In a class of her own

March 8, 2020

An evening with Farida Khanum, where the younger audience was reminded of the great treasure troves of music

Farida Khanum was applauded and venerated in a programme held at Alhamra last week. It was an apt gesture because the taste in music has changed so much over the years that many greats are nearly forgotten, and the people are not exactly falling over one another to request them to perform.

The greatest casualty has been intonation. With a guitar in hand and a clustre of instruments, mostly or all digital in formation, or intriguingly only a very few with the capacity to produce all kinds of sounds, musical and non-musical, the vocalist or vocalists are supposed to sing in a manner quite different to what one has been accustomed to.

If one refers to Farida Khanum or to Iqbal Bano or to Mehdi Hasan, usually the younger listeners or lovers of music call their singing classical — it is not even called ghazal rendered in a classical ang; it is called classical, period. For them these great exponents refer to something classical, while in the years that one was growing up classical meant the kheyal and semi-classical was the thumri and dadra. Only the connoisseurs knew that there was another form, dhrupad, that had ruled the music world for more than 500 years, and that it had a ready audience among the most initiated of listeners.

So it was lovely that Farida Khanum was requested to be present on the occasion when her contribution to music was being celebrated and the younger audiences were being reminded of the great treasure troves of music that have formed their music stock.

Over the years, Farida Khanum has won many awards, she has been appreciated and recognized across the globe, especially in an era when the subcontinental diaspora is all over the world, and is probably more eager and keen to listen to something pristine and related to their land. Being away from home, especially those who moved away in their formative years now yearn for the sights and sounds of their land and people; the pull is great and overwhelming. The musicians and vocalists have been in great demand in lands overseas, and touring abroad has become as commonplace as performing at home.

When the Department of Musicology was being planned at the National College of Arts, a series of workshops were held. Farida Khanum, who was invited as a very special participant in one of the workshops, got so involved in the initiative that she almost seemed like a co-worker. Later a graduate did a thesis report on her, and it appears that it was the only serious attempt at collecting all her numbers in one place. It was found that the music of most of our greats is scattered all over the place, and even in this age, when one click is sufficient to harness all to the screen, it was a huge effort to put it in one place.

Farida Khanum was born in Amritsar but spent the formative phase of her life in Calcutta where Mukhtar Begum was the leading stage actress and singer. She was exposed to the music of Akhtari Bai and to the presence of other stage performers like Ratan Bai, Taani, Durga Khote, Kajjan, and Naseem Bano. Mukhtar Begum was a shagird of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, the son of Kernail Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, and learnt to render the very complicated taans for which Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan was much applauded. The musical value of these taans lay in the fact that these were extreme examples of virtuosity. Farida Khanum imbibed all that but in thumri and ghazal singing, she was more influenced by Ustad Barkat Ali Khan.

Drinking deep from both these fountains, Farida Khanum came into the limelight in the 1950s — initially singing the ghazals which had been made famous by Mukhtar Begum but later with new numbers of her own, exploring the middle octave in a more creative sense than Mukhtar Begum, who often came into her own in the upper register.

It is very clear that the ghazal singing in Pakistan has evolved from the thumri. Farida Khanum initially sang the kheyal compositions in the mudh lai and then switched to the occasional thumri in her onward journey to the ghazal. The latter was sung mostly in the upper register, and while essentially Farida Khanum did sing in the upper register with full throated ease, in the later phase she paid more attention to the over-wrought emphasis on tonal embellishments and laikari, balancing it with the significance of the lyrics.

But, with Farida Khanum, the words have remained incidental, the elaboration of the raga has taken precedent, and probably it was left to the creative ability of composers like Niaz Hussain Shami, who were able to weave words in the larger pattern of her tonal combinations. Her first two ghazals composed by him in 1950s were Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehman kiye hue in Anandi raga and Raha yoon hi na mukammal ghame isq ka fasana in Aiman raga.

Farida Khanum has also sung many geets, some in Punjabi. These are more in synch with the popular sentiment. These geets are surely not a true reflection of her musical ability — such geets or numbers have been sung and probably better by other singers — but Farida Khanum is often requested to sing these geets in a public performance. At times the popular demand is so tyrannical that it pulls down her high level of performance. She also sang initially for the films but lacked the versatility required in playback vocalisation that was best exemplified in Pakistan by Noor Jehan.

Ali Sethi and Hadiqa Kiyani were part of the programme and represented the comparatively younger lot to emphasize that the tradition is not entirely lost and can be reinvented.

In a class of her own: An evening with Farida Khanum