First to play Pakistan’s National Anthem

Ammad Ali on the life of Parsi musicologist and educationist Sohrab H.J. Rustomji (aka “Behli”)

First to play Pakistan’s National Anthem
Over the past few years, there has been some ideological controversy around the national anthem of Pakistan – especially when it was said that Jagan Nath Azad wrote the first national anthem of Pakistan on the request of the Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah.

After the inception of new state, for seven long years Pakistan could not finalize its full national anthem – although the tune itself was for the first time played in 1949. However, it seems established that the music of the national anthem of Pakistan was composed by Ahmed Ghulam Ali Chagla, and that it was officially selected 11 months after his death on the 5th of January 1954. The lyrics of the national anthem of Pakistan were penned by Hafeez Jalandhari and officially adopted on the 16th of August 1954.

Behram Sohrab Rustomji

Several books have come out on the history of the national anthem and the long process of its selection – written by those who were staffers at Radio Pakistan and those whose forte has been the national history of Pakistan.

But the fact is hardly ever highlighted that the first person who played the tune of the national anthem of Pakistan was a Parsi (Zoroastrian) educationist and musicologist from Karachi named Behram Sohrab H.J. Rustomji, also known as Behli. A “Virbaijeeite”, who later served as a principal of the prestigious Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School for nearly 19 years.

Behram S.H.J. Rustomji was born in Karachi in 1912, the son of Sohrab and Tehmina Rustomji. The Rustomji family’s roots had been established in Karachi by Seth Hormusji Jamshedji Rustomji, who during the second half of the 19th century was popularly known as the “Merchant Prince” for his business acumen and for the fame he brought to the Karachi Parsi community by employing hundreds of Zoroastrians. He adopted the names of his father Sohrab, grandfather Hormusji and great-grandfather Jamshedji, as the initials S.H.J.

Behram S.H.J. Rustomji (fondly called Behli) got his early education from Bai Virbaiji Soparivala (BVS) Parsi High School. A student of Dr. Maneck Pithawalla, then principal of BVS Parsi High School, Behli later became Pithawalla’s colleague as a teacher and vice principal, and finally his successor, when he donned the mantle of his mentor.
“The family piano on which Behli played the Anthem (a gift by Behli’s late father Sohrab to his wife Tehmina) is indeed a valuable piece of history”

After completing his matriculation and a short teaching period, Behli proceeded to the UK in 1935 for further studies and obtained a BA in education from Goldsmiths at the University of London. He also took courses at the Royal College of Music and attended summer school at Cambridge. Within a year of his return from the UK, Behli married Gool Desai.

When Behli became the principal of BVS Parsi High School in 1946, it was a year just before the Partition of India. Due to the mass exodus of Muslim populations to Karachi and the lack of educational institutions, on the request of Quaid-e-Azam M.A. Jinnah, he opened the school’s doors for non-Parsi students. And so the institution became open to students of all faiths.

Behli was a family friend of Ahmed Ghulam Ali Chagla: Though they belonged to the same city, Karachi, they had met for the first time in Britain.

Chagla was from a business family of Karachi. His father Ghulam Ali Chagla had been Mayor of Karachi. He was versatile like most artistes of his times , a musician, a freelance journalist, playwright and art critic. Early in life, he devoted himself to a serious study of classical music. In 1928 he qualified from the Trinity College of Music in London and learned Western music under the aegis of maestro Sir Henry Wood. Besides a deep understanding of classical music, he also possessed just as much of a grounding in orchestral music, operatic classical composing and conducting European music.

BVS Parsi High School in 1873

Chagla composed music for a number of Urdu, Gujarati, Sindhi and English plays. He was music director of a film company until 1933. In this capacity he composed music on various Eastern and Western instruments for a number of films.

Soon after independence in 1947, the country was in search of a new Pakistani national anthem to replace God Save the King. It so happened that Chagla had just put together and composed an anthem with inspirational words and an accompanying melody within a fortnight.

Bust of Shapurji Hormusji Soparivala at BVS Parsi High School

In December 1948, the National Anthem Committee was constituted under Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar, Minister of Communications. It was tasked with selecting a suitable national anthem. Since a foreign head of state was to visit Pakistan, the need for a national anthem had became ever more pressing.

Chagla, a bosom friend of Behli, discussed the difficult situation created by the paucity of time and then both friends started working on the tune. Behram Rustomji was a pianist of exceptional talent.

Shahrokh Minochere Mehta, a student of Behram Rustomji (Behli) writes about his memories of the two musicologists and their deep friendship:

While visiting Behli’s house, he hummed and tried out the tune for Behli. At once, Behli played it on the piano, and hence earned the distinction of being the first individual, a Zarathushti, to play the tune of the newly created Muslim nation of Pakistan.

The family piano on which Behli played the Anthem (a gift by Behli’s late father Sohrab to his wife Tehmina) is indeed a valuable piece of history. In the 19 years he served as principal, Behli preferred to be addressed as Headmaster or Sir rather than Mr. or Principal, a preference resulting from an affinity for British tradition. Behli resigned as principal of BVS Parsi High School in 1965 to pursue other educational and scholarship activities in Pakistan. With his wife Gool Desai, he co-authored a translation of ‘Dastur Dhalla – An Autography’ from Gujarati into English. In 1940, Behli published a book titled, ‘Teachings of Zarathushtra’ and his last publication was titled ‘Karachi (1839-1947)’.

In addition to his full-time teaching profession, Behli was actively involved with many community associations such as the Karachi Parsi Collegiate Union, Young Men’s Zoroastrian Association, Karachi Parsi Institute  and Dastur Dr. Dhalla Memorial Institute. Behli was on the managing committee of the Karachi Theosophical Society, the Pak-Iran Cultural Society, the Sindh Boy Scouts Association, the Pakistan United Nations Organization  and various educational bodies. He was instrumental in organizing the first All Sindh Educational Conference and played an active role during the visit of the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Karachi.

Shahrokh Minochere Mehta, who closely observed Behli, writes writes:

“It would be difficult for Behli to say whether his first love was education or music, as he has given as much of himself in the line of music, as education. He composed many songs in English and Gujarati which are still sung and remembered, including the Zarathushti prayer - Ashem Vohu. Behli was blessed with a great ‘musical ear’ and after hearing something just once, he could reproduce it on the piano, making it sound like a well-composed concerto. He was most comfortable at the keyboard and presented himself as an accomplished pianist. One of his favorite and most played pieces was the so-called ‘Parsee Anthem’ (composed by his late mentor Dr. Pithawalla), which he enjoyed playing with gusto on the piano and singing enthusiastically in his baritone like voice, while directing the school’s chorus (sung on the music of Sir Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory from Pomp and Circumstance March, No.1 in D):

Children of the Royal Race of Noshirwan,

Rally round his banner, sing of old Iran

Charity and Ashoi, these are watch-words true

Mazda Lord of Good Mind, ever will save you,

Mazda Lord of Good Mind ever will save you.”

Behram Rustomji remained a man of high principles and strong convictions. During his golden years and in spite of his failing health, Behli remained active by writing regularly in magazines and journals like the Mumbai-based Parsiana and Jam-e-Jamshed; the US-based FEZANA; and Karachi-based OSHAO, What’s On, and Parsi Sansar.

Behli Rustomji passed away on the 14th of December 2002 at the age of 90 in Mumbai. He leaves behind three accomplished daughters, Roshni Rustomji of California, Armaity Desai of Mumbai and Soonamai Desai of California.

Isphanyar Minocher Bhandara is one of the noted figures of the fast dwindling Parsi Zoroastrian community of Pakistan and former representative from that community in the National Assembly of Pakistan. Being an active defender of the rights of minorities in Pakistan, he says:

“We need to teach our students about non-Muslims’ contributions to the making of Pakistan: for instance how S.P Singha’s vote brought Punjab to Pakistan, or how Parsis no less than Hindus and Christians played their part.”

In the history of the national anthem of Pakistan, Behram Sohrab H.J. Rustomji is hardly ever mentioned. He was among those people who are far above fame and the limelight. They do their best standing behind the curtain.
The writer is thankful to author and researcher Mr Aqeel Abbas Jafri for sharing a rare photo of Behram Sohrab Rustomjee.