After putting kids to bed, I was scrolling through social media for the day’s feed, and read a post by one of the journalist friends that Zia Sahib was not doing well. Hoping against hope, I said a silent prayer in my heart for his speedy recovery. Only to wake up to the tragic news of his passing away this morning. The cheery, chirpy Monday, often full of energy and zeal, was dark and gloomy, sad and reminiscent.
A frequent theatre-goer, I have watched plenty of plays to be able to critique them, sometimes respectfully, at other times ruthlessly, yet other times positively. However, the legendary theatre thespian, and president Emeritus of The National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), of which he was also the founding member, never failed to impress.
At the age of beyond 90 years, one must applaud the energy with which he continued to work, act, speak, and train – the youth who wanted to absorb everything he had to impart from his treasure trove of knowledge and experience.
Having met him several times at the academy, it is nothing but humbling to be in his company. Spearheading a performing arts academy in a country where neither art is valued, nor artists, it was no mean feat to have come this long a way as successfully as he did. If you were lucky, and that I was, one would simply relish the rich conversations of and about literature, books, authors, theatre, cinema, performing arts, language, tradition, and so much more.
ZM was an ensemble – and an unbelievably exemplary one. A gem and a rarity. Not only was he a legendary actor and director, but he fit many a proverbial glove. A voice artist, an orator, a televangelist, and, above all, a great human being. A current faculty member and his former student from the first batch of NAPA, Uzma Sabeen, said, “My first audition was with Talat sahib at NAPA, and a very old man whom I didn’t recognise back then. When I was selected as a student, I realised I was in the presence of the great Zia Mohyeddin, and he was the youngest, at heart. Full of strong will power to excel, and robust energy, he was truly an honest mentor. His conversations and experience about the early days of Parsi theatre in Karachi are something to relish. He is strict, he is a perfectionist, he expects nothing less. And that is what made him an even modest human being – he was ready to teach, to hone the art and skills of the youth. Such teachers are few and far between, who are immensely invested in the work and life of others.”
He was born on 20 June 1931 in Faisalabad, and was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London from 1953 to 1956. Among many of his excellent stage works are Long Day’s Journey into Night, Julius Caesar, Sherlock Holmes, A Passage to India, and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Those who saw him act have memories they will cherish until, like the actor himself, they too have passed on.
After his extensive work in the UK for nearly 47 years as an actor, he decided to return to Pakistan and kicked off with his famous PTV talk show Zia Mohyeddin Show (1969–1973).
He went on to be appointed as the Director of the PIA Arts Academy from 1973 till 1977. His work was constantly at loggerheads with the military regime of the 1980s, so he went back to the UK to quench his endless thirst for the performing arts. The first ever Pakistani to have debuted in the Hollywood, ZM enjoyed a celebrated career as his brilliance shone through his graceful Urdu renditions of prose and poetry, and flowery oratory skills that set him in an unearthly universe.
The spring of 2005 brought Zia sahib and then General Musharraf together where the latter encouraged Mohyeddin to spearhead an arts academy, particularly pertaining to theatre, dramatics, and performing arts. And so NAPA took flight with President Emeritus Zia Mohyeddin. The rest, as they say, is history. Fate played its card and the theatre scene in Pakistan became a history in its own right. The GoP has honoured him with the Sitara-i-Imtiaz Award (Star of Excellence) in 2003, and the Hilal-i-Imtiaz Award (Crescent of Excellence) in 2012 for his endless contributions to the arts.
Mohyeddin was also fond of a lot of reading. And a personality of such great stature knows no realms of creativity. Besides his wizardry in stagecraft, he has also written books titled A Carrot is a Carrot and The God of My Idolatry: Memories and Reflections.
While ZM is gone, I am sure he is connected with us in words and spirits. And so I write to him, although all words would be little to condole the permanent loss he has left us with.
“Everyone who knew you, loved you. Not only as a great artist, but a man of endearing qualities. A man of your stamp needs no words from the ordinary. Your roses of repertory were free of any thorns. It is almost impossible to know which we will miss most – the great actor, or the great man you were. The genius perishes with you. But you have left behind imperishable elements – in the form of your students, the academy, your work, that will live forever in the hearts and minds of us. Although, you have left a humongous void, the loss of which is irreplaceable and irreparable, it has made Pakistani theatre all what it ought to be all along. And that makes me extremely happy.”
You will be forever remembered. Rest in peace.