Tribute to Past Glory – Satnam Mahmood, Mohini Hameed & Kanwal Naseer


By Majid Sheikh

As 24-hour television and internet-backed computers and mobile phones take over our lives, it is easy to forget the amazing people who started this communication revolution. They were the radio people.

The coming of radio to Lahore in December 1937 was a moment that brought with it names that soon became household names. Giants like Patras Bokhari, known locally as ‘Barray Bokhari Sahib’, ruled the waves, and with him worked scores of people whose phonic and diction skills he fine-tuned. Their voices became legendary. They were the stars of that age just as film and television stars are today. For the radio of paramount importance was the ability to pronounce words clearly and correctly, and to give appropriate pauses between each word. The significance of grammar coupled with simplicity in sentence construction was what made or broke radio stars.

As radio in Lahore grew in significance as the sole medium through which listeners could be instantly reached, two women stand out for their brilliance. They were Mohini Hameed and Satnam Mahmood Kaur. These two brilliant voices excelled far beyond the ordinary. In this piece we will dwell on these two outstanding broadcasters and legends of their time.

First let us take a look at the life of Mohini Das, who came to be called Mohini Hameed. For listeners, mostly children of that age, she was the incomparable ‘Shamim Apa’. In the pre-TV age children in Lahore, as also in villages all over the country where electricity existed, used to sit around their huge radio sets in the evening after dinner and listen to Shamim Apa telling a new story every night in Urdu. The thrill of her voice, the pauses, the silences, she knew how to keep millions glued to her story. For 39 long years listeners in Pakistan and India listened to her voice.

There was just no one like her.

Born in Batala in British Indian Punjab in 1922, Mohini Das joined All-India Radio Lahore, as the radio station was then called, in 1939 at the age of 17. Patras Bokhari had heard her deliver a speech in chaste Urdu at a function in Lahore and he instantly knew that within her a star existed. Mohini was soon a major female Urdu-language voice and almost every major radio play, or special announcement, had her behind the microphone. With time she kept on improving and excelling in her art. She was much later to reminisce: “Every time I take to the mike, I am nervous lest the words I speak are not delivered properly.”

Come Pakistan on the 14th of August, 1947, and Mohini became the first woman broadcaster of Pakistan. She had changed her name to Mohini Hameed and had already a daughter who came to be known as Kanwal Hameed. Just as Mohini Hameed was Pakistan’s first woman broadcaster, her daughter Kanwal Hameed, now known as Kanwal Naseer after her marriage to Col Naseer, became Pakistan’s first woman telecaster. Like her mother the daughter inherited the ability to speak clearly, with each word being spoken separately “like a necklace of pearls.”

Over the years as Mohini Hameed excelled, in 1963 at her Silver Jubilee at Radio Pakistan, experts of the BBC Urdu Service dubbed her the ‘Golden Voice of Asia’. This was taken up by other radio stations worldwide and soon she was respectfully referred to as ‘Golden Voice Mohini’. In 1965 she was awarded the ‘Tamgha-e-Imtiaz’ and in 1969 when for the first time the United Nations declared it a ‘Woman’s Year’, it was the picture of Mohini Hameed that donned UN posters the world over. For Pakistan it was a unique honour. The voice finally appeared as a picture.

After working from Lahore for a full 50 years, the woman with the golden voice, Mohini Hameed, retired and with her husband A. Hameed migrated to the USA to live a meaningful life recording religious programmes for broadcasting to Pakistan and the Middle East. In 1998 she was again awarded a second ‘Tamgha-e-Imtiaz’ and in 1999 given a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. She passed away in 2009 and the Lahore studio of Radio Pakistan was renamed ‘Mohini Hameed Studio’.

Like her mother, her daughter Kanwal Naseer, has also completed 50 years in radio and television, and now resides in Islamabad.

While on the one hand we have the great Mohini Hameed speaking in Urdu, in the Punjabi language the first broadcaster was Satnam Mahmood. She was lovingly called ‘Nama’ by everyone in Lahore. Her voice had a lyrical touch which people still remember with immense fondness.

Born in Lahore on Oct 16, 1921, to the famous Punjabi poet, journalist and novelist Charan Singh ‘Shaheed’ and Sakina Singh, her great grandfather has served in Ranjit Singh’s army as a cavalry soldier in the ‘Fauj-e-Khas’. So the family was always very much in the progressive freedom movement. She married the well-known progressive freedom fighter Mahmood Ali Khan, brother of the famous journalist Mazhar Ali Khan and uncle of Tariq Ali, the writer and former student leader. Satnam’s own family, as the synonym of her poet father ‘Shaheed’ indicates, had instilled in her the urge to excel. She once told a gathering in Lahore, narrating in her humorous manner: “My father kept telling me to educate myself till all the books in the world finish.”

And so when Pakistan came about she joined Civil Service, and was among the first women to do so, going on to Harvard with the first batch of trainees. There she excelled and gained a doctorate in education. So the famous Punjabi-language broadcaster had multiple interests in life, excelling far beyond the ordinary in each one.

Satnam Kaur started her career as a broadcaster in All-India Radio’s Lahore studio in 1941, very much inspired by the voice of Mohini Hameed. She once in the company of Faiz Ahmed Faiz quipped: “If Mohini can stitch pearls of Urdu, surely I was expected to produce garlands of roses in Punjabi.” To this Faiz immediately replied: “You are capable of stitching garlands in Urdu, Punjabi and even English.”

But then Satnam Kaur had chosen a niche in Punjabi broadcasting and soon Radio Lahore was transmitting some excellent plays in her mother tongue. Patras Bokhari is said to have the highest regard for her intellectual excellence.

As a bureaucrat Satnam was excelling in the field of women’s education. Her contribution remains second to none. On the theoretical side of ‘public administration’ she wrote a number of book on ‘case studies’ and how to learn from them. In the Administrative Staff College she was a respected professor, while also lecturing in Government College and the Punjab University.

After her husband died in 1961, Dr Satnam Mahmood took a decreasing interest in broadcasting and concentrated more on women rights issues. She was the person who triggered the setting up of the Women’s Action Forum, always staying away from what she termed “begum causes”. The fighter in her passed on to her daughters and granddaughters. One granddaughter, Maliha Zia Lari, is a leading women’s rights activist in Karachi, as was her late mother Shehla Zia.

But the woman known to everyone as ‘Nama’ remained dear to all her friends in Lahore, especially in Radio Pakistan and a number of educational institutions. She died in Islamabad in October 1995 of heart failure. Even today one often hears in intellectual gathering stories of her wit and knowledge.

So it was that the two finest radio broadcasters, Mohini Hameed and Satnam Mahmood Kaur, lived and enriched Lahore like few have. One is reminded of a saying of the poet Hafiz of Sheraz: “I am helpless when a woman speaks fluently, for surely she is speaking words of wisdom.”