Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Sanwal – Editor, writer, musician, poet

Published in Mar-Apr 2014
A tribute to Musadiq Sanwal (1963-2014).
Photograph by Arif Mahmood/WhiteStar.
Photograph by Arif Mahmood/WhiteStar.

He was the quintessential everyman, self effacing and humility personified. One suspected that Musadiq Sanwal secretly prided himself on deliberately staying under the radar of the mainstream world or art. The only trouble with that strategy was that when it came to talent and his willingness to try new forms of art for size, Musadiq was the furthest it got from your average Joe. Hugely gifted with multiple talents and always willing to break into song, the mild demeanour of Dawn.com’s editor quickly faded into the background when he sang or rather immersed himself in Sufiana kalam or a folk song. One was taken aback by the sheer force of his voice and his writhing body that swayed at one with the moment. And it was only in those magical moments that there was nothing self effacing or mild about Musadiq.

Just as the big, resonant voice emanating from Musadiq’s slight frame caught one by surprise, so did the fact that such a multitude of talent could reside within one man. The cartoonist, Sabir Nazir who shared a room with Musadiq at the National College of Arts (NCA) recalled that when he first arrived from Multan to attend Lahore’s prestigious art school he was known mainly for the Urdu poetry he was penning. However, soon after his arrival at the NCA Musadiq set his collection of Urdu poems on fire and promptly switched to writing poetry in Punjabi. This was the first drastic step in the critical journey Musadiq was about to undertake, one that would be true only to him and acutely attuned to the culture of the common man. He would continue to champion this cause – less as a cause and more as a passion – in his own characteristically unobtrusive way until the end. So although that first lot of poetry may have been lost to posterity, in switching from the relatively alienating Urdu to its more rustic Punjabi counterpart, Musadiq was beginning to find his footing.

At NCA, Musadiq blossomed, but not quite as expected. Nazir recalls that the fine arts course he had enrolled in bored him and this inadverently provided him with the impetus to try his hand at everything else that was available.

Lahore was primed for natural-born fakirs such as Musadiq and, as he discovered when he began to dabble with music and theatre there was plenty that was available. The timing was right, as Musadiq sought and immersed himself in music at the feet of Ustad Chhotay Ghulam Ali Khan, no less. Success soon came – in Musadiq’s case rather organically – when the Ustad noticing him as a regular onlooker inducted him as a student. And success came again when he tried his hand at scriptwriting for an inter college theatre festival and he ended up winning the prize for best script for his play Aik khail.

This was around the time that trouble was brewing at the NCA, which was reeling from attempts by the Zia regime to bring it under the more ‘conformist’ wings of PunjabUniversity. In his third year Musadiq became active in the movement to resist the merger and although the movement succeeded and NCA eventually was given degree-granting status, Musadiq paid the price when he lost vision in one eye during a violent clash with the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Post NCA, Musadiq was selected to represent Pakistan in the South East Asian Cultural Caravan (SEACC), a theatre troupe that would tour Europe for a year. While the choice was an obvious one, given that Musadiq was brimming with artistic talent – by then he was regularly acting, directing plays, singing, playing the harmonium and the tabla – in some ways providence was also brazenly nudging Musadiq towards his calling. Or rather his various callings.

Fresh from the theatre experience in Europe, Musadiq returned to Pakistan to set up the Baang Theatre with a group of energetic actors from Shah Faisal Colony in Karachi. The amateur group prided itself on being run by ‘actively unemployed youth’ and produced some memorable plays such as Khwabon ke shikari jaago bhi and Chhanga Manga for children, Jinney Lahore nahi wekhiya, and the acclaimed Marne ke baad kya hoga, which was penned by Muhammad Hanif.

One of the troupe members, Khurram Abbas recalls his director:

“Musadiq was a great improviser and was always looking to improve things. It was exciting to work with him as things kept changing and improving until the last performance. And one kept waiting for whatever he had up his sleeve.”

Around that time, Musadiq was regularly travelling to villages for his work with Action Aid, which was trying to revive the old storytelling traditions in villages. He produced a documentary on fisher folk called Sabir machhera nahi banna chahta.

When he married Shehla Zaidi, Musadiq left for the US to accompany her for her graduate studies and to continue to sing, often travelling to wherever a willing audience waited.

During his time in Karachi, advertising had been steadily standing in as his day job, but it was time to change tack professionally and the opportunity arose in the form of a stint at the BBC Urdu service in the UK, where Musadiq played a vital role in setting up the web version of the service. The experience proved invaluable when he returned to Pakistan to head Dawn.com. Here too he continued to create music, mostly for himself. In the last seven years of his life Musadiq collaborated with Bilal Brohi to set up a studio where they created yet more music, some for TV and some for music videos, but essentially for themselves.

“I would like to think that music was his first love,” says Brohi, echoing the sentiment of all of Musadiq’s friends from the different phases of his life, all of whom believed that theirs was the artistic or professional phase that was closest to his heart.

Even on a more mundane plane, many of the people who met Musadiq came away believing he was their closest friend, such was the openness with which he embraced people.

“He has left behind a million friends, each of whom believes he was their best friend,” adds Brohi, who is currently struggling to decide how to consolidate all the music his mentor has left behind.

In the last year of his life, while undergoing chemotherapy for the lung cancer that he was battling, Musadiq picked up his pen and started writing poetry. Again.

He wrote enough to fill the pages of two books that now await compilation and publication. It was an instinctive signal, much like that of people who revisit their place of birth before they die, that his life and his art had come full circle.

Musadiq leaves behind a wife, a son and a daughter, Dara and Surat.

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