Timelessness is a quality every artist hopes to achieve in his or her work. Many have, but often as posthumous acknowledgement. Rarely does a piece, even a masterpiece, completely capture the imagination of an audience so well as to distil the spirit of centuries into a few eternal moments. Umaraan langhiyaan pabbaan bhar, a Punjabi poem is one of those rarest of gems.
Best known as a song, the poem was set to music and first performed by Pakistani singer Asad Amanat Ali Khan in 1975. It has gone on to become one of the best loved songs to come out of Pakistan and is still capturing new audiences today, almost a decade after Asad Amanat’s passing in 2007.
Asad Amanat Ali Khan
Umaran langiyaan pabaan bhaar
The poem was written by Punjabi-British poet Mazhar Tirmazi in 1973 and published in an early number of the literary journal Rut Lekha. Tirmazi’s family was one of the millions uprooted by the Partition when it was forced to migrate from Jalandhar district to what had suddenly become Pakistani Punjab. The experience of being removed from the homeland and the inevitable feelings of loss, ambiguous loyalties and deep longings for what cannot be recovered are the predominant themes of Tirmazi’s poetry, which is regarded as some of the best in contemporary Punjabi literature.
The title Umaran langiyaan pabaan bhaar is usually rendered as "a lifetime spent waiting on tiptoes".
“I try to express all the realities of life in my poetry,” Tirmazi has said. “The loves, the hatreds, the joys and the sorrows.” The emotional uncertainty and vulnerability that is captured in that phrase – the feeling of being constantly "on-edge" and on guard – is woven throughout the lyric of this powerful poem.
First and foremost the repetition of the opening line over and over creates an atmosphere of distraction and other-directed attention.
Umraan Langiyaan pabbaan bhaar
[Lifetimes have passed as I wait on tiptoes]
Even in times and places that normally would bring joy, the anxious and separated lover can perceive only sadness.
phullaan de rang kaale
[Black is the colour of all the flowers]
surkh gulaabaan de mausam wich
[Though it’s the season of red roses]
Though settled in a new land, the lover’s soul is in pain and racked with guilt
pardes gaiyon pardesi hoiyon
[You’ve gone to distant lands, and become a stranger]
te teriyaan nit watnaan wallo raan
[Though all the time your native land cries out for you]
The poem came to the attention of Asad Amanat Ali soon after the passing of his father, one of South Asia’s finest classical singers and scion of the Patiala gharana, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, in 1974. A friend encouraged him to record it which he did but with a twist. In the opening stanza, Asad sahib included some couplets of Khwaja Ghulam Farid that had the effect of transforming a brand new poem into something that sounded centuries old.
The song became hugely popular as soon as it was released. Fans fell in love not just with his masterful singing but with the lyric as well which most assumed was derived from traditional sufi kalaam. This misapprehension was not something the singer tried to correct as he never acknowledged Tirmazi as the poet.
The song went on to become Asad Amanat’s signature tune. He performed it everywhere he went including in the Royal Albert Hall in London and at the personal request of Indira Gandhi when he toured India. Was there bad blood between the poet and singer? There doesn’t seem to have been. In a joint interview in 2000 both men warmly acknowledged the other’s contribution to the making of their careers and, in the case of Asad Amanat sahib, his fortune. Without Tirmazi’s poem Asad Amanat would not have had his most inspired moment. Without the singer’s ingenious and innovative interpretation, Tirmazi’s poem would likely have remained something known only to a relative handful of admirers.
There are several versions of Asad Amanat Ali Khan singing Umaran Langiyaan on the net and recorded media, each of which captures something special. This clip is the best video version I’ve found in that both sound and visual are sharp.
Ali Sethi and Nabeel Shaukat
Umran Lagiyaan/Chan Chan
Last year the song, by now a classic of the Pakistani songbook, was updated for Coke Studio’s eighth season. Ali Sethi, a former journalist, graduate of Harvard and playback singer, takes the lead vocals in a fascinating arrangement that manages to introduce the bluegrass banjo into the mix.
Sethi, who has a soft but polished voice, expertly channels some of the soaring high-register scatting that made Asad Amanat’s performances so amazing. Popular hero and winner of singing contest Sur Khestra, Nabeel Shaukat Ali, comes in midway with a folk song originally sung by Faisalabad’s Allah Ditta Lonaywala. It’s an unexpected and refreshing event but one entirely in keeping with the spirit of the original and its innovative addition of Ghulam Farid’s couplets.
Though a frenetic, and entirely inappropriate light show, tries hard to bring the song to ruination the singers and musicians win in the end and deliver a fantastic and very satisfying performance.