The Djinn Of Aiman

Farida Khanum returns to sing in Calcutta

01 April 2014
courtesy Farida Khanum

IT WAS A DIM JANUARY AFTERNOON IN LAHORE, there was a power outage on Zahoor Elahi Road, and Farida Khanum had finally woken up.

We were sitting among shadows on the floor of her living room: I on the carpet and she on a cushion that was at once a mark of her prestige (she is “The Queen of Ghazal,” the last of her generation’s iconic classically trained singers) and advanced age (she can no longer sit as she used to, like a mermaid, with her legs folded beguilingly beneath her). I had come to prepare Khanum for a concert she was to give in a week’s time in Calcutta, and was trying to engage her, in this fragile early phase of her day, with innocuous-sounding questions: which ghazals was she planning on singing there, and in what order?

Do-tin cheezaan Agha Sahab diyan” (Two-three items of Agha Sahib’s), she said in Punjabi, her voice cracking. She was referring to the pre-Independence poet and playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri.

Daagh vi gaana jay” (You must sing Daagh too), I said. “Othay sab Daagh de deewane ne” (Everyone there is crazy about Daagh)—Daagh Dehlvi, the nineteenth-century poet.

Aa!” she said, and stared at me in appalled agreement, as if I had recognised an old vice of Calcutta’s citizens.

Te do-tin cheezaan Faiz Sahabdiyan vi gaadena” (And you can also sing two-three pieces from Faiz Ahmad Faiz).

Buss,” she said, meaning it not as a termination (in the sense of “That’s enough”) but as a melancholy deferral, something between “Alas” and “We’ll have to wait and see.”

I knew she was nervous about the trip—the distance, the many flights, the high standards of Bengalis—and to distract her I removed the lid of my harmonium and held down the Sa, Ga and Pa of Bhairavi. I was chhero-ing the thumri ‘Baju band khul khul jaye.’

Farida ji, ai kistaran ai?” (How does it go, Farida ji?) I asked, all goading and familiar.

Gaao na,” she said.

I screwed up my face and started the aalaap.

Aaaaaa…” Her mouth was a cave, her palm was held out like a mendicant’s.

Subhanallah,” I said, and pumped the bellows.

Her singing filled up the room: she climbed atop the chords, spread out on them, did somersaults.

Wah wah, Farida ji! Mein kehnavaan kamal ho jayega! Calcutta valey deewane ho jaangey” (Bravo, Farida ji! It will be extraordinary! The people of Calcutta will go crazy), I said.

Haan,” she said, looking away and making a sideways moue that managed to convey deliberation, disinterest and derision all at once.

THE CONCERT WAS THE BRAINCHILD of Malavika Banerjee, who organises the annual Kolkata Literary Meet. I met Banerjee—“Mala”—at last year’s KaLaM, and told her I was making a documentary film about Farida Khanum. Our conversation took place one night in a car; we were weaving past rotten old buildings somewhere near the Victoria Memorial and I was telling Mala about Khanum’s Calcutta connection. Her older sister, Mukhtar Begum, was a Punjabi gaanewali who had come to the city in the 1920s to work for a Parsi-owned theatrical company. Within a few years she had become a star of the Calcutta stage—she was advertised on flyers as the “Bulbul-e-Punjab” (the Punjabi bulbul)-—and had moved into a house on Rippon Street. Khanum herself was born, sometime in the 1930s, somewhere in these now-decrepit parts.

This January, Farida Khanum travelled from Lahore to Calcutta to perform at the Kolkata Literary Meet, where she sang the ghazals of Daagh and Faiz as well as her most popular song, ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’, to an eager audience of young and old alike.

Mala was held: she asked if I could bring Khanum to next year’s festival. She also asked, in a sort of polite murmur, “She’s still singing and all?”

“Of course!” I said, mainly to serve my own interests: I had been looking for a reason—a ruse, really—to bring Khanum to Calcutta and film her in the locations where she had passed her childhood.

Theek hai,” Mala said. “Let me work on this.”

One year later, I was headed to Calcutta with Khanum and her two daughters, her fifteen-year-old granddaughter, and the film’s archivist. There had been crises. Some weeks before we left I was told that Khanum’s passport had expired; strings had to be pulled, and a new passport procured within a week. Then there was panic about our visas—I had to meet the Indian High Commissioner in Lahore and urge him to release them on time. And we did, despite Khanum’s protests, have to take a wheelchair with us from Pakistan: she would not be able to cross the Wagah border and navigate India’s airports entirely on foot.

Karlaangi” (I’ll do it), she said on the day her new passport arrived.

To which her daughter Fehmeda, an endocrinologist, said in a tone of practiced refusal: “Ami aap hargiz nahin karsaktin” (Ami, there’s no way you can do it).

As Fehmeda had explained to me, a trauma to the sciatic nerve had led to a loss of sensation in Khanum’s left foot. She could travel only if it didn’t involve the use of her feet.

Farida Khanum’s sister Mukhtar Begum, known as the “Bulbule-Punjab,” (far right) with Khanum’s teacher Ustad Aashiq Ali Khan seated next to her, in a photograph taken in 1935.
courtesy Farida Khanum

“But she will go,” Fehmeda had said. “She must. The doctor has said she should stay active. We shouldn’t let her sit at home all the time.”

Fehmeda was referring to Khanum’s debility of the last three years, which has been accompanied by hospital visits, physiotherapy and rounds of medication. (Khanum herself had described it to me in terms of demonic sensations: her foot going numb, a tube entering her throat, being forced to swallow strange pills and feeling a subsequent whirling in her head.) But worse, I had sensed, was the gloom accompanying this illness—an awareness of the body’s vulnerability that led constantly to thoughts of mortality, wistful ones not unlike those expressed in Khanum’s most famous song, ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’:

Waqt ki qaid mein zindagi hai magar

Chand ghariyan yehi hein jo azaad hain

(In time’s cage is life, but

Some moments now are free)

A few days before we left for Amritsar she said to me, in the middle of a frivolous conversation, in a detached and mildly quizzing tone, “Main karlaangi?” (Will I be able to do it?)

And I was sly and cavalier with my response: “Araam naal, Farida ji. Tuaanu pataa vi nahin chalna” (With ease, Farida ji. You won’t feel a thing).

I CAME TO FARIDA KHANUM, like most people, after hearing her rendition of Fayyaz Hashmi’s ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.’ But it feels lame putting it like that—saying “rendition” and ceremoniously attaching the song’s title to the writer’s name, as if he were some major poet and this a lofty kalaam. The truth is that ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ started out as an ordinary film song, a geet—so many people in their enchanted ignorance have called it a ghazal—that was commissioned for the 1974 Pakistani film Badal Aur Bijli. A Memon from Karachi by the name of Habib Wali Mohammed had sung the original; it was sullen, randy and liltingly hummable—a young man’s plea for gratification.

What it has become in Khanum’s rendition—a widely circulated recording from a mehfil in the 1980s—is a bewitchingly layered song, one with a cajoling, comforting, almost foetal ebb and flow to it, but also with the plunges, scrapes and gasps of a ravenous consummation. It has bliss, strife, love, sex.

Of course, Khanum will never say any of this. She only ever speaks about her music in sweet nullities: the song was “fast” and she made it “slow”; the song was “light” and she gave it “soz” (pain); the original was sung in the “filmi style,” and to make it her own she decided to sing it in a “somewhat altered style.”

A formal analysis of the rendition shows something of a trail or path. The song is set in Aiman Kalyan, also called Yaman Kalyan, the evening raag prescribed for creating a mood of romance. Khanum leans on the raag for results: her “yunhi pehlu mein baithay raho” (just stay like this beside me) is so persuasive because she is literally holding the note, in this case the Gandhar or Ga of the raag, which happens to be its vaadi sur, or dominant note. Then there is the song’s beat-cycle—here the Deepchandi taal of 14 beats. Khanum is notorious for singing in a hazardous aarha style—she remains slightly off the beat, creating an additional tension between her voice and the tabla that is resolved occasionally when the two meet at the samm, or first bol, of the cycle. Her ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ is delivered in this semi-free vein: her wilful, uneven pacing of the lyrics creates the illusion of a chase, a constant fleeing of the words from the entrapments of beat. (This technique, which has the mark of her teacher—the erratic and perennially intoxicated Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan—bears its sweetest fruit in Khanum’s ghazals, where strategic lags and compressions in the singing can enhance the pleasures of a deferred rhyme.)

Farida Khanum on a visit to Delhi for a concert in June 2007. Khanum, who was born in Calcutta and raised in Amritsar, moved to Pakistan with her family after Partition. In 2005, Pakistan awarded her the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, the country's highest civilian honour.
Tirbhuvan Tiwari/ Outlook

But what after these outlines have been described? How to account for the slightly torn texture, the husky tone, the maddening rass of the voice? And what to do about Khanum’s devastating deployment of the word “haye” in the phrase “haye marr jayeingey”? I once heard the Bollywood playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj say, “Yeh gaana hai hee ‘haye’ pey” (This song is all about the ‘haye’). I think she is right, in that Khanum’s transformation of that word—from a jerky exclamation in the original to a dizzying upward glide, a veritable swoon, in her own version—has made of it a mini-mauzu, or thematic locus, of the lyric.

Can such phenomena be broken down? Not on the keys of a harmonium. I once placed my baja before Khanum and asked her to show me the note-by-note progression of her “haye.” But she could only produce it with her voice, and then too with a mysterious effort that marshaled her whole being: she would close her eyes, put on a smile, tilt her head, throw up a hand in the air and let the “haye” out.

NOT EVERYONE HAS BEEN WOWED by Khanum’s musical abilities.

Mehdi Hassan, the Pakistani ghazal singer who was her great peer and rival, and who passed away in 2012, used to complain that she was given to too much “mixing”—taking a passage from one raag and joining it arbitrarily with another for an easy resolution of the melody. This is essentially an accusation of cheating—contrast it with Hassan’s own showy detailing of raags, often with tiresome commentaries about the rules of classical music delivered in the middle of his performances. But the same observation—that Khanum is given to mixing—can also be taken as a compliment, an appreciation of her knack for improvisation.

Farida Khanum’s great peer and rival Mehdi Hassan disapproved of her subversion of the rules of Hindustani music.
courtesy Farida Khanum

There are those who think of Khanum as an over-complicating singer, one who is incapable of singing a “straight” tune. This view, contained in the mocking-pitying remark “Seedha nahin ga saktin”, was common among Pakistani music directors, and cost Khanum a lucrative career in playback singing. She was incensed by their critique—“It reached my ears,” she told me cryptically—and became determined to disprove it. She got the chance in 1976, when she was asked to sing Athar Nafees’s ghazal ‘Woh ishq jo humse rootthh gaya’ for the Pakistan Television programme Sukhanwar. Though Khanum sang the ghazal with uncharacteristic simplicity, she used all her reserves of sinuousness to secure the assignment: she had heard the song, composed in Bhairavi by Master Manzoor, and sensed its potential for popularity. Then, to make sure the PTV officials who were in charge of the programme didn’t give it to another singer, she did an elaborate nakhra: she pretended not to want to sing it, insisting that it was “not her style.” This spurred the officials, who were now sufficiently antagonised, into assigning her the song as a punishment.

And finally there are those who consider Khanum an undereducated singer, one who doesn’t abide by the rules because she doesn’t know them. Such people—I know a few “experts” in Pakistan’s radio and television bureaucracy who hold this view—see in Khanum’s tussles with beat and melody the proof of an unfinished taaleem. (Comparisons are drawn, inevitably, with Mehdi Hassan, the “natural” Noor Jehan and the studious but unadventurous Iqbal Bano.)

There is, to be sure, an element of truncation in Khanum’s musical trajectory: she has said many times that Partition, which resulted in the loss of her Amritsar home, signalled the end of her training and forced her to make compromises—personal as well as musical. For a few years, while living in the alien city of Rawalpindi, Khanum travelled regularly to Lahore to sing for radio and act in films. But she failed to make an impact. Soon she was consumed by marriage, and gave up singing at the insistence of the industrialist who offered her the securities of a “settled life.” Later, when she returned to music, she took up not khayal or thumri but the accessible and mercifully “semi-classical” Urdu ghazal.

But here too we have an artful complication, contained in a remark she once made before me—when asked to explain her peculiar style, or ang—about the way she was trained as a child. “Saanu sikhhaya hee aistarhansi” (This is how I was taught [to sing]), she said. Her ustad, it is true, was a musical maverick, a man who emphasised ingenuity and dynamism over fidelity to rules. (His own voice was coarse and reedy, and his reputation—like that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in our time—rested on sensational gimmicks and gambles with the beat rather than on mellifluousness or emotional taseer.) There was, at the same time, Khanum’s childhood exposure to the liberal attitudes of north India’s courtesans, the bibi-jis and bai-jis who looked upon music as a device—one of many workable wiles—and were not bound by obligations of form and lineage. (Khanum was particularly influenced by the anarchic charms of the ghazal singer Begum Akhtar, who was a friend of her sister's and a regular visitor to their house.) They valued adaayigi, or presentation, more than qanundari, or lawfulness, and placed a premium on heart-stopping quirks. Their music was distinct in crucial ways from that of the khansahibs or gavaiyyas, whose prowess was measured to a much larger extent by their ability to showcase the laws and structures of raags and taals. This difference can be discerned even in the “light” art of ghazal-singing: the cultural commentator Ally Adnan is beautifully precise when he says that Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, eager to show their grasp of taal, race towards the samm and explode it like a “climax,” whereas Farida Khanum renders it a surprising and more interesting “anti-climax.”

Finally there is the tricky business of pleasure, which dislikes explanations and resists the isolation of technicalities. Farida Khanum is the purveyor of a holistic agreeableness, an overall sensory delight that doesn’t require division into cynical categories. What a pleasure she is—to hear, watch, experience. (In the realm of Hindustani music, at least, the last is a vital mode of analysis—and a real alternative to the ravages of “pure” theory.)

The best description of Khanum’s gifts is perhaps this remark from a PTV producer: “Mehfil lootna koi unn se seekhhay!” (She sure knows how to bring the house down!) That ability—to revel in solutions, to make do or make work, even if it requires bending the rules—is the hallmark of a born performer. It is also interpersonal—it requires an intuitive appraisal of the whole of a situation—and can really only be experienced during a live performance.

IN OCTOBER, three months before the concert in Calcutta, Farida Khanum moved an audience in Lahore to tears.

This happened at the Khayal Literature Festival. I was interviewing Khanum, in a session called “The Love Song of Pakistan,” about her life in music. Adding star power to our panel was the ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. I had spotted Ali—urbane in black kurta and rimless glasses—in the audience at the start of the show and asked him to join us with a spontaneous announcement. The people in the hall were mostly bourgeois Lahoris, though a relatively diverse set from within that limited lot. (There were students and teachers, parents and grandparents, women and children.) The atmosphere, even before Khanum appeared on the stage, was one of uncritical veneration, and it was suffused with a weighty melancholy when she emerged from behind a curtain, held by her daughter and stumbling and tarrying on her way to a chair.

“Farida ji,” I said, switching on the shruti box I had placed before her. “Could you please, for just a little bit, sing for us the bandish in Aiman that you learned as a child? Just a little sample, please.”

This part was rehearsed. I had suggested to Khanum earlier in the week that she present on stage a “thread” of Aiman: she could start with a classical piece, then proceed to ghazals and geets—including the crowd-pleasing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’—all in her favorite raag. This would give our session a musical coherence, I had said, and make it easy to follow.

Achcha?” she had replied. “Sirf Aiman karna ai?” (Really? You want to dwell only on Aiman?) She pressed her lips together, in her inscrutable way. Then, with a mildly warning look, she said, “Theekai. Ay achcha sochya ai.” (Okay. This sounds like a good plan.)

Now, onstage, she ceded to my request for the bandish with an indulging smile. What happened next surpassed everyone’s expectations. Khanum’s voice, in contrast to her ailing frame, was robust, full-throated, steady, flexible. Everything she sang glowed with energy: she unfolded an aalaap, a bandish in teentaal, Faiz’s ghazal ‘Shaam-e-firaaq ab na poochch,’ Sufi Tabassum’s ghazal ‘Woh mujhse huway humkalam’ and her signature ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.’ She was bringing out the raag in different forms, showing its familiar movements, making it reveal its secrets. But she was also compressing a century of cultural evolution: interspersing the singing with anecdotes about her childhood in Calcutta, the riaz with her ustad in Amritsar, her post-Partition collaborations with poets and music directors at Lahore’s radio station, and the fortuitous way in which she had come to sing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ (someone had asked her to sing it at a mehfil). For the lay Lahore audience, the overall experience—one of observing a constant or eternal thing (the raag) endure in ephemeral or perishable forms—was eye-opening, cathartic and extra-musical.

Farida Khanum in a concert, with the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (second from left). Though trained in classical music, Khanum achieved fame with the Urdu ghazal. She is known to sing in a hazardous aarha style—remaining slightly off the beat.
courtesy Farida Khanum

THE YOUNG WRITER BILAL TANWEER, who was in the weeping, clapping audience that day, later described what he had witnessed as a kind of shamanism. “Unhon ne Aiman ka djinn kharaa karr diya” (She brought out the djinn of Aiman), he said to me. I thought that was profound. A djinn—a spirit or presence—has to be channelled or conjured up. Summoning such djinns is the function of all great musicians. (Their existence is confirmed, in Hindustani music, by the special terms upaj and aamad—spontaneity and inspiration.) Within music, it is singing, more than any other art, that draws attention to the artiste as a medium for conjuring these spirits. Don’t so many singers look frazzled or bewildered after an especially good concert or recording? The better the performance, the greater the musician’s feeling of emptiness, of having been possessed and vacated.

In the case of a singer like Farida Khanum, her role as a transmitter of djinns is magnified by social and historical contexts. When she sings ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo,’ she is passing on the cumulus of centuries—the laws of Aiman, according to one legend, were fixed by Amir Khusro in the thirteenth century—in an accessible, contemporary form. And the process is made poignant and ironic by our ignorance: how many of the amateurs who upload videos of themselves singing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ on YouTube and Facebook know what they are really channelling? The enduring appeal of a singer like Khanum is nostalgic, yes. But it is also heightened by our condition, which is one of rootlessness and over-mediation, and by our corresponding thirst for what is true, rare, original and sublime.

As for Khanum herself, I don’t think she knew how popular she was with young people until I sat her down one day and placed a computer on her lap.

“YouTube,” I said.

“Oho,” she said, affecting curiosity but looking nonplussed.

Ai kee ay?” (What is this?) I asked, pointing to the video links on the screen.

Khanum peered at the screen. Then she gave a start. “Ai te mein aan” (That’s me), she said.

I played for her several covers of ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo,’ and read out some of the comments under her (now erroneously-deemed-original) version: “Soulful!”; “What a beautiful voice!”; “133 dislikes—for what??”; and “My all-time favorite ghazal.”

Ae hunay hee aya ai?” (Did this one come just now?) Khanum asked, tentatively pressing her finger to the screen.

No, I told her, the comments had been accumulating for years, and would continue to gather for as long as people listened to the song.

Mein hairat mein hun” (I am amazed), Khanum said. “Ai magic ho rya ai, magic” (This is magic, this is magic).

WE WENT TO INDIA, then, for old time’s sake.

It required the artful breaking-up of our itinerary: we crossed Wagah, spent a night in Amritsar, flew to Delhi in the morning and took a connecting flight in the afternoon to Calcutta—or Kolkata, as it is now known. (We adjusted our tongues on the plane, softening the K and elongating the O.) A wheelchair was involved at several stages, but Khanum’s aversion to it was diminished by our calling it the “chair”—glossing over the existence of the wheels transformed the dreaded device into a luxury, a privilege, something befitting a legendary person.

It also required shielding Khanum from unwanted attention. When the media called for interviews—“We would re-ally like to talk to her for just five minutes”—we said in the most conciliatory tones, “She is resting, she is resting, please.” Whereas actually she was preparing: taking mysterious medicines and guzzling a ginger-and-honey drink and being told constantly to talk less and preserve her voice.

Haye,” she said on occasions when her foot hurt, feeling real pain. Whereupon I improvised frantically, telling her how good she looked, how much everyone loved her, how wonderful the concert would be. “Saara Calcutta afra-tafri vich ay” (All of Calcutta is in a frenzy), I kept insisting, though I had no proof of this. And: “Saaray ticket vikgaye nay” (All the tickets have been sold).

On the night of the concert, a final hurdle appeared. I had gone to the GD Birla Mandir, the venue of the show, for a sound check. There I was told, an hour before the concert, that Khanum would have to go down several flights of stairs in order to reach the auditorium.

“What are we going to do?” I asked one of the organisers, a woman in a sari who looked back at me uncomprehendingly.

Then she said, “Wait.”

Approximately twenty minutes later, a little before 7 pm, a white car carrying Khanum pulled up to the GD Birla Mandir. The legendary singer emerged in a pink-and-gold sari, and was led by helpers and admirers into the foyer. Then the Mandir’s doors closed, and the foyer emptied. Khanum, who had only just sat down in a chair, spent the next few minutes in a state of airborne transport, gripping the chair’s arms and muttering the lord’s name under her breath, until she found herself seated in her usual, regal way on a stage decorated with flowers. “Ya Ali Madad” (Help me, Ali), she said, invoking the prophet’s heir and fourth caliph of Islam, before the curtain went up.

Ek muddat ho gayi hai” (It has been an age), Khanum said, shivering a little but looking serene before her Calcutta audience, which was comprised of young and old alike. “Innhon ne kaha aap chaleinbuss thhora sa safar hai” (They said I should go, the journey is not long).

She stuck to the rules: she sang two ghazals from Daagh, two from Faiz, the thumri in Bhairavi and ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.’ I had the privilege of sitting next to her on the stage and holding open the book that contained the words to the songs. I marvelled at her composure—and, yes, at the soundness of her training—when I saw how she conducted the audience, the accompanying musicians and the sound technicians behind the curtain with just her hand-movements and facial expressions. And I saw—a novice observing a master, a mortal observing a living legend—how she managed her voice: the expansions in the middle octave, the careful narrowing at the higher notes, the strategic truncation of words and notes when she was running out of breath. Occasionally, when I feared she was going to skip a beat, I found myself clenching the book in my hands and glancing at the audience for signs of a crisis.

But there were none, because even the odd anti-climax, when it did occur, was a pleasure.

Ali Sethi is a musician, and the author of the novel The Wish Maker. He lives in Lahore.

Keywords: Pakistan Noorjehan Partition Ghazal Farida Khanum Mehdi Hassan Hindustani classical music