no less who has gifted him one of his paintings to cover the cost of his schooling.

Maqsood has a vast music collection that boasts over 14,000 Lata and 8000 Asha Bhosle songs, Roshanara Begum’s audition in Calcutta, 200 hours of Wilayat Khan, and a large assortment of Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, Beach Boys, Boy George – you name it, he has it! Maqsood intends to leave this treasure trove to son Bilal, and is particularly thankful to Raza Kazim for helping find placement for his collection at the NCA library.

Anwar’s fine accommodations in Karachi are testimony that Pakistan has been good to him. “We always lived in rented houses. Then after one painting exhibition the sales receipts found their way to my wife, and without my knowledge she bought this plot and began construction.”

He has yet to write his memoirs, but shows no inclination of doing so, saying that people have lost interest in reading. “Those who like to read can’t afford the books in the absence of libraries, and those who have the money are least interested in reading.” He blames the electronic media for playing havoc with the reading habit, saying that video games and Indian movies on DVDs have taken over the lives of our youth, with the playing fields and libraries lying empty. “Pakistan is a great land with a great people. We have just been unfortunate in our leaders.” Let us hope that changes.



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