Shaking Hands with the World

By Sonya Rehman

I’ve just walked up a flight of stairs in a house in Allama Iqbal Town, in Lahore. It’s hot and humid. A single tube light has lit up the little room with a musty beige carpet, a coffee table full of books, trinkets and CDs, and rows and rows of dusty awards and medals lined across shelves to our left.

Arif Lohar is sitting across from me, dressed in a traditional black kurta with silver embroidery running across his shoulders and his collar. He’s wearing thick gold hoops, a traditional gold choker around his neck, and his signature, sparkly smile on his round, happy face. The same Lohar-esque smile that this living legend breaks out into when he’s in his element – playing his chimta (an indigenous musical instrument) and singing on television, or at a live gig.

I’m sipping on a tepid soft drink that Lohar had ordered a few minutes ago for both myself and Waheed Khalid, the photographer due to carry out Lohar’s photo-shoot in a few minutes.

Having met Lohar before, Khalid is candid enough with Lohar to request him to change into something a little more ‘colourful.’ Lohar readily agrees, whips out his black cell phone and calls someone downstairs, loudly requesting something in “shocking” colour tones.

Arif Lohar – Photo by: Waheed Khalid

“Shocking,” Lohar repeats into the phone again before hanging up.

The clothes are here in a jiffy. There’s a sparkly, electric blue number and a shocking pink outfit embroidered with silver thread. Lohar and Khalid both vote for the pink.

With over 150 albums to his credit, and having acted in over 40 local Pakistani films, Lohar is considered one of the most well-known folk music artists in the country. His name is synonymous with other maestros in the Pakistani music scene; such as Abida Parveen and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among others.

In 2005 the Pakistani government awarded Lohar with the prestigious ‘Pride of Performance’ civil award – an award presented by the government to individuals who have made a significant contribution towards the country in their professions.

And during my interview with Lohar, he mentions that his father, Naik Alam (later known as Alam Lohar), and himself were the first parent/child recipients of the award.

Lohar speaks of his father with great fondness, respect, admiration, and above all, love. It’s apparent in his eyes. He begins the interview telling me about how his father, a little boy raised in the village of Aach Goch (in the Gujrat District of Punjab), began singing at the age of five, much to the chagrin of Lohar’s grandfather.

Interviewing Arif Lohar. Well actually, posing for a photo with him here. Wish I had a straight face but Waheed said something awfully funny. Plus the chimta kept slipping from my hands. Photo: Waheed Khalid

At the time, Lohar’s grandfather was an extremely well-respected and eminent figure in the village. “Our caste is Mughal,” Lohar says proudly. His voice is slightly high-pitched and excitable – one can tell Lohar enjoys talking about his family lineage and history. “We’re those Mughals, who during the war made swords and weapons. At that time they were known as the Mughal Lohars, so we’re from that caste.”

Lohar’s grandfather was a conventional man, and therefore wouldn’t allow his son to make a living as a singer. What would people think, and more importantly, what would they say? Too much was at stake. Alam’s father wouldn’t hear of it. Until of course Alam stumbled across a book of poems.

That’s how it all began, from a single book of poetry lieing about in a bunch of shrubs and bushes, waiting to be swiped up by an unsuspecting child, merrily on his way to school.

For the next few years, Alam sang to his little heart’s content on his way to the local school and on his return back home. His melodious voice, Lohar says, was so far-reaching, that Alam’s older sister would be able to figure out her brother’s exact location from the house – whether slightly faint (in the distance), or clearly audible (which meant the little fellow was around the corner, in the vicinity).

Around that time, “an ustaad in the neighbourhood took my father under his wing,” Lohar says in Urdu with a Punjabi word or two inserted in his sentences every now and then. “My grandfather didn’t know that my father was being trained and when he found out, he was quite angry. He spoke with the ustaad who at once reminded him about my grandfather’s Uncle. Now my grandfather’s Uncle used to love singing but his family made him quit, and was consequently made to stay indoors. My grandfather’s Uncle eventually became so depressed that his health suffered a great deal. Eventually, he died. When my father’s ustaad reminded my grandfather about this incident, my grandfather got scared and said that if his son were to sing, he would only be able to sing infront of him and that in no uncertain terms would Alam be paid to sing by anyone.”

Lohar has a smooth, story-teller voice. He’s verbose and can talk nineteen to the dozen. A dream come true for a journalist. Lohar also barely pauses in between sentences. But when he does, he loudly proclaims, “So!” which almost sounds like half a sigh, before Lohar verbally leap frogs into keyed-up chatter again. He’s fun. Especially if you have a penchant to not talk as much as listen, you could soak in Lohar’s animated discourse for a couple of hours without knowing how much time has passed.

A natural infront of the camera. Arif Lohar – Photo by: Waheed Khalid

Khalid’s taken some cute shots of Lohar who, truth be told, is quite a natural infront of the camera. He poses with his chimta with his head thrown back, his smiling mouth half open as if he’s singing an upbeat lovey-dovey folk ditty, or, poses with his chimta stuck out – pointing at the camera, his head bent, looking all sprightly and mischievous.

Arey! Yeh LIFE hay, LIFE!” Lohar loudly exclaims as Khalid shows him some of the photos he’s shot on his camera. Lohar doesn’t mean ‘this is the life’, rather, he means that his photos pop with life. His shocking pink outfit, apart from his vivacity, has aided in making the colours in the photos pop.

“My father became very popular in his twenties,” Lohar says, “His career was at its peak.” From singing at street fairs as a young boy under his father’s watchful eyes, to eventually becoming an “EMI star” and subsequently going on a world tour to represent Pakistan, Alam, enjoyed great success and recognition in the country. But in July, in 1979, a fatal accident claimed Alam’s life.

Survived by his wife, eight sons and five daughters, Alam’s death was unexpected and tragic. Lohar was 8-9 years old when his father died, but as he grew older, he knew he had to make his father proud by following in his footsteps. “I thought I could keep my father’s memory alive like this. So my mother said fine, you won’t get any money; you’ll have to do it on your own, survive on your own. Be self-made.”

Under the tutelage of his ustaad, “Master Ismael Sahib,” Lohar grew as a singer/performer. “When my father was alive, he used to sing in a local theater. After his passing I began singing in the same theater for sixteen years and made a name for myself.”

Lohar became “a hit” when he performed on a PTV show, ‘Mehkaar’ which was hosted by Farrukh Bashir. “People recognized me as Alam Lohar’s son. Sometimes I would sing for 10-12 hours at a stretch during performances.”

Now, all these years later, Lohar has stumbled into a whole new arena. This happened after he recorded a duet with Meesha Shafi for Rohail Hyat’s wildly popular Coke Studio TV series. The duet, a variation on the folk song ‘Jugni’, was called ‘Alif Allah Chambey Di Booti’ and became the number one hit of the season, playing in cars and shops and at weddings and on mobile phone ring tones. On YouTube alone the video has garnered more than 5 million hits.

Lohar tells me that after Coke Studio kids in the airport began recognizing him – calling him the ‘Gutkoo-wallah.’

“Recently I went to the Zee Cine Awards where I performed and Shahrukh Khan came up to me and said; ‘Arif, your songs are in my laptop and in my car. My kids love you.’ It was very unexpected. I thought this was a gift from God.”

He’s currently acting in a Syed Noor production which features actors Saima, Shaan and Mommar Rana among other Lollywood names. The movie, Lohar says, does touch upon certain aspects of Lohar’s life. But he doesn’t give too much away; “It’s a surprise.”

To be released on Eid, the flick will mark Lohar’s comeback as an actor after a 10-year hiatus. The reason for which is; “I used to be paired up with Sultan Rahi and his son quite a bit back in the day. But when Rahi died, the sequence broke.”

Talking about the local music industry, Lohar wryly states: “I only see Coke Studio. Apart from that, the industry’s dead. As things started getting bad in the country everything froze. No concerts, nothing.”

“We should keep promoting our roots,” Lohar says, speaking of the new crop of Pakistani singers and musicians.

“Survival can only happen when through art you shake hands with the rest of the world.”

The Friday Times

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