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Naushad’s journey from Lucknow to the Hindi film world

The legendary composer of music for Hindi cinema never forgot his humble beginnings in the alleys of the north Indian city

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Located in a crowded neighbourhood of Lucknow, Allan Sahab and Sons sparked Naushad Ali’s interest in music when he was a child.
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Naushad Ali

Latouche Road is a neighbourhood in the older part of Lucknow, the capital of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The main street there always remains clogged with honking vehicles and the air is heavy with smoke and dust. It takes several minutes to simply cross the street.

The shops on both sides sell heavy electrical machines, pumps to draw underground water or generators and the like. The neighbourhood seems as far away from the aesthetic value of music as you can get.

But amidst the cacophony, listen carefully and you’ll hear the strumming of a guitar or beat of a table, coming from a shop hemmed between two crumbling buildings. The shop sign reads Allan Sahab and Sons and it deals in musical instruments. This was once the cradle of Naushad – the star music composer of Hindi cinema.

The story of Allan Sahab and Sons is almost a century old and is now run by Azmat Ullah.

“My paternal grandfather, Allan Sahab, set up the shop some 90 years ago,” Ullah explains. “I am the third generation in his family and still in the same business.”

Naushad was the son of Allan Sahab’s sister and born on Christmas Day in 1919.

“Allan Sahab was the first musician in our family. If Naushad became a famous music composer, Allan Sahab should be given the credit,” Ullah says. Allan Sahab was not only a master harmonium player of Lucknow but also an ace craftsman of musical instruments. He was an employee of a shop named Bhondu and Company, that dealt in musical instruments.

That store once stood almost opposite Allan Sahab and Sons. It shut down decades ago and the old building pulled down. The owner of Bhondu and Company was Gurbat Ali, also a trained musician.

“Naushad’s father was a clerk in a court,” Ullah explains. “Those were not the times when education was considered important, so Naushad did not go school. He was inclined towards music from childhood became very attached to Allan Sahab. As Allan Sahab was the chief craftsman at Bhondu and Company, he would spend his day in the shop. Naushad would spend his days loitering around Bhondu and Company. He would follow my grandfather like a shadow.”

All India Radio interviewed Naushad when he was at the peak of his career and he recalled how he had got his first musical instrument, a harmonium.

“I would spend hours in front of Bhondu and Company,” Naushad said. “One day, the owner of the shop, Gurbat Ali, asked me, ‘Why do you keep staring at the musical instruments displayed in my shop?’ I replied: ‘Because I cannot buy them.’ Then I gathered some courage and asked him if I could work in his shop. I told him I would clean and mop the shop, dust the instruments, light incense before he arrived. Gurbat Ali agreed and asked me to collect the keys of the shop from his home from the next morning and ready it by the time he arrived. There was a gap of half an hour between my opening the shop and Gurbat Ali’s arrival. In that half an hour gap I would clean the shop as soon as possible and then play a musical instrument till he arrived. One day he arrived a bit early. I was occupied in playing the harmonium and did not notice he was standing behind me. After sometime, I realised his presence and started shaking with fear. I was a small boy. Gurbat Ali thundered, ‘You come here to clean my shop or to practice on my new, gleaming instruments?’

I sought forgiveness and told him I won’t touch the musical instruments in the future. He asked me to leave the shop at that very moment, but along with the harmonium that I was playing. I realised he was gifting me the harmonium. People earlier were so magnanimous.”

As Naushad became famous, he always described Gurbat Ali as one of his early teachers.

“Those were the days of silent movies,” Ullah says. “Latouche Road had a cinema, the Royal Theatre, where silent movies were shown. Musicians then would sit close to the screen and play a tune according to each scene. Allan Sahab was also the chief musician at the Royal Theatre. As Naushad grew, he started accompanying my grandfather to the cinema as well and learned the basics of music from Allan Sahab.”

The Royal Theatre still exists on Latouche Road but has been rechristened the Mehra Cinema.

As years passed, Allan Sahab disassociated himself from Bhondu and Company and set up his own shop for musical instruments. The shop became Naushad’s second home.

“He would spend all his hours in the shop in the midst of musical instruments,” Ullah says.

Then, Bombay had become the capital for Hindi filmmaking. “Naushad left for Bombay when he was 17 or 18 to become a music composer. And he became one of the most successful music composers of Hindi film and cinema,” Ullah says.

People may find it strange that no other member of Allan Sahab’s family followed Naushad to move to Mumbai to try their hands in Hindi film music.

The shop has changed little over the years – mostly the same as it was on the day it was opened. The shop is narrow and small and Ullah, just as his father and grandfather did, sits cross-legged on the floor with his back to one of the walls as customers sit on a small bench placed on the opposite side.

In glass cases on the walls are displayed guitars of different colours – red, blue and green. And among the guitars are old black and white photographs of Naushad, though the white of the photographs have become yellowed with age.

Naushad regularly visited Lucknow and wrote regularly in keep in touch with Ullah’s father, Naseeb Ullah. Ullah fishes out one of Naushad’s letters from a table drawer. The letter in Urdu is on Naushad’s letterhead and is addressed to Naseeb Ullah. Naushad had used a fountain pen with black ink to write the letter dated on 17 February, 1993.

On the right side of the letterhead in chronological order is the list of movies in which Naushad was the music composer. The first name in the list is Prem Nagar.

Ullah, in his husky voice, reads: “I recently received your letter that was oozing with love. It made me nostalgic. May God bless you all. May my maternal grandmother’s home remain blessed. Several times it came to my mind that I with my children should visit you. And once again fly kites from the roof of the mosque and hear maternal grandmother shouting at us, ‘You rogues get down from the roof of the mosques. You are adding to your sins.’ I also wish to visit the mausoleum of Peer Sahab in Latouche Road and tightly hug the old tamarind tree there and cry to my heart’s content. …”

Ullah stops abruptly and fleetingly shows the second page. “The rest is personal, about our family,” and replaces the letter in the drawer.

“We did not keep Naushad’s earlier letters. But now as his aura is growing, we realised we should have treasured them. We have only a few of his letters.”

Naushad died on May 5, 2006 at the age of 87. He lastvisited Lucknow in 2002.

“Naushad stayed in my home,” Ullah says. “He also visited this shop. He kept walking up and up on Latouche Road until he got exhausted and retired to the shop. People started pouring in into the shop to meet him. That was his last visit to Lucknow.”

Rohit Ghosh is a writer based in Kanpur, India.