Five Pakistani-Christian singers who were the mainstay of Lollywood's golden years – Scroll.in

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In recent years, documentary films and books have brought some long overdue limelight to the contributions of the many instrumentalists and behind-the-scenes-musicians who helped make the hits that millions of Bollywood fans have loved over the decades.  Artists such as Kersi Lord, Chic Chocolate, Anthony Gonsalves and Enoch Daniels from the Goan, Parsi and other minority communities are emerging from the shadows and becoming appreciated as real personalities by mainstream fans.

Across that fateful western border, a once-vibrant and parallel film culture centred in Lahore at one time nurtured its own bevy of singers and composers who thrilled Pakistani music and movie devotees in the golden years of the 1960s and 1970s when Lollywood was at its creative zenith. Like in Mumbai, quite a few  of the most popular and successful of these were from the minority Christian community. Let’s get acquainted with a few of them.

Yaaro Mujhe Maaf Karo Mein Nashe Main Hun Salim Raza
From Saat Lakh

With a voice pitched somewher between Mukesh and Talat Mahmood, Salim Raza was a popular playback singer in the 1950s and early 1960s with many an evergreen hit to his credit. This song from the 1957 release Saat Lakh is the song that broke open his career.  Born Noel Dias in Amritsar, his family, not unlike many people from smaller communities, were positively inclined to the proposition of the new country called Pakistan. Impressed by the secular rhetoric of Quaid-e-Azam MA Jinnah and distrustful of an Independent India dominated by high-caste Hindus, a not-insignificant number of Christians opted to migrate to or stay on in Pakistan.

Dias’ family moved to Lahore where he pursued his interest in music and studied under the classical tutelage of Ustad Aashiq Hussain.  From the time he started singing for Radio Lahore, his light touch voice was picked up by several film directors to sing tragic and sad songs. Getting his break in the mid-1950s in films like Qatiland Saat Lakh, Dias (who changed his name to Salim Raza at the beginning of his career) became a much-loved singer. With the advent of the great Ahmed Rushdie in the early ‘60s, however, Raza’s voice fell out of favour and his final film credit dates to 1966 (Pali k Jhunkar). Raza migrated to Canada and passed away in 1983.

Dil Na Lagana Irene Parveen
From Insaniyaat

Irene Parveen’s voice, often paired with Ahmed Rushdie, Noor Jehan or Mala, wowed Pakistani movie-goers from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.  Blessed with a versatile voice that seemed to fit any sort of scene, Irene was born into a Christian family and married into another prominent Christian clan based in Peshawar. This melody was composed by the amazing M Ashraf for the 1967 hit Insaaniyat and is regarded as one of Irene’s best outings.  In the early 1980s, Parveen migrated to the UK where she currently lives.

 Tu Jo Nahi Hai SB John
From Savera 

A wonderful song with lyrics by Fayyaz Hashmi sung by the honey-voiced Sunny Benjamin John of Karachi. The song was first heard in the 1959 film Savera, which introduced John to a national audience. Critically acclaimed as one of the all time classics of Pakistani film music, John almost missed his date with destiny.  He had been down with the flu and fever for several days and only went to the audition on the insistence of a friend.  He apologised to the infamously moody music director Master Manzoor, “I’ve got a fever so won’t be able to sing well,” but Manzoor cut him off and told him to get on with it. After his rendition, Manzoor sat back stunned and exclaimed, “Where have you been all these years?”  History was made and a new voice was discovered.

With the advent of television in the mid-1960s, John commenced singing Christian hymns and carols every Christmas Eve, a tradition that has been embraced by the country’s Christian community.  In 2010, John was awarded Pakistan’s highest cultural award, the President’s Prize of Performance, for his outstanding services to music.

Jane Se Pehle Soch Lo Itna A Nayyar
From Parwana

In the 1980s, there were no two brighter Lolly-stars then Nadeem and Babra Sharif and probably no playback voice more popular than that of A Nayyar. With over 5,000 songs credited to him, Nayyar, a member of Lahore’s large Christian community, has a voice and a singing persona similar to that of Kishore Kumar: strong, very masculine and joyful. Nayyar continues to sing but on the gospel music circuit in American and European churches.

Pee Ke Zara Dekho Robin Ghosh
From Miss Hippy

This clip from a Pakistani remake of Hare Rama Hare Krishna and its smash hit Dum Maro Dum is a brilliant tour de force of imagined altered states set amidst odd pink lighting in a scene that unfolds around a campfire in a cave and a posh living room at the same time. The scene’s wild, drug-influenced orgy of dance and song must have surely been of the sort prominent in the minds of “conservative elements” when they clamped down on such nonsense after the hanging of ZA Bhutto in the late 1970s.

The music sways and cruises along with flourishes of Mexicali trumpets, strings that get orchestrated into a swirling frenzy, punchy organ chords and dramatic  rat-a-tat guitar interjections. This is the wonderful work of the giant Christian Bengali music director Robin Ghosh. Ghosh lives quietly with his wife, famous former Lollywood starlet, Shabnam, in Dhaka.

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