THE mention of Shahnaz Begum, who passed away in Dhaka recently, reminds us of the black-and-white TV days, and of the unqualified love of the land which she conveyed through her sweet, tuneful voice. Sohni dharti Allah rakhay and Jeeway Pakistan are two of the country’s most loved and inspiring songs. It was these two numbers that almost five decades ago brought Shahnaz Begum (later Shahnaz Rahmatullah) fame and followers in droves. As fate would have it, it turned out to be a parting gift for the Pakistani people from the Bengali singer, who returned to Dhaka. Her journey towards greater melodic maturity continued in the newly established Bangladesh, earning her many accolades from both ordinary listeners and those who sat on award-giving juries. But quite remarkably, in Pakistan, she was through all these years celebrated on a massive scale — purely on the basis of the two patriotic numbers and a few ghazals that she had recorded in Urdu. There was no ebbing in her popularity, her youthful voice etched in memory for all times to come. Pakistanis would always be eager to catch a glimpse of Shahnaz Begum, just as they would be keenly following the news about the latest activities of Runa Laila, a Bengali singer of exceptional talent who once dared rival Madam Noor Jehan.
Shahnaz Begum’s passing is a reminder of the complementary relationship the two wings of Pakistan had until the creation of Bangladesh. She was one of the many from the eastern part who enriched Pakistani art — and there are a number of others whose talent first emerged in the then eastern wing of the country, not least among them all-time top actors Shabnam and Nadeem. There is a long list of creative people from East Pakistan in all areas of the arts whose names come to mind as a major influence on evolving Pakistani expression and Pakistani memorabilia. The past may be another country, but what’s common and shared is too powerful to be denied.
Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2019