Stating that Zia Mohyeddin was in a league of his own would be an understatement. But the understatement is useful; it drives an important point home convincingly, which is: neither did he have a predecessor and nor does it seem that he will have a successor. There is a solid reason for this, as while as an actor he was very good (he had several achievements in the international arena including being the first Pakistani to make it big in Hollywood and at the West End), as a reader of Urdu poetry and prose, he was insuperable. He introduced the art form of recitation to lovers of literature in a way that has now become synonymous with his name.
Zia sahib’s readings of poems by classic and popular, and occasionally lesser known, poets earned him a distinct place in the hallowed world of literature. Not that before him people did not recite poems, they did. But the understanding of cadence that Zia sahib had was intrinsic to his personality. He instinctively knew the significance of ‘rhythm’ in any quality work of art that involved the written word which helped him deliver lines in such a way that they sounded like his own creations. Of course, his piercing voice complemented his renditions perfectly.
His reading of N.M. Rashid’s blank verse, in particular, was remarkable. Rashid’s poetry, having Persianised diction and difficult-to-grasp content, is convoluted enough for the educated lot let alone an illiterate man. But Zia sahib’s delightful presentation of it communicated it to every nook and cranny of the world.
That said, the story of his extraordinary life and career will never be complete without mentioning his resounding accomplishments in the field of acting at a time when Pakistan as a country was in its teens and barely noticeable on the global map. Zia sahib studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London in the 1950s. It paved the way for him to work at the West End. It is during those days that he got an opportunity to work with one of his favourite playwrights Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night. His love of Shakespeare also manifested in the shape of a role in Julius Caesar. His big break, as it were, came when he played Dr Aziz’s character in a stage adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India. From then on, he never looked back.
Zia sahib went on to do several roles in movies and plays, the most prominent of which was his appearance as an Arab guide Tafas in David Lean’s iconic film Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. It catapulted him to newer heights in show business. Once he became a known figure, he branched out into other genres of the entertainment industry. He worked in television and among his other ventures he played a role in the critically acclaimed drama series The Jewel in the Crown. He also interviewed the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray for a documentary.
In the late 1960s, Zia sahib came back to Pakistan for a brief period and hosted a chat show on PTV called The Zia Mohyeddin Show. It’s believed to be the first talk show of repute in the history of Pakistani television.
The last 17 years of his life were spent as head of the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) in Karachi, an institution that he set up in 2005 and nurtured with all his heart and soul.
Peerzada Salman is a staff member of Dawn.