“With the passing away of Mehnaz I feel I have lost my voice,” lamented Shabnam, one of the longest reigning film stars in the subcontinent, when I phoned her in Dhaka. She had gotten the tragic news on January 13, the very day curtains were drawn on the crooner. “No one had rendered so many songs for me and no one’s voice matched mine as much as Mehnaz’s. What a fine singer she was,” she added.
Shabnam’s husband, music composer Robin Ghosh, whose charming compositions sounded more lilting in the departed singer’s sweet sounding voice, said, “She gave an additional gloss and glow to my tunes. Hers was a mellifluous voice. There was something of a perfectionist in her… she never shied away from any number of rehearsals I insisted on.”
It was thus no coincidence that no other singer could record more songs for him. The last time the husband and wife met Mehnaz was at a PTV function which was held in their honour, when they came here in May 2012. Despite her declining health she gave a brilliant performance.
Mehnaz had respiratory problems but her voice had retained its freshness, said Robin Ghosh, a viewpoint which composer Arshad Mahmud also shared. She had last recorded an Iftikhar Arif nazm for him — Abhi kuch din lagenge. It was the theme song of Rana Shaikh’s TV serial, Padosi. One hopes the song will be released on audio CD.
Mehnaz had a well-trained voice. She was tutored in the field of classical music by no less a person than her mother Kajjan Begum, who had a strong classical base. Her parents excelled in reciting marsias and nohas, poems that dealt with the theme of the tragedy at Karbala. It was, therefore, natural for her to make her debut in the same realm of poetry recitation.
Her date of birth is not known (though her obituarists have all mentioned that she was 55 when she died). Her place of birth is also shrouded in mystery. When I spoke to her years ago, she had mentioned Lucknow as her birth place. Perhaps she didn’t want to be specific because her family was based in Mahmoodabad, a small town near Lucknow. Her parents were employed with the Raja sahib of Mahmoodabad for reciting elegies. When the period of religious lamentation would be over, Kajjan Begum would sing thumris, kajris and dadras, three popular genres of light classical Hindustani music. As she grew up in Karachi when the family migrated to Pakistan, Mehnaz walked in her mother’s footsteps.
While in college, Mehnaz once participated in a singing competition in Radio Pakistan Karachi’s children’s programme. The girl who was to represent the educational institution suddenly fell ill, Mehnaz was Plan B. She performed exceedingly well and walked away with the first prize for her recitation of the national song, Aae Watan ke Sajeelay Jawano. That opened the portals of radio for her.
The next step was television. She earned kudos for her renditions in PTV programmes too. The most noteworthy were the compositions of Nazeer Ali and Sohail Rana. The transition from the small screen to the large screen came in 1974, when music director A. Hameed got her to record a Saifuddin Saif song for Hasan Tariq’s film, Jahez. This was followed by three more numbers but, as bad luck would have it, the project was shelved. Not to be deterred, A. Hameed got her to sing a lighter duet with Ahmed Rushdi filmed on Waheed Murad and Babra Sharif.
As composers and filmmakers heard the voice, assignments started pouring in. They included Khawaja Khursheed Anwar’s score for Haider Ali. The veteran music director got all seven songs recorded in Mehnaz’s voice. But the song which catapulted her to the top was a Nisar Bazmi composition, Mera Pyar Tere Jeevan ke Sang Rahega. That was for Pervez Malik’s box-office hit, Jan Pehchan (1975). A tandem, the male version was sung by none other than the late Mehdi Hasan, with whom she later recorded quite a few memorable numbers. No other singer had recorded so many duets with as many singers, both male and female, as Mehnaz did.
Interestingly enough, when director Masood Pervez needed seven solos for his film, Insaan, he engaged seven leading composers to record one song each in her voice.
In her illustrious playback career Mehnaz won as many as a record eleven Nigar Award trophies in the category of Best Female Singer, starting with the number from Salakhein (1977) to Aik Aur Love Story (1998) — the first seven came back to back.
When she bid farewell to films in 2001 after recording songs for 300 Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi films, she reverted to television with renewed vigour and also gave time to stage shows, at home and abroad.
Mehnaz was older than all her five siblings. A brother passed away but she got the other four well-settled in life. On the ill-fated day she was going for treatment to the US where they all live but her journey of life, like her last flight, came to an abrupt end. When her condition worsened, she was offloaded at Bahrain. She called it a day as the ambulance was speeding towards the hospital.