Khanum is one of the last of the Ghazal greats. She grew up in
Kolkata and has great fondness for the city. The denizens of this city
are known for their musical taste, and they have (naturally) great love for Farida. A
beautiful love story that is reaching its end as the giants exit the stage one by one.
Literary Meet. I met Banerjee—“Mala”—at last year’s KaLaM, and told her I was
making a documentary film about Farida Khanum.
Our conversation took place one
night in a car; we were weaving past rotten old buildings somewhere near the
Victoria Memorial and I was telling Mala about Khanum’s Calcutta connection.
Her older sister, Mukhtar Begum, was a Punjabi gaanewali who had come to
the city in the 1920s to work for a Parsi-owned theatrical company. Within a
few years she had become a star of the Calcutta stage—she was advertised on
flyers as the “Bulbul-e-Punjab” (the Punjabi bulbul)-—and had moved into
a house on Rippon Street.
Khanum herself was born, sometime in the 1930s,
somewhere in these now-decrepit parts.
bring Khanum to next year’s festival. She also asked, in a sort of polite
murmur, “She’s still singing and all?”
“Of course!” I said, mainly to serve
my own interests: I had been looking for a reason—a ruse, really—to bring
Khanum to Calcutta and film her in the locations where she had passed her
“Theek hai,” Mala said. “Let
me work on this.”
IT WAS A DIM JANUARY AFTERNOON IN
LAHORE, there was a power outage on Zahoor
Elahi Road, and Farida Khanum had finally woken up….I had come to prepare Khanum for a
concert she was to give in a week’s time in Calcutta, and was trying to engage
her, in this fragile early phase of her day, with innocuous-sounding questions:
which ghazals was she planning on singing there, and in what order?
“Do-tin cheezaan Agha Sahab diyan”
(Two-three items of Agha Sahib’s), she said in Punjabi, her voice cracking. She
was referring to the pre-Independence poet and playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri.
“Daagh vi gaana jay” (You
must sing Daagh too), I said. “Othay sab Daagh de deewane ne” (Everyone
there is crazy about Daagh)—Daagh Dehlvi, the nineteenth-century poet.
me in appalled agreement, as if I had recognised an old vice of Calcutta’s citizens.
“Te do-tin cheezaan Faiz
Sahabdiyan vi gaadena” (And you can also sing two-three pieces from Faiz
“Buss,” she said, meaning it
not as a termination (in the sense of “That’s enough”) but as a melancholy
deferral, something between “Alas” and “We’ll have to wait and see.”
I knew she was nervous about the
trip—the distance, the many flights, the high standards of Bengalis—and to
distract her I removed the lid of my harmonium and held down the Sa, Ga and Pa
of Bhairavi. I was chhero-ing the thumri ‘Baju band khul khul jaye.’
“Farida ji, ai kistaran ai?”
(How does it go, Farida ji?) I asked, all goading and familiar.
“Aaaaaa…” Her mouth was a
cave, her palm was held out like a mendicant’s.
pumped the bellows.
Her singing filled up the room: she
climbed atop the chords, spread out on them, did somersaults.
“Wah wah, Farida ji! Mein
kehnavaan kamal ho jayega! Calcutta valey deewane ho jaangey” (Bravo, Farida
ji! It will be extraordinary! The people of Calcutta will go crazy), I said.
away and making a sideways moue that managed to convey deliberation,
disinterest and derision all at once.
debility of the last three years, which has been accompanied by hospital
visits, physiotherapy and rounds of medication. (Khanum herself had described
it to me in terms of demonic sensations: her foot going numb, a tube entering
her throat, being forced to swallow strange pills and feeling a subsequent
whirling in her head.)
But worse, I had sensed, was the gloom accompanying this
illness—an awareness of the body’s vulnerability that led constantly to thoughts
of mortality, wistful ones not unlike those expressed in Khanum’s most famous
song, ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’:
ki qaid mein zindagi hai magar
Chand ghariyan yehi hein jo azaad hain
time’s cage is life, but
Some moments now are free)
The song is set in Aiman Kalyan, also
called Yaman Kalyan, the evening raag prescribed for creating a mood of
Her ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ is delivered in this
semi-free vein: her wilful, uneven pacing of the lyrics creates the illusion of
a chase, a constant fleeing of the words from the entrapments of beat. (This
technique, which has the mark of her teacher—the erratic and perennially
intoxicated Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan—bears its sweetest fruit in Khanum’s ghazals,
where strategic lags and compressions in the singing can enhance the pleasures
of a deferred rhyme.)
But what after these outlines have
been described? How to account for the slightly torn texture, the husky tone,
the maddening rass of the voice? And what to do about Khanum’s
devastating deployment of the word “haye” in the phrase “haye marr
jayeingey”? I once heard the Bollywood playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj say,
“Yeh gaana hai hee ‘haye’ pey” (This song is all about the ‘haye’).
I think she is right, in that Khanum’s transformation of that word—from a jerky
exclamation in the original to a dizzying upward glide, a veritable swoon, in
her own version—has made of it a mini-mauzu, or thematic locus, of the
truncation in Khanum’s musical trajectory: she has said many times that
Partition, which resulted in the loss of her Amritsar home, signaled the end
of her training and forced her to make compromises—personal as well as musical.
For a few years, while living in the alien city of Rawalpindi, Khanum travelled
regularly to Lahore to sing for radio and act in films. But she failed to make
an impact. Soon she was consumed by marriage, and gave up singing at the
insistence of the industrialist who offered her the securities of a “settled
life.” Later, when she returned to music, she took up not khayal or thumri but
the accessible and mercifully “semi-classical” Urdu ghazal.
IN OCTOBER, three months before the concert in Calcutta, Farida Khanum
moved an audience in Lahore to tears.
This happened at the Khayal
Literature Festival. I was interviewing Khanum, in a session called “The Love
Song of Pakistan,” about her life in music. Adding star power to our panel was
the ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. I had spotted Ali—urbane in black kurta and
rimless glasses—in the audience at the start of the show and asked him to join
us with a spontaneous announcement.
“Farida ji,” I said, switching on
the shruti box I had placed before her. “Could you please, for just a little
bit, sing for us the bandish in Aiman that you learned as a child? Just
a little sample, please.”
This part was rehearsed. I had
suggested to Khanum earlier in the week that she present on stage a “thread” of
Aiman: she could start with a classical piece, then proceed to ghazals and
geets—including the crowd-pleasing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’—all in her
favorite raag. This would give our session a musical coherence, I had said, and
make it easy to follow.
“Achcha?” she had replied. “Sirf
Aiman karna ai?” (Really? You want to dwell only on Aiman?) She pressed her
lips together, in her inscrutable way. Then, with a mildly warning look, she
said, “Theekai. Ay achcha sochya ai.” (Okay. This sounds like a good
Now, onstage, she ceded to my
request for the bandish with an indulging smile. What happened next surpassed
everyone’s expectations. Khanum’s voice, in contrast to her ailing frame, was
robust, full-throated, steady, flexible. Everything she sang glowed with
energy: she unfolded an aalaap, a bandish in teentaal, Faiz’s ghazal ‘Shaam-e-firaaq
ab na poochch,’ Sufi Tabassum’s ghazal ‘Woh mujhse huway humkalam’
and her signature ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.’
She was bringing out the
raag in different forms, showing its familiar movements, making it reveal its
secrets. But she was also compressing a century of cultural evolution:
interspersing the singing with anecdotes about her childhood in Calcutta, the riaz
with her ustad in Amritsar, her post-Partition collaborations with poets
and music directors at Lahore’s radio station, and the fortuitous way in which
she had come to sing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ (someone had asked her
to sing it at a mehfil). For the lay Lahore audience, the overall experience—one
of observing a constant or eternal thing (the raag) endure in ephemeral or
perishable forms—was eye-opening, cathartic and extra-musical.
In the case of a singer like Farida
Khanum, her role as a transmitter of djinns is magnified by social and
historical contexts. When she sings ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo,’ she is
passing on the cumulus of centuries—the laws of Aiman, according to one legend,
were fixed by Amir Khusro in the thirteenth century—in an accessible,
contemporary form. And the process is made poignant and ironic by our
ignorance: how many of the amateurs who upload videos of themselves singing ‘Aaj
jaane ki zid na karo’ on YouTube and Facebook know what they are really
hurdle appeared. I had gone to the GD Birla Mandir, the venue of the show, for
a sound check. There I was told, an hour before the concert, that Khanum would
have to go down several flights of stairs in order to reach the auditorium.
“What are we going to do?” I asked
one of the organisers, a woman in a sari who looked back at me
Then she said, “Wait.”
Approximately twenty minutes later,
a little before 7 pm, a white car carrying Khanum pulled up to the GD Birla
Mandir. The legendary singer emerged in a pink-and-gold sari, and was led by
helpers and admirers into the foyer. Then the Mandir’s doors closed, and the
Khanum, who had only just sat down in a chair, spent the next
few minutes in a state of airborne transport, gripping the chair’s arms and
muttering the lord’s name under her breath, until she found herself seated in
her usual, regal way on a stage decorated with flowers. “Ya Ali Madad”
(Help me, Ali), she said, invoking the prophet’s heir and fourth caliph of
Islam, before the curtain went up.
“Ek muddat ho gayi hai” (It
has been an age), Khanum said, shivering a little but looking serene before her
Calcutta audience, which was comprised of young and old alike. “Innhon ne
kaha aap chalein, buss thhora sa safar hai” (They said I should
go, the journey is not long).
She stuck to the rules: she sang two
ghazals from Daagh, two from Faiz, the thumri in Bhairavi and ‘Aaj jaane ki
zid na karo.’ I had the privilege of sitting next to her on the stage and
holding open the book that contained the words to the songs. I marvelled at her
composure—and, yes, at the soundness of her training—when I saw how she
conducted the audience, the accompanying musicians and the sound technicians
behind the curtain with just her hand-movements and facial expressions. And I
saw—a novice observing a master, a mortal observing a living legend—how she
managed her voice: the expansions in the middle octave, the careful narrowing
at the higher notes, the strategic truncation of words and notes when she was
running out of breath. Occasionally, when I feared she was going to skip a
beat, I found myself clenching the book in my hands and glancing at the
audience for signs of a crisis.
But there were none, because even
the odd anti-climax, when it did occur, was a pleasure.