NON-FICTION: A WOMAN AHEAD OF HER TIMES

Published June 13, 2021
Malika Pukhraj with a photo of herself as a young woman | Photo courtesy Roshaneh Zafar
Malika Pukhraj with a photo of herself as a young woman | Photo courtesy Roshaneh Zafar

Almost all singers of repute in India have had book-length biographies written on them. Several instrumentalists have also been the subject of books, their lives often meticulously detailed and the resultant texts becoming invaluable records for aficionados of music, who want to know the histories and life stories of their icons.

However, the practice is, to a very large extent, alien to Pakistan. A few of our music legends, such as Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali, were lucky to have had books written on them (Mere Mehdi Hasan [My Mehdi Hasan] by Akhilesh Jha; Ghazal Wizard Ghulam Ali: The Life, Times and Experiences of a Living Legend by Sadhana J. and Bhavesh Sheth) although these were published in India. Journalist Khalid Hasan had written a long piece on Malika-i-Tarrannum Madam Noor Jehan but, despite the singer’s desire for a proper biographical book, that was it.

About two decades ago, when classical vocalist Malika Pukhraj — most remembered for her 1950s rendition of Hafeez Jalandhari’s nazm ‘Abhi Tau Main Jawaan Hoon’ [I Am Still Young] — wanted to publish her autobiography, she could not manage to do so. However, the original Urdu manuscript was translated into English by Saleem Kidwai and was published in India as Song Sung True in 2005.

Pukhraj’s original autobiography in Urdu, titled Bezubaani Zubaan Na Ho Jaey [Lest Silence Become Eloquent] has now finally been published, and that too in Pakistan. The title is taken from Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s famous ghazal that Pukhraj sang for HMV on a 78rpm record in the 1940s, perhaps when she was still on the payroll of the maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh.

Bezubaani Zubaan Na Ho Jaey tells the story of a woman who was ahead of her times. In the face of numerous hardships — the difficult economic circumstances of her family and the careless family head in the form of her father — Pukhraj took on the challenges and started taking financial care of her family from the very early stages of her singing career when, as a teenager, she entered into the service of Maharaja Hari Singh, against a monthly salary.

She continued to be the family breadwinner even after leaving the service of the maharaja. She married of her own choice against the wishes of her family, revolting against her mother to run away with the love of her life, an already married man. Deviating further from established ideas of what women could, or could not, do, she developed an interest in investing in businesses that, unfortunately, for the most part, tended not to succeed.

Malika Pukhraj’s autobiography was first published in translation in India. It has now finally been published in its original Urdu in Pakistan and is a treasure of anecdotes about the great singer

The book can be divided into four parts. The first part consists of the singer’s early life in Jammu and formative years spent in learning music. In these pages, the late Pukhraj — she died in 2004 at the age of 92 — describes, in detail, her life in the village of Hamirpur Sidhar in the rural environs of the State of Jammu, her family and their move to Jammu city. The details give an insight into life in pre-Partition Jammu and Pukhraj’s early education in singing under the tutelage of Ustad Ali Bakhsh (father of Ustad Barray Ghulam Ali Khan) and other teachers.

The second part circumscribes her life as a singer in the darbaar [court] of Maharaja Hari Singh, whose character comes through as a benign figure and mentor for the young Pukhraj. The darbaar was the place where the youngster not only polished her musical skills, mannerisms and learned the refined ways of the court, but also attained knowledge of the ways of world. This section of her book is also filled with numerous stories of intrigues and conspiracies that were probably typical of the darbaars of the many princely states before the Partition of 1947.

The character she delineates of Hari Singh comes out quite different from what the state of Pakistan has long been portraying in official history books. Pukhraj gives details of the maharaja’s interaction with the Muslim population of Jammu and Kashmir, what transpired between the maharaja and the Muslim population and who caused the animosity — the after-effects of which continue to plague the region. This part of the book is full of adventures for Pukhraj, also, and gives details of her escape from Jammu after intrigues against her increased and she was accused by a newspaper of poisoning the maharaja.

She sets the record straight by divulging the specifics of the whole episode, explaining that she herself had left the maharaja’s employ with his permission when she deemed it necessary to move on. Here, she also reveals the cause of the Hindu-Muslim riots in the state and the negative role played by a newspaper owned by a Muslim in fomenting them.

The third part of the book takes readers through Pukhraj’s life after she left Hari Singh’s royal court. It recounts her love life and stories of the suitors who wooed her when she had settled in Lahore and then Delhi, her involvement in films and filmmaking just around the time of Partition, and her journey back to Lahore, where she married the love of her life: government servant Syed Shabbir Hussain Shah. Pukhraj dedicates the book to Shah and Maharaja Hari Singh, perhaps the two most important men in her life.

The last part of the autobiography is an account of her married life and her memories of the towns in Punjab and of Lahore, where she settled with her six children, one of whom is the renowned singer Tahira Syed.

What makes the book gripping is the anecdotes that Pukhraj tells from her life, and the people she came across who were equally interesting. Her style is lively and upbeat; even when she talks about bitter experiences, she adds an element of humour that dilutes the despair.

One such incident is her escape from the darbaar of the ruler of the state of Patiala for defying the maharaja’s ridiculous orders: as a ‘prank’, he wanted her to lie down in the same bed as his sleeping son-in-law. When she refused, the furious maharajah demanded she kiss his feet to seek forgiveness, which she also refused. Pukhraj and her mother had to literally run for their lives in the dead of the night, while the enraged maharajah drove up and down, the headlights of his car flaming, hunting for them.

Her father’s character during her childhood and teens also does not appear to be good, but there is no bitterness involved in the description.

Pukhraj spares nobody in her book, not even the people closest to her. This includes one of her own sons and a son-in-law, who were accused of embezzling her property. As for anyone else who did her wrong, she tells the story, but does not take names wherever she feels it could damage the repute of the children or grandchildren of the person concerned.

The book is divided into 59 chapters, starting with Malika Pukraj’s birth and childhood and ending with the death of her husband, whom she endearingly called “Shahji.” It has a linear narrative and reads well, although at some places, it appears that a new chapter had been inserted in an already finished narrative without making the necessary changes to end and start a new chapter.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Bezubaani Zubaan Na
Ho Jaey
By Malika Pukhraj
Aaj Ki Kitabein, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696480402
342pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 13th, 2021

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