At first sight, one wonders why there is a gendered view in the title of Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through its Women Singers. But the author, Lahore-born, United States-based Fawzia Aslam-Khan, explains that what motivated her to think about writing (or filming, initially) the gender-related view of vocal music, was the killing of some women vocalists by extremist groups or individuals, including some singers’ own “Taliban-minded” male family members.
Afzal-Khan is herself into singing, having learned classical music from Ustad Abdul Haq Qureshi. The book under review was initially planned as a documentary when the author received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US, as part of its ‘Building Bridges Through Film’ initiative, and Afzal-Khan gets not one or two, not five, but as many as 12 people to applaud the publication and its raison d’être in the introductory section, titled ‘Advance Praise for the Book’.
The sections on individual singers are certainly interesting and, at times, revealing, but before we get into the rest of the book, one should comment on the chapter focusing on Coke Studio. Not many lovers of Pakistani music living in Europe and North America were, until in the recent past, aware of the contribution that the television programme has made in “de-compartmentalising” our musical heritage and mingling it with pop music. In other words, Coke Studio has, from time to time, brought under one roof exponents of Sufi, folk and classical music, qawwals and pop musicians. Afzal-Khan deals with the subject quite knowledgeably.
The first great vocalist Afzal-Khan writes about is Roshan Ara Begum, whom she didn’t get to meet. The author acquired much of her material on the singer from a Pakistan Television (PTV) interview of Roshan Ara, conducted sometime in the 1960s. Given the title of Malika-i-Moseeqi [Queen of Music], Roshan Ara was born in Calcutta [Kolkata] and spent most of her early years in Delhi and Bombay [Mumbai] where she was tutored by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, a luminary of the Kirana Gharana. A much sought-after classical vocalist, Roshan Ara charmed a Muslim police officer who tied the nuptial knot with her. Came Partition, and he moved with her to his home town of Lala Musa “in the backwater of Punjab.” Surviving without singing was a tumultuous experience; Roshan Ara fell into depression, but when her husband gave her permission to sing, she couldn’t find a tabla player in the town to accompany her. She commuted to Lahore to record her inspiring numbers for Radio Pakistan.
A chapter titled ‘The Respectable Courtesan’ — on Roshan Ara Begum’s contemporary, Malika Pukhraj — clarifies the difference between a courtesan and a prostitute. Afzal-Khan got to know about the inimitable ghazal singer through Pukhraj’s memoir Song Sung True and, to some extent, from her daughter Tahira Syed, a singer in her own right. Syed revealed that her mother came into the limelight at a very early age when she started singing marsiya [elegies] and, impressed by her talent, the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir appointed Pukhraj the court singer. How she came to Pakistan and got married to an admirer — Tahira Syed’s father — makes for interesting reading.
A recent book explores the lives of select female singers of Pakistan to gain insight into the country’s sociology and its performing arts
In the section on Noor Jehan, there is really nothing new that we learn about the singer. On the other hand, Afzal-Khan’s readers in Pakistan get to know much about the Pakistani-Norwegian singer Deeyah Khan, who is also a human rights activist and a documentary filmmaker.
While on Noor Jehan, Afzal-Khan makes special mention of the crooner’s patriotic songs, such as the inspiring ‘Ae Watan Ke Sajeelay Jawano’ [The Grand Young Soldiers of the Nation]. She should have, however, also made a passing reference to Shahnaz Begum’s lilting numbers in this genre, such as ‘Jeevay Pakistan’ [Long Live Pakistan] and ‘Sohni Dharti Allah Rakhay’ [May God Preserve this Lovely Land]. Shahnaz had to pay quite a price when she moved to what became Bangladesh, but music is a great leveller; she soon formed a large circle of admirers.
Another eminent vocalist who deserved to be included in Siren Song is Ferdausi Begum, who received the Pride of Performance award in 1965, the same year that Noor Jehan also won it. Apart from singing ghazals and film songs, Ferdausi pioneered teaching music on PTV. The daughter of eminent Bengali folk singer, Abbas Uddin, Ferdausi continues to run a music academy named after her father in Dhaka, where students are mentored in classical as also Bangla folk music.
Afzal-Khan’s notes on the eminent folk singer Reshma and her modesty are worth a special mention. The gypsy vocalist insists that she doesn’t do riyaaz [vocal exercises] regularly, but when she is reminded that singers such as Roshan Ara Begum practised singing for hours every day, Reshma claims she is merely a humble housewife who enjoys singing. She reveals that now that she has a car, she requires the person at the wheel to stop at every shrine to enable her to offer prayers. She adds that when visiting Delhi, she made it a point to go to the shrines of Amir Khusrau and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and offered fateha there. But she is confusing Chishti with Nizamuddin Auliya, because Chishti’s shrine is in Ajmer — a mistake the author should have corrected. A point to remember is that Khusrau was a disciple of Auliya and it is on the premises of his mentor’s mazaar [tomb] that the multi-faceted genius Khusrau is buried.
Another error that has crept into the text of Siren Song is the author’s reference to Indu Mitha as “the foremost and only Bharatanatyam dancer” in Pakistan. One wonders how anyone can forget Sheema Kermani, who has been an exponent of Odissi and Bharatanatyam for more than five decades and has trained quite a few youngsters. While many classical dancers moved out of the country in the bad old days of Gen Ziaul Haq, Kermani stuck to her guns.
Afzal-Khan’s interview of the eminent ghazal singer Suraiya Multanikar, who is later joined by her daughter, Rahat, an MA in English literature, is highly informative about the senior lady.
The chapter on Hadiqa Kiani, who has been supported staunchly by her brother, Irfan, reveals a lot not just about her versatility as a singer, but also about the person that she is. Kiani has a soft corner for those suffering as one learns that, with the help of donations, she had built homes for many victims of disasters. She has also adopted a child, courtesy Mrs Bilquis Edhi.
Another singer to have had male supporters is Tina Sani, whose father encouraged her. He insisted that she ought to sing semi-classical numbers. Later, her husband induced her to opt for ghazals. Sani joined the ranks of Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano in lending their voices to the exciting verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Strangely, except for a mention of Nayyara Noor by Sani during the course of her interview, there is no reference to the singer in the entire book. A point to remember is that Nayyara Sings Faiz was a big seller in the category of non-film song albums.
Afzal-Khan’s notes on Runa Laila and Nazia Hassan make for interesting and informative reading, too.
An interview of the visually challenged young dhrupad singer, Aliya Rasheed, comes as a pleasant surprise, even to this reviewer who is steeped in classical music. Rasheed was supported by classical music promoter Raza Kazim and trained in India by the Gundecha Brothers, who specialise in performing and tutoring in this older genre of classical music of the northern subcontinent.
While the readers of Siren Song would like to read a revised and improved edition of the book, it should also be quite an experience to watch and listen to its audio-visual version, which was how it was originally planned.
The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities
Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan Through Its Women Singers
By Fawzia Afzal-Khan
Oxford University Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 6th, 2020