Graceful Star: Begum Humyra Saiyid
The Friday Times
27 June-3 July 1996
Born to a family whose intellectual contribution to the Subcontinent is as old as the history of Muslims in this region, Begum Humayra Saiyid was Pakistani’s celebrated artist. A soft spoken and charming person, she was the first newsreader at Radio Pakistan Rawalpindi. Nine years younger than her cousin Quratul Ain Haider (the author of acclaimed Urdu novel, Aag ka Dariya), she enjoyed a long and successful career in performing arts.

Humyra Saiyid acted in three PTV drama serials, Tansen, Parosi, and Pal Do Pal. It was heartening to see her signing autographs for kids. “I prefer such roles in TV plays which are meaningful and challenging.” She had a long stint in Radio Pakistan in news and plays, broadcast in English and Urdu. In addition, she founded two schools in Rawalpindi on “self-help basis,” arranging student fees and buying school furniture from own resources and with contributions from family friends.

Humyra Saiyid’s entry into TV acting was accidental. Playwright Hasina Moeen was looking for a character in Tansen and she found one in her. “Initially I found acting to be quite difficult; however, after some performances, I began enjoying it,” she recalled. “Some roles I perform had a lasting impact on my personal life.”

Back in the 90s, Indian TV channel Doordarshan ran a documentary on her family history. “Ainee (Quratul Ain Haider) has sent me a copy of the video. After seeing our family house in Nehtaur in district Bijnaur near Muradabad and the old furniture there, I was reminded of those good times…. Mushairas of popular poets from across the Subcontinent like Jigar Muradabadi were the most entertaining events at our family marriages. In our family, besides Urdu, the knowledge of Persian was a must.” A literate lady, she could quote the entire Diwan-e-Ghalib.

Humyra Saiyid was a Sunni Sayed. Her forefathers were the Sadats from Arabia. They first came to Central Asia and then to India. Ainee’s father Hayder Yaldrum and her father were both graduates Aligarh University. She herself did her BA from this great Indian Muslim institution established by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Her mother Wahida Begum and brother Nazre Sajjad Haider were also good writers, Quratul Ain Haider’s mother authored some 20 novels. Both wrote boldly on women issues at the time in two popular magazines, Tehzeeb-e-Niswan and Ismat.

“A cousin of mine, in fact, got the highest prize for writing in Ismat. At that time, I can recall, there were around 20 to 25 literate ladies in our family.” In 1938, Humyra Saiyid was in the third year of her BA at Aligarh when she got married to Jari Ahmed Saiyid – a civil servant, who retired from Military Accounts in Pakistan. She accompanied her husband wherever he was posted: to Poona, following her marriage, then back to Aligarh; then to Bombay and Delhi; and, after Partition, to Rawalpindi and Lahore. She had two sons and three daughters, and, after her husband’s death, lived the rest of her life in Islamabad.

Humyra Saiyid started her radio career during the Second World War. “It was either late ‘43 or early ‘44 that I joined Radio Bombay, where, for a year and a half, I compered programs on women issues. Then, my husband was posted to Delhi. It was after coming to Rawalpindi that I started regular radio broadcasts. First, I was a newsreader, with Ghani Eirabi as news editor. For every five minutes, we were paid five rupees. After some time, the “side-program people” were also after me. So, I started doing Urdu and English talk shows as well as radio plays, in which my role was often that of a heroine. In 1954, my husband was posted in Lahore, but I did not quit radio service till 1966.”

The success that Humyra Saiyid had in her broadcasting career was “because of the control I had over my voice and Urdu pronunciation”. She recalled doing a radio play based on a dialogue between the “heroine and her conscience,” in which she had to change her voice many times.

One of the artistic fields where Humyra Saiyid enjoyed working was theatre, a field in which she could not advance because of her “own mistakes.” Her first stage drama was the Ladies Meeting, held in Rawalpindi in 1951. It was a satire. Among other ladies who performed were the wife of General Atiqure Rehman, and Begum Shehnaz Wazir Ali’s mother, who played the role of a Punjabi woman. This drama was a huge hit. Another play that Humyra Saiyid participated in Lahore was at the Lady Maclag College, from where she did her BEd. “It was Imtiaz Ali Taj’s Anarkali, and I was given the role of the heroine, Dilaram. My performance took Lahore by storm and Zia Mohiyuddin and Safdar Mir offered me the main role on the stage.”

It was here that Humyra Saiyid regrets making a wrong decision. “My husband was a religious person, but he was moderate. I thought it would not be reasonable on my part to perform in a stage drama at Al-Hamra Art Theatre.”

According to her, she was not the only one in the family to be fond of dramatics. Her mother and sisters also loved to do Shireen Farhad and other plays at home. “We were six sisters and brothers.” Her brother, Dr Salahuddin Haider served as a professor at McGill University in Canada. And, Dr Dushka H Saiyid, one of her daughters, was a History Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Humyra Saiyid wanted to continue her television acting. But, for that, she had one condition: the role should be a solid one. “I won’t like to act in a small role. However, it is rare that the role of a character where I fit in is needed in a TV play.” Her final message was that we should always show “love and tolerance,” especially when it comes to religion.

It is for upholding such noble values throughout her life, and the extreme care and love she displayed towards everyone, that Begum Humyra Saiyid - our graceful star - will be remembered forever.