That all-too-familiar coil and quiver of the lips, the relentless twinkle in the eyes, the poise and aplomb that can still send many-a-hearts reeling. Gracefully clad in a peach silk saree that blends almost synonymously with her rosy complexion, ghazal icon Fareeda Khanum still possesses all the right ingredients to render her audience spellbound and mesmerized. The warmth of her personality is visible in her greeting, so luxuriantly accompanied by that amiable smile. Once in her company, it is hard to ignore the very obvious: this unassuming maestro has no snooty fixations.
Regaling her admirers with the exquisite renderings of ghazal and thumri, Fareeda Khanum has been known to own a voice that is widely applauded for its versatility and the emotion-packed undertones which have been touching the hearts of listeners for years. She is accredited for retaining the salient beauty of classical music in her ghazals, and is, therefore, treated as the uncrowned queen of ghazal, not only in Pakistan, but also abroad. It is this acclaim that has reflected itself, yet again, in the form of an accolade conferred from across the border, when Khanum embraced the coveted Haafiz Ali Khan award in December 2005.
She talks about the honour with a sparkle in her eyes: “Throughout my music career, I had been receiving invitations to perform in India, which I kept refusing because of the strained relations between the two countries. Recently, with improved relations and an encouraging response from the Pakistan government, I had a few chances to visit India — once through the Pak-India forum and then through an Indian organization (SPIC). Subsequently, I visited the country again last month to receive the Haafiz Ali Khan award, the highest Indian award for classical and semi-classical vocalists.”
Fareeda Khanum is the second Pakistani artiste to receive the award after the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who received the award in 1996. The award has been named after Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan who was famous for giving his magic touch to the Sarod, a short-necked lute, and was trained in the tradition of Senia gharana by the direct descendants of Mian Tansen, and in the court of Gwalior.
The only artiste to have ever received the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, besides numerous lifetime achievement awards, Fareeda Khanum, however, is skeptical of the trend that Indian acknowledgement of our artistes triggers. “Why is it that when our artistes are honoured in India, we also start according them more honour at home,” she asks. Ironically though, Khanum herself got little media coverage at home when she received the Indian award. “Except for a private television channel, no media organization in the country covered or reported the event.
We have failed to encourage ghazal and classical singing in this country because these require rigorous training and anybody can’t take them up like pop music. Besides, there is a dire need for proper training institutes headed by music veterans, like the Sarod Ghar in India, so that the art can be promoted and passed on. People don’t understand and respect classical music here the way they do in India. Indians also give more reverence to artistes, and they treasured and idolized me during my visits there.”
Complimenting the present government for its commitment towards promoting art, Fareeda Khanum stresses the need for more institutes that can raise interest and awareness about classical music among the youth. According to Khanum, there is a great urgency not only to churn out fresh talent but also to become more appreciative of this genre of music, which has been rendered almost tangential at present.
Born in Calcutta, Fareeda Khanum moved to Amritsar at a very young age where, inspired by her elder sister Mukhtar Begum (Bulbul-i-Punjab), who was married to Agha Hashr Kashmiri, Khanum started receiving training in pure classical and light classical music under the reputed Patiala maestro, Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan. After Partition, she moved to Rawalpindi and started her singing career from Radio Pakistan at the young age of 13, while shuttling between Lahore and Rawalpindi. At that time names like Ghulam Ali Khan and Roshan Ara Begum dominated the local classical singing scenario.
“These were people who had made their mark in classical singing. For me, though, it was more plausible to opt for ghazal singing at that time.” Fareeda Khanum made her first public appearance in 1950 at a concert where legends such as Zeenat Begum and Iqbal Begum performed as well. After getting married to a businessman in early 1950s, she moved to Lahore and gave up singing for a few years to be able to attend to her home and family. All this while, she would occasionally practice at home, and her consistent devotion to music led her to take up singing yet again, when she attended the government-sponsored music conference in Karachi.
The rest, as they say, is history as Fareeda Khanum continues to enthral her fans with ghazals not only in Urdu but also in Persian, Punjabi and Pushto. Compositions such as Woh ishq jo hum se rooth gaya, Aaj janey ki zidh na karo and Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehmaan kiye huay sent her devotees in a trance, as they sway to her tunes and raise encores for more. She has rendered to music a number of the choicest ghazals of renowned poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Daagh, Agha Hashr Kashmiri and Sufi Tabassum.
Though she equally enjoys singing the compositions of each poet, Faiz has certainly been one of her favourites. “During my trips to the annual spring festival in Kabul, I performed in Persian and always enjoyed singing Faiz.
Other artistes from Pakistan would also attend the festival and we would rehearse for days before our departure. By the time the rehearsals would come to an end, I would be close to actually conversing in Persian,” she says today.
The prestigious Haafiz Ali Khan Award for 2005 pays tribute to Fareeda Khanum’s artistry in the following words: ‘If the entire world of ghazal music is to crown a single soul, then it has to be Fareeda Khanum, the celebrated ghazal queen of Pakistan’.