Zia Mohyeddin: One of a kind

A towering figure who transcended borders and art forms

The great Zia Mohyeddin was already a legend when I first interacted with him as an adult in the mid1990s. He had recently moved to Lahore where I then lived at Lakshmi Mansion at Regal Chowk. I was working on the launch of weekly The News on Friday, a brainchild of my editor the multi-talented Imran Aslam who revered Zia sahib. Both were alumni of the prestigious Government College Lahore and its GCDC, the Government College Drama Club. Knowing my family's connection to Zia sahib, Imran asked me to approach him for a weekly column. Pakistan's progressive movement revolved largely around the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose work Zia Mohyeddin so eloquently recited in his signature style, his distinctive, gravelly voice setting him apart from others. 

As part of the same circle, Zia sahib, born in 1931 in then Lyallpur (Faisalabad), Punjab, knew my father Dr M Sarwar who led Pakistan's first nationwide student movement, the Democratic Students Federation, 1948-54. Zia Mohyeddin breathed his last on the day Faiz sahib's birth anniversary is celebrated. Feeling unwell, he had been rushed to the hospital where he had to undergo surgery for an aneurysm. He reportedly told the surgeon, “Do what you have to do fast and patch me up, I have a lot of work.” This included travelling to Lahore for the Faiz Festival from Feb 17-19. For over 30 years, Faiz sahib's poems were among the literary pieces Zia sahib recited every December 31 in Lahore at the annual “Zia Mohyeddin ke saath aik sham” (an evening with Zia Mohyeddin). The tradition, started in 1986 by his nephew Naveed “Bobby” Riaz, was interrupted only by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 and 2020. 

Zia Mohyeddin with Azra Bano Family sources

A theatre graduate of RADA, London's renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, the suave Zia Mohyeddin had acted in several theatre productions, making his West End debut in A Passage to India as Dr Aziz in 1960. He played memorable roles in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Merchant-Ivory's Bombay Talkie (1970) as well. He had also starred in Jamil Dehlavi's Immaculate Conception (1994) and the mini-series, The Jewel in the Crown (1984). For several years he hosted The Zia Mohyeddin Show, a talk showcum-variety program for Pakistan Television, 1969-73, showcasing talent from across the country with his trademark sophistication and wit. “It was such a sophisticated, well presented show. I remember thinking, I wish we had more like him,” recalls feminist activist Khushi Kabir in Dhaka. During most of Gen Ziaul Haq's military rule, Zia sahib had lived in self-exile in Birmingham, UK with his second wife, the iconic kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui. 

Gen Zia's death in a mid-air explosion followed by Benazir Bhutto's win in the already scheduled elections in 1988 cleared the way for the return of progressive activists, writers, and artists to Pakistan. Zia sahib and Nahid split up in 1991. Shortly afterwards, aged little over 60, he met Azra Bano Zaidi, an emerging singer and actor through her friend, the singer Tina Sani. Their love story defied their 30-year age difference and the two had married in 1994. Obtaining Zia sahib's phone number from Bobby, I called and introduced myself. Zia sahib graciously invited me over. That's when I first met Azra although our families have prepartition connections. She is now a well established performer in her own right. Over an elegant cup of tea, I explained what Imran Aslam wanted. 

Zia sahib knew Imran of course and liked the idea of writing a column. He was also firm about getting paid the top rate. He wouldn't do a weekly piece but agreed to write a fortnightly one. The News on Friday became The News on Sunday after then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif changed the weekly holiday to conform with international banking days. Unfortunately, the digital archives of The Zia Mohyeddin Column don't go to his earlier writings. Some years later, I interviewed Zia sahib for my first documentary, a project for my master's degree in Television Journalism at Goldsmiths College, London. 

My focal character was Nahid Siddiqui, a symbol of how dance became a political issue under Gen Ziaul Haq. Zia Mohyeddin had headed the PIA Performing Arts Academy where they met and where she began her career. Talking to me at his Lahore home in April 2001, he shared his disappointment at how bureaucracy and bigotry have combined to oppress the arts in Pakistan. A perfectionist and a stickler for detail, equally at home in English and Urdu, Zia sahib would not tolerate a mixing of the two languages -- or a misspelling of his name. In the mid-1990s, he painstakingly, for weeks, tutored a grandniece sitting for her “A” Levels, horrified that she intended to substitute a reading of Umrao Jaan with watching the movie. When she returned after the exam he wanted to know what the questions were and how she had answered them. The last part of the exam had been a test of the femininemasculine terms, including the feminine of tattu (mule). “And what did you write for the feminine?” asked Zia sahib. 

Azra with Alia Mohyeddin Family sources

Now a senior financial communications specialist in Boston, Rima Hyder still laughs as she recalls how Zia Mamoo, as she called him, leapt agilely onto a sofa in horror at her response. Standing on the sofa he called out to Rima's mother, Tasawar, in the kitchen. What kind of daughter had she raised? But Tasawar herself didn't know the correct answer. Outraged but amused, Zia sahib patiently explained that the feminine of mule in Urdu is “tattwani” -- not the word which translates as excretion. In 2005, he became the founding director of the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi which is still going strong. 

He has also received numerous awards and honours in Pakistan and abroad. Zia Mohyeddin was the youngest of six siblings, with five older sisters. Family legend has it that when the baby Zia was born, his sisters announced their intention of skipping school to celebrate. Their father Khadim Mohyeddin, a writer and poet who was reportedly the first “professor of music” at the University of Punjab, would have none of it. His sole surviving sister Razia Ishaq, 101 years old, is a poet living in Indianapolis with her family. Besides Azra, he leaves behind two sons, Minos Ameer and Risha Ameer, from his first marriage with Sarwar Zemani; another Hassan “Moyo” Mohyeddin from Nahid Siddiqui, and a daughter, Alia, from Azra. “He leaves behind a huge void,” says Nahid. “Just to have that kind of quality around in Pakistan was very consoling and inspiring.” In June 2017, Zia sahib penned his last piece for TNS: “For nearly a quarter of a century I have been writing a column which appeared in this newspaper every fortnight. I am grateful to TNS which allowed my ramblings to be worthy enough to appear in a section called ‘Literati.' Enough is enough though, and my jottings on Hamlet should be considered as my swan song: Farewell!” Farewell, Zia sahib. You will always be one of a kind

Beena Sarwar is a journalist, journalism teacher in Boston, and founder editor, Sapan News Network. www.beenasarwar.com. This obituary first appeared at Sapan News and has been republished with permission.