The age of popular music

December 3, 2023

Both Noor Jehan and Roshan Ara Begum were at the prime of their music careers in 1947

The age of popular music


ith the creation of Pakistan, the popular taste in music changed dramatically. Perhaps the change was already in the air and was only highlighted by the historical upheavals: the migration of population and the disappearance of the princely state patronage extant during the colonial rule. The princely state patronage was a continuation of the older traditions where the royal courts extended patronage to the arts, a system disbanded in the area where the British colonial rule was enforced directly.

A new, more assertive urban class came into existence soon after independence. It was more prone to popular musical dispensation. The film song was a huge favourite as indeed was the emerging form of the ghazal singing. The folk musical renditions, too, were quite popular in the rural areas, while the class that appreciated the kheyal and thumri dwindled earlier than it should have if other things had remained the same.

Both Noor Jehan and Roshan Ara Begum were at the prime of their music careers when the subcontinent was divided into Pakistan and India on gaining independence. For both these artistes, the decision to migrate to Pakistan was a bit of a surprise.

Despite the odds against her, Noor Jehan was able to continue, possibly because she was a practitioner of a popular form, the film music,

Roshan Ara Begum’s decision to come to Pakistan must have been based on other considerations than music. The musical scene here held out no great promise for her. The kheyal and thumri were seen as oddities and most of the listening public was enamoured of the lyric-centred rendition. The popular form of film music had already made great inroads into the citadel of musical fortress.

Roshan Ara Begum had spent her formative years in Calcutta where both musicians and audiences set the bar of critical evaluation very high. A new system of patronage had emerged there and was more market-oriented. All the classical musicians flocked to Calcutta and it was said that the best audiences were in that city. In the midst of great musicians, Roshan Ara Begum was recognised as a formidable talent getting ready to take on the world. Instead, she chose to migrate. Despite being valued very highly by the musicians themselves and a small coterie of initiated listeners, in Pakistan, she was only a name that was treated as an emblem to be brandished all over. Her appeal was, thus, very limited. She may have started getting weary of the conditions here.

Roshan Ara Begum spent her formative years in Calcutta where both musicians and audiences set the bar of critical evaluation very high.

Roshan Ara Begum was confined to the four walls of her house in Lala Musa. She occasionally made a trip to Lahore when invited for a classical music concerts either on the radio or stage. She would come out of her exile so to say and performed as if there had been no break or no dislocation. Then she would go back to the rural existence of her husband and her extended family.

In other words, she was hardly kept busy as the classical music concerts were few and far between. She was hardly seen in public. Her loss was great. The loss of Pakistani music was even greater as she was whiling away the most precious years of her performing years in the backwaters of the Punjab where she had no admirers except for her husband who had married her for her music.

Hayat Ahmed Khan used to say that the All Pakistan Music Conference was formed when Roshan Ara Begum gave a statement in the press that she had not performed for years and was rusting away in a village. To compensate for a public stage, the conference was formed and she was asked to be its patron.

Khursheed Shahid, who became her shagird and is seen in some of the photographs sitting strumming the tanpura behind her, was a witness to the two facets of her life as a housewife in a village and as a star on stage in the city. Shahid often went and stayed with her for months desirous of wanting to know more about the woman, the artists and the art. She found her hardly ever touching the tanpura or doing her riyaz. It was all about managing the house and looking after her husband’s children. But when she descended to the cities to perform people praised her to divinity. She was a musicians’ musician. At concerts where a vocalist or instrumentalist had to sing or play after another, the biggest challenge aspect was to neutralise the spell cast by the previous performer. This could only be done if one was twice as good. Due to her status as a top vocalist, she would perform at the very end. This was an arrangement the other vocalists preferred, because it was difficult to sing after her. Her barsi is on December 5.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

The age of popular music