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Spotlight: Runa Laila

It seems Karachi is going through a phase of deja vu, what with the relatively recent surprise performance at a music awards ceremony by pop singer of yesteryear, Alamgir, and now that of Runa Laila at the Sony Ericsson Lux Style Awards (Selsa) 2006.

Undoubtedly, the Bengali diva’s appearance at the ceremony not only transported the audience down memory lane but proved that despite the extra pounds, she hasn’t lost her voice, touch or her thumkas. A pioneer of sorts in the local music industry, Laila says she still cherishes the fond memories of her radical performances.

Reminiscing programmes like Bazm-i-Laila, a first-of-its-kind done for Pakistan Television, she says, “It was a unique concept in which I sang five songs, each in a different get-up, hairstyle, make-up and jewellery. It was ahead of its time, and I got a lot of flak for it too, since performing while singing was unheard of in those days.

People felt it was just not a part of our culture as singers were expected to either sit or stand and sing without any fanfare. I, on the other hand, would always watch the way singers performed in the West, and felt that the visual side was just as important for vocalists — the way they looked, moved, etc. I gave a great deal of importance to the way I appeared on screen.”

Considering this, Laila, it seems, was not just a trendsetter in the music industry in Pakistan but in India as well. She recalls a trip to India in 1974 at the invitation of the Indian government during which she sang in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. “My performance was very well received and there was a lot of interaction with the audience, which was a very unusual phenomenon even for India.”

Presently keeping herself busy with performances around the world, Runa says she was in London when she was contacted for the Selsa. “I have exhausted myself so much that I have been unwell for the better part of my trip here. I was in London last month, where I was performing and where my daughter lives with her family. I returned home to Dacca only to leave for Dubai and then New York; I came back to Dubai and then flew straight to Karachi. All the stress and travelling have got the better of me,” she says.

Unwilling to divulge too much, Runa Laila says that ‘there are plans in the offing for me to work here in Pakistan in a proper and organized way, so you’ll be seeing more of me pretty soon’

However, she is thrilled on her trip to Karachi, particularly with the warm reception she received at the said awards ceremony. “I was backstage waiting for my cue, so I had no idea that when my name was announced, the entire audience gave me a standing ovation. It was an overwhelming experience — so much love and respect being showered upon me. I had not expected it and it was an utterly humbling experience.

“In fact, every time I have come to Pakistan, I have been shown a lot of affection. The moment people recognize me — although it takes them a while — they go out of their way to do things for me.”

Speaking about the Selsa ceremony, Laila feels that other than the fact that there were too many gaps in the show and it began late, it was, on the whole, good. “The backstage arrangements in particular were really commendable and there were lots of people present to check if our hair, make-up, clothes, etc, were alright. I was well taken care of,” she says.

In spite of performing abroad so regularly, Laila has not given up on playback singing. Says she, “I have kept my repertoire as versatile as ever — I still sing for movies, do concerts both at home and abroad, and also do recordings for television channels, which include ghazal programmes.” Unwilling to divulge too much at this stage, she admits that “there are plans in the offing for me to do some sort of work here in a proper and organised way, so you’ll be seeing more of me pretty soon, God willing.”

Commenting upon the boom in the current pop scene in Pakistan, Laila confesses that she hasn’t had a chance to listen to most of the Pakistani artistes, but the ones she has heard, such as Fuzon, are “quite good. It was fun to do the medley of my old songs with a modern arrangement for the style awards. As long as the essence of the songs is not lost, I don’t think there is any harm in remixing them.”

Having sung for so many genres of music — pop, ghazal, playback and semi-classical — Laila says she cannot pin-point any one as her favourite medium. “No matter what the genre, the most enjoyable part is to be able to reach out to the audience, take them in the palm of your hand and play with their emotions. I was recently asked to do a concert for a Hindi language newspaper which organizes a week-long festival annually in which they invite only classical singers and musicians.

“They wanted me to do the closing performance, and when I protested that I don’t sing pure classical (although she does have a classical base), they asked me to sing my ghazals and semi-classical songs. I was greatly appreciated, although the mood was for classical, and it reinforced my belief that it doesn’t matter what you sing; it’s how you present it that’s important.”

She concedes though that not everyone can croon all kinds of songs equally well. Playback singing for instance, is a difficult genre and few can master the art, which is probably why, of late, in spite of Pakistan having produced so many wonderful pop singers, no playback singer of any significance has emerged. “Playback singing is a very difficult ball game as 90 per cent acting has to be done behind the microphone. The singer must know who the artiste is on whom the song is to be picturised, the situation depicted in the song, etc, so that appropriate expressions can be given and so on.”

She says that she had an edge over most singers because she learnt the knack of singing on the microphone very early in life and that too under the best supervision  that of director Manzoor Hussain — who made her practice day and night in her very first month of tutelage, so that she began playback singing when she was under 12 years of age. She also admits that she was lucky that she got to sing all kinds of songs in Pakistani films and went through the whole gamut of expressions and emotions. Hence, it was not difficult for her to make the transition from playback singing to album singing.

On why there are such few good playback singers in Pakistan as compared to India, Laila says: “In our times, films and film music were very strong. Then good films stopped being produced and private albums emerged, so singers saw no charm in pursuing playback singing, which was a difficult genre to begin with.

In India, films have always been popular and have a worldwide market, so playback singing never suffered a decline. In fact, film music is given so much importance that private albums have not had a chance to become big in India.”

Even today, Runa Laila says she is more comfortable singing live even though she admits she still gets cold feet before every concert. “I don’t enjoy lip-synching to this day and I am in perpetual fear that I’ll miss my cue,” the songbird ends on a surprising note.

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