Shahnaz Begum | Guddu Film Archive
Shahnaz Begum | Guddu Film Archive

The late ’60s and the first half of the ’70s were among the most productive years for PTV, not just for plays but also for songs, which were more often than not of a high standard, in terms of lyrics, composition and verbal rendition.

Then came the 1971 war between Pakistan and India and there was a spate of national songs — not war songs, mind you. One voice and three songs, in particular, became chartbusters. The singer was a slim female, barely out of her teens, who answered to the name of Shahnaz Begum. The credited composer for all three was Sohail Rana who had, after a successful career in the realm of film music, branched out into television, specialising in children’s numbers.

The Dhaka-born singer had a mellifluous voice and was able to negotiate the surs (musical notes) with tremendous ease. She seemed to have taken lessons in semi-classical, if not classical music.

Shahnaz Begum is no more among us but she will live on forever in our memories through the songs she sang for Pakistan

The first national song was ‘Sohni dharti Allah rakhe qadam qadam abad’ , which was penned by Masroor Anwar, who was then riding the crest of success as a film lyricist. It was Sohail Rana who had got him to pen the lyrics of Heera aur Pathar (1964) and for many years the two had worked fruitfully in tandem.

No less popular was the scintillating number ‘Jeevay, jeevay Pakistan’, which was written by Jamiluddin Aali and who claimed to have provided the original tune that Rana finessed. Aali may not have been as popular among the masses as Masroor was, but he was particularly known for his dohas (Hindi couplets) in literary circles. The lyrics were meaningful and the words and tune blended beautifully.

‘Mauj barrhe ya aandhi aaye, diya jalaye rakhna hai’ was only a step lower in popularity, but the song worded by Asad Mohammad Khan was rendered with no less fervour by the one and only Shahnaz Begum.

Around the same time, fellow Bengali composer Ali Hussain, who was working for PTV, got Shahnaz Begum to record Bahzad Lakhnavi’s ghazal ‘Kahaan ho tum, chalay aao, muhabbat ka taqaaza hai.’ The tune was, or rather is, haunting and one cannot deny the contribution of the singer with the honey-soaked voice.

Yet another Shahnaz number that occupies a place of pride in PTV’s repertoire, ‘Aas bandhi ghar aaye badra’, was also composed by none other than Sohail Rana with verses were written by Asad Mohammad Khan.

Shanaz Begum did record a few film songs but, in popularity, they were no patch on her PTV numbers. Sohail Rana’s number from BadalAur Bijli (1973), ‘Yoon nazrein na pheriye’, was a disappointment, mainly because the composition was poor.

Shanaz Begum did record a few film songs but in popularity they were no patch on her PTV numbers. Sohail Rana’s number from Badal aur Bijli (1973), ‘Yoon nazrein na pherye’, was a disappointment, mainly because the composition was poor.

On the other hand, Robin Ghosh’s duet from Ehsaas (1972), ‘Ruk jao abhi mat jao’, picturised on Shabnam and Nadeem, was quick-on-the-lips. Shahnaz managed to keep pace with the versatile and much more experienced Ahmed Rushdi. The song was penned by Robin’s old partner Suroor Barabankvi.

Another duet worth mentioning is the semi-classical number that the duo Lal Mohammed-Iqbal composed for a now forgotten film, Paazeb (1972), ‘Aayi hai bahar jiyara mora naache’, where she managed to match her vocals with those of Ustad Umrao Bundu Khan.

A friend sent me a link to Shahnaz Begum’s recording of the five minute-plus ghazal, ‘Hum tum jahan mile thay, phoolon ki rahguzar mein’,written by Shair Siddiqi and set to tune by Karim Shahabuddin, both migrants from what was once East Pakistan. It is from the collection of the late Lutfullah Khan, who jealously guarded his recordings of poets and singers, to mention only two. The ghazal should delight the singer’s fans.

Shahnaz quietly moved to Bangladesh a few years after the separation of East Pakistan, but she did return briefly in 1984 to do some concerts. An unforgettable music programme, which was staged in 1989 to mark the silver jubilee of PTV, featured three singing stars from Bangladesh where Shahnaz shared stellar honours with Ferdausi Begum and Runa Laila. That was the first time TV viewers saw Shahnaz in colour.

She got married to an ardent fan in Dhaka, a man called Major Rehmatullah, and continued to sing in Bengali. However, she bid adieu to music a few years ago and concentrated on her religious faith.

When I was assigned to write about singers for an encyclopedia on Pakistani music by the Oxford University Press, a couple of years ago, I tried to get in touch with the Sohni dharti singer and got her telephone number with great difficulty, only to be rebuffed by her when I got her on the other side of the telephone line. The only consolation was that I did get to listen to her voice, even if it was devoid of what used to be her characteristic softness.

Shahnaz Begum may no longer be in this world but her voice, intrinsically tied to Pakistan’s image of itself, will no doubt continue to enrapture all who listen to her evergreen songs.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 21st, 2019