Reclaiming the legacy of ZA Bukhari

By Raza Rumi

Defining ‘Pakistani’ culture has been a problematic endeavour right from the inception of the country. Pakistan has straddled between 5,000 years of its ancient past, a thousand of years of Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent, and the secular, plural reality that exists to date. Few individuals attempted to understand this. And fewer could actually lead the arduous process of articulating and shaping a truly nuanced and composite Pakistani culture. Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari, popularly known as ZA Bukhari, was one such Renaissance man who will always be remembered for his life and works, but more importantly for filling the void, which was created due to the truncation of Indo-Muslim identity in 1947. At the time of Independence, Pakistan was beset by the greatest of its challenges, ie of coming to terms with its past and deciding about its future trajectory, conflicts which remain unresolved despite six decades of fruitless struggles.

ZA Bukhari

Bukhari was born into a Peshawar family in 1904. After completing his early education, he moved to Lahore given its reputation as a centre for high learning in North India. He joined the famous Oriental College where he completed his Munshi Fazil- a degree that was considered the ultimate test of your mastery in Arabic, Persian and other ‘oriental’ branches of learning. In 1925, when Bukhari was 21 years old, he was selected as a munshi (teacher) to teach vernaculars to British sahibs. In due course, he was promoted as the Head of the Bureau of Translation.

By now the young Bukhari had proven his mettle in the arts. He was dabbling in classical Urdu poetry with a unique style of his own, was active in theatre and emerging as an authority on the Indo-Muslim culture. After all, he had been a student of Dr Muhammad Iqbal, among other luminaries of his age and espoused tradition and modernity alike.

Z A Bukhari’s talents blossomed when the British decided to run the radio in a professional manner and launched a broadcasting station in 1935. Bukhari was trained by Lionel Fielden in the art of broadcasting; and later he was appointed as the programme director at All India Radio (AIR), Delhi station. After four years of working AIR, Delhi, Bukhari was sent to Bombay where he made his lifelong acquaintances in India’s new cultural capital that boasted a state-of-the-art film industry and scores of writers, poets and artists from all over the subcontinent.

After the creation of Pakistan, who could have been a better choice for the position of the first Direction General of Radio Pakistan? His brother, eminent humorist and broadcaster Patras Bukhari, was the Director General of All India Radio at the time of Independence.

It was at Radio Pakistan where Bukhari used his extensive expertise and creativity to set a direction for the promotion of a plural Pakistani culture. As a music officiando, Bukhari helped in setting new trends for rendition Urdu ghazals-which remain as the basis for continued innovation and evolution in the musical genre of ghazal gayeki. In addition, Radio Pakistan became a hub, a new patron for the migrated classical and semi-classical musicians and vocalists. Bukhari allowed for the continuity of the musical traditions and later recorded in his memoirs how the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent had contributed in the refinement of tradition Indian music styles. His book Raag Dariya was one of the few written works on classical raags.

Bukhari in his All India Radio days

With the advent of television in Pakistan, Bukhari was appointed as Pakistan Television’s General Manager, where the broadcasting experience of quarter of a century allowed him to introduce exceptionally remarkable cultural programming on the idiot box. He was eventually removed from the position because of his opposition to Gen Ayub Khan’s regime.

Bukhari’s poetry, though scattered and out of print for years, is a formidable collection of modern ghazal reflecting his deep links to glorious traditions of Urdu literature.

guzree hae usee tarah bahaar abkay baras bhee
ho gee nah bahaaro- may- shumaar abkay baras bhee

Perhaps the greatest of his legacies is an autobiography entitled Sarguzasht which is not a simple memoir of an individual but an important document on the cultural history of pre-1947 India and the subsequently, that of a new, fragile, insecure quality which has all but forgotten this icon. Bukhari was also a great proponent of our oral literary traditions and practiced them throughout his career: he was a brilliant conversationalist, a maestro when it came to theatrical recitations and rendering of marsiaas. Generations of Pakistani remember his dramatic and resonant voice.

It is a pity that Pakistani state, especially its cultural ‘institutions’, have failed to even make his collective works available to the newer generations of Pakistanis. Bukhari’s life and interests remain at variance with the state-ideology of Jihadism and mock-Islamisation. People like ZA Bukhari and their dedicated lives demonstrate how arts and culture are in sync with a country inhabited by Muslims; and how important it is to celebrate our rich heritage of music, literature and learning.

A recently launched website – – is a humble effort to showcase the achievements and legacy of ZA Bukhari to Pakistanis and people across the world. In particular, the young Pakistanis-now comprising 70 percent of the country’s population need to learn about men of letters such as Bukhari who added much beauty and vigour to a society haunted by the tragedy of 1947 and its continued internal conflicts.

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore. He blogs at Follow him on twitter: @razarumi

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