A few years ago while walking in the streets of Karachi, I was suddenly stopped by one of my favourite melodies. It was the Ahmed Rushdi song, 'Goal Guppay Wala Aya'.
I turned around and noticed that it was being played from a cassette player on the hand-driven cart of a vendor actually selling "goal guppay" (a popular street snack: see Wikipedia). The seller was a young man in his early 20s. He was obviously born decades after the song was first released as soundtrack of the movie Mehtab (1962) (several years even before I was born), I asked him whether he liked the song and why he was playing it.
He replied that he didn't like to shout in the streets for drawing the attention of potential customers to his goods. So he played the song instead and it did the job for him.
The answer was not unexpected but it was still very reassuring to hear it from the "man in the street". In fact, the song is played by almost all vendors selling this popular street snack in Pakistan, especially in Karachi. I went on asking many of them in the subsequent weeks, and the answer was almost the same as that given to me by that young man.
Today I want to share a few implications of this simple answer which are very close to my heart. I am sharing this today because the death anniversary of Ahmed Rushdi falls this week on Wednesday, April 11.
Ahmed Rushdi, a singer who has been dead for nearly thirty years (1934-1983), is still helping the street vendors in earning their livelihood. If it hurts their self-esteem to be shouting in the streets, Ahmed Rushdi volunteers to do it for them. The voice of a man who has been lying in his grave for almost thirty years is not only helping the poorest of the poor in earning a livelihood but is also protecting their self-esteem.
In Pakistan, the voice of Ahmed Rushdi is synonymous with style, finesse and everything desirable and beautiful: some of the best known songs of Ahmed Rushdi were filmed on Waheed Murad, the ultimate icon of style and grace. In those days, no lead actor in Pakistani movies could get accepted as stylish enough unless he got to lip-sync on soundtracks sung by Ahmed Rushdi. This is the kind of self-esteem which is still coming out in aid of the poor and humble street vendors.
Also to be noted is the fact that this voice, the voice of Ahmed Rushdi, was included in the chorus of eleven which recorded the first official version of the national anthem in 1954 - the version which was played on all official ceremonies afterwards, and of course, it was mandatory on every president, prime minister, military and civilian ruler, and the most powerful of the powerful rulers in Pakistan to stand up in its honour whenever it was played. So, the voice now selling street snacks for the poor is actually the same which has been commanding every ruler of Pakistan to stand up in its honour?
Many poets and artists claimed to be the redeemers of the working class (often without consent), but can any of them claim this unique privilege of actually going out on the streets to help the working class in earning a lawful earning even after three decades of their death?
"This blessing cannot be earned unless the Benevolent Almighty bestows it in His Kindness," as the Persian proverb goes. However, I do not take it to be a coincidence. There is something about this song - 'Goal Guppay Wala' - which we have failed to notice.
Allama Iqbal mentioned an incident from the life of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) in an article published in New Era (a short-lived journal published from Lucknow) in 1917. The article was titled 'Our Prophet’s Criticism of Contemporary Arabian Poetry'. In that article, Iqbal mentions two verses from the pre-Islamic poet Antra of the tribe of Abs that were recited in the presence of the Prophet, and the Prophet is reported to have said: “The praise of an Arabian has never kindled in me a desire to see him, but I tell you I do wish to meet the author of this verse.”
Please note that Antra lived in the pre-Islamic Arabia. He was not even a believer. Yet, the Prophet bestowed this unusual honour on him and Iqbal has tried to understand why:
Imagine the man, a single look at whose face was a source of infinite bliss to the looker desiring to meet an infidel Arab for his verse! What is the secret of this unusual honour which the Prophet wished to give to the poet? It is because the verse is so healthful and vitalising, it is because the poet idealises the pain of honourable labour.
What Iqbal has observed about the verses of Antra may also be said about the song mentioned here - "the verse is so healthful and vitalising... the poet idealises the pain of honourable labour." This is so true of 'Goal Guppay Wala', and so untrue of the poems written by elitists who claimed to be the friends of the masses (without the consent of the masses, of course). Those poems, written by the elitist progressive poets, try to obliterate the distinction between lawful and unlawful earning (halal and haram). They incite on violence more than hard work. They do not "idealise" the "pain of honourable labour" but make it deplorable and intolerable (consider, for instance the poem 'Aaj Ke Naam' by Faiz Ahmed Faiz).
Is it not possible that this song has gained an everlasting life in the Islamic Republic because consciously or unconsciously it matches the literary ideal which, according to Iqbal, the Prophet of Islam desired to promote in Muslim societies?
In case you wish to know, here are the original verses of Antra which were recited in the presence of the Prophet in the above-mentioned incident:
و لقد ابیت علی المظوی واظنہ
حتی انبل بہ کریم الکامل
Verily I pass through whole nights of toil to merit a livelihood worthy of an honourable man."
Compare this with the lyrics of the song and decide for yourself whether they match or not. Foreign language readers! I do not have the ability to give an exact translation of the complete song, since it happens to be in very colloquial Urdu, but roughly it says something to the effect:
The Goal Guppay Wala is here, singing from street to street, spreading joy wherever he goes, see how he comes. My goods look fair, as lovely as fair cheeks.
It is a crime to steal, my dear, so work hard for a living. My brother, eat poor food and you will sleep well without fear of being reprimanded. Come, little boy, eat goal guppay, call that little girl too and even bring along your mum. Whoever eats this stuff today will return tomorrow for having some more - O yes, this is true what I am telling you!
Even better than the speech of a beloved are my herbs and spices. O beloveds, you shall never forget this self-intoxicated man. Come, fair girl, eat...
(I am leaving out the last few phrases, which are so colloquial that I myself do not quite understand some of them - I am hoping that some friend, such as Akhtar Waseem Dar here, will help translate them for foreign language readers).
I hope that the gist presented here is sufficient for everyone to be able to compare it with the verses of Antra. If you find these lyrics to be similar to that, you may consider the question: What should be the role of this song in defining the art and literature of Pakistan?
Credits: the song was written by Hazeen Qadri, set to music by the duo Manzoor-Ashraf and sung by Ahmed Rushdi. It was filmed on Alaudin for the movie Mehtab (1962), which was produced and directed by Shabab Keranvi.