She loved to paint in her college days and wanted to pursue it as a career, but fate had something else in mind for her. Today, one of the leading singers in the country, Mehnaz does not regret the decision she made years ago. But there is a tinge of sadness in her voice as she speaks about herself, perhaps due to her ill health, loneliness or the setbacks she has received in her singing career.
Oblivious to the fact in her college life that she had a talent nurturing inside her, it surfaced by accident one day. “There was a music competition arranged by Bazme Talaba in which many colleges were participating, and the girl who was to sing from our college fell sick. The teacher was reluctant to take me on in the beginning as I was an extremely shy and quiet person, but she eventually agreed as there was no other person available. I sang Aai watan kay sajeelay jawanon at the programme. After the song there was pin-drop silence, and then thunderous applause erupted.”
Saleem Gilani, the director general of Radio Pakistan, who was present at the music competition, arranged her training for a month at the radio station. Pandit Ghulam Qadir, Mehdi Hasan’s brother was her teacher and Mehdi Hasan who came to the station frequently, would often say to her “do riaz regularly and you’ll do wonders”, seeing her potential. She recorded her first song on radio Bolay ray papiha, composed by Ghulam Qadir. “Ameer Imam, the GM of PTV, heard the song and was impressed and wanted me to sing on TV. I was engaged to be married and my parents were thus reluctant, but eventually they agreed. I sang four songs in Sohail Rana’s programme Naghma Zaar, composed by him. The songs became so popular the Lahore film industry went after me. Music director A. Hameed took me to Lahore and my career in film singing began.”
Mehnaz soon became an established name in playback singing, and after a passage of time she still wasn’t making much money.
Realising that Farida Khanum and Ghulam Ali had a name and were paid well in ghazal singing, she decided that she should go for the genre and chose Ustad Nazar Hussain to train her. She also started singing her mother Kajjan Begum’s popular ‘thumri’ and ‘dadra’ songs.
Her golden period began with Mehdi Hasan when she sang duets with him. Later she sang duets with Noor Jehan and Naheed Akhtar. “Madam kept a certain distance with the younger artistes. She wanted respect from us which we gave willingly. Once we sang a Punjabi song in which I was the ‘nand’ and Noor Jehan sang the ‘bhabi’s’ part. There was a line in which I had to say ‘I will slap you’, but I just was not able to sing that line however much I tried. The recording would stop each time we came to that portion and I would not budge. When everyone was at their wits end Madam took me aside and lovingly said, ‘it is only a song, you are not actually saying it to me’, so I put a paper in front of me so that I couldn’t see her and sang the line. It was a hilarious situation.”
Commenting on the music directors, Mehnaz says there is no comparison to yesterday’s directors as they were hardworking people. Khawaja Khursheed Anwar, Nisar Bazmi and Robin Ghosh made her work and rehearse so much she would know the songs by heart. The current music directors do not emphasise on rehearsing. “Even with jingles you are given the lines just before recording. I am experienced so I don’t have a problem, but the new singers do as they don’t know how to go about their work,” Mehnaz says bluntly.
Belonging to a marsia khwan family—she being the seventh generation—Mehnaz’s family was religious but her mother loved classical music and her father was in Radio Pakistan, so all her siblings had an ear for music. But unfortunately, she says, none of them were interested in singing except for her perhaps because they are all settled abroad.
Being straightforward and blunt has not been very helpful for Mehnaz in her career. She says things as they are and that has created a lot of problems—awards get scrapped and benefits are taken away. “But,” she adds, “I never try to hurt people’s feelings purposely.”
In a slightly bitter tone, she says the requirements that made a singer successful are not important any more. There are singers who don’t know how to sing at all and are doing extremely well. So there is no criteria for success in music. “You have to take care of ‘sur’, tempo and the expressions in the voice. If you do this properly only then do you become a good singer. Training in singing is very important.”
The deterioration in good music, in Mehnaz’s view is due to the media. The channels encourage pop music. She says there is pop music in India but at the same time they take pride in their singers and old songs. “So music there is alive and kicking, both old and new. Here they don’t pay well and don’t care about music. There are going to be a lot of revelations in my autobiography and there is a whole chapter on the existing situation.”
Madam Noor Jehan, she says was her ‘spiritual’ teacher who taught her a lot and regrets that this country will never have another Noor Jehan or Mehdi Hasan, as music here is on the downslide due to pettiness. She knows it well as she has been a victim of it.
“People in Lahore resist my coming there because they are jealous, and jealousy destroys talent. I have performed for TV and radio and sang in the film industry but there is no photo of me in the PTV halls in Karachi. I was not invited by the PTV producer in Lahore to record a national song recently which had other artistes. I have sung so much in Lahore and I have got nothing in return. In Karachi they invite me to sing only when they need me. When you are alive no one gives you importance as they do abroad. You get it when you die.” As far as the younger generation of singers is concerned she says they can’t learn from her because they do not have the capability to work hard. “Lack of music academies has had an adverse effect on our youngsters as well. These singers later on become judges in music contests. How can they judge music when they don’t know music themselves?” she adds.
Mehnaz firmly believes pop music is a shortcut to popularity and it doesn’t last long, giving the example of Vital Signs, Junoon and Ali Haider. Singers like Shafqat Amanat Ali and Sajjad Ali remain because they know what ‘sur’ and ‘taal’ are.
She has received all the prestigious awards of this country. Anwar Maqsood once said she was the only woman who had received all the awards except Nishan-i-Haider. Mehnaz is also the only singer, who has continuously received the Nigar awards for nine years, thus breaking a record.
Modest about her achievements in music, Mehnaz says it is all due to God’s kindness and the hard work she has put into it. “I remember Quaid-i-Azam’s emphasis on working hard and I have always followed that advice.”