On a chilly winter evening, my colleague and I made our way through the driveway to meet one of the biggest names in the music industry. Trying to calm our nerves, the two of us entered the hallway, only to find it echoing with a familiar male voice, which we found a bit odd. Upon entering we were able to match the voice to the face, it was Ali Sethi belting out a Pahari Raag, Ghazab Kiya Jo Tere Waday Per Aeitbaar Kiya, a ghazal by Mirza Daagh Dehlvi mentored by none other than the Queen of Ghazal; Farida Khanum. She has entranced our hearts with her mesmerising vocals and renditions of old school ghazal. From her time at Radio Pakistan to her very last recording, it’s evident that every song she sings evokes an intense emotion for the audience. As we sit sipping our teas, we get into a conversation about the decline of ghazals over the years, the state of our music industry then and now, Farida Khanum’s career highlights and all things music.
Move from India
Farida Khanum started training for classical singing at an early age from Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan by dedicating her time to learn “modulations, pitch, the notations, breathing and just perfecting the craft.” Classical singing was a tradition back then and mehfils at private gatherings was a norm. With time, ghazals and classical singing was what she became associated most with.
“Through my singing style and social interactions, people came to know about my roots from a creative family in Amritsar,” she added.
As she recalled her move to Lahore, Khanum said, “I was 14 years old when we moved from Amritsar. Although at that time, the situation between the two countries weren’t great, the government still made an effort to make the commute easy for the people via busses and trains.”
Radio Pakistan Era
After adjusting to life in Pakistan, Khanum started her career by singing at Radio Pakistan, which was known to be the golden era of music. Having said that, when she recalled her time at the radio, her face lit up, “Everyone was passionate about music back then. The music directors wanted the artist to sing the ghazal/song with a proper sur,” adding that the organisation held a mehfil-e-shab every two months, where all the artists used to come together and sit till midnight singing ghazals and classical songs.
“We had amazing artists like Qasim Ubaid Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Reshmaa, who made their contributions to the music industry and did a wonderful job. It was always an honour singing with them or listening to them sing in our mehfils, on TV and radio.”
Although the radio era was a challenging one for the singers, it was interesting to hear a first-person account on this, which according to Khanum was a challenge as there were no “second takes” and they had to make sure that the pitch and notes matched while singing. With that being said, the evolution of television changed the music scene for the artists at that time as the radio culture dissolved.
“TV made it comparatively easy for the artists because the audience had a picture to associate with the voice, and that for some time, became the focus, so if there were times when the notes were off, it could’ve been overlooked,” Khanum said.
On Her Career Highlights
The Ghazal Queen who is still associated with Aaj Janay Ki Zidd Na Kero has had quite a wonderful career, as she became a voice known to the world. Being a fan of the Yaman Kalyan Raag, she fell in love with Habib Wali Muhammad Khan’s version of the song.
“I heard the song, which was played at a gathering in Karachi, I loved the tune and poetry of it. Following that, I performed it for everyone and since then it became a song I performed everywhere,” she recalled.
With that she also talked about her performance at an event upon invitation by General Ayub Khan. She said that it was a time when people used to invite Radio Pakistans’ artists to events for performances including Amanat Fateh, Nazakat Salamat, Iqbal Bano to name a few.
“Ayub Khan was familiar with Daagh’s ghazals and used to enjoy the surs, Raags and thumris. He enjoyed and appreciated every single artist’s effort and their various styles of singing.”
She also recalled her time performing in India and Afghanistan and said that she always “had a great experience” there as people used to/still give a lot of respect to the veteran singers.
“In Afghanistan, we used to have a stage where, Pashto, Farsi and Urdu ghazals were sung and everyone in the audience used to enjoy it, even though they didn’t understand the Urdu ones, they still had a good time,” Khanum said.
On Decline in Ghazal Singing
There is no doubt that there is a plethora of talented musicians in Pakistan. What it lacks now is that there is hardly anyone re-introducing the classical singing/ghazals genre to the younger generation. According to Khanum, there are various reasons that ghazal singing has declined over time, one being that lack of understanding of the language and not being able to understand the various dimensions of it. The second is that the “younger artists are either scared or don’t dare to go looking for people we used to learn from, if they are alive”.
Ali Sethi, is one name Farida Khanum proudly mentioned, who is bringing the ghazals/classical songs back to the younger generation with a contemporary touch to it.
“The artists today are keener on doing film songs, ever since the revival of cinema and making the song as commercial as possible. Moreover, I feel like there is not much to a song these days, you can’t feel the sur, shayer ka dard (the poet’s pain) in the song delivery these days,” she said.
As we concluded the conversation, Farida Khanum reiterated the need for the younger generations to bring back ghazal singing. In order to change this, it is important to bring together like-minded people, sit together and reflect over the craft and keep it alive. One should also host more music festivals and musical nights to keep the music alive.
Photography by Utopia Studios