Sometime in the ’50s, a young woman walked inside the broadcasting station located near Abdullah Bridge in Srinagar and sang Gulrez (Scattered Flowers), a piece of poetry translated from Persian by eminent Kashmiri poet Maqbool Shah Kralawari. That song went on to become a part of Kashmir’s mornings.
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It was a time when Radio Kashmir was coming into prominence, however women were not a part of that. “Women in the entertainment industry, in a more conservative Kashmiri society, were not encouraged or allowed to sing in public,” says Srinagar-based playwright Mohammad Amin Bhat. This was when Raj Begum broke the taboo of women singing in public in Kashmir and sang in her unrestrained and haunting voice, the story of longing and pain felt by Noshlab, whose mother banishes his lover Ajab to Turkistan. Her soulful rendition struck a chord with the people living in a turbulent land, offering them much solace. Begum, who was one of the foremost female singers of Kashmir and paved the way for other women singers such as Kailash Mehra and Naseem Begum, passed away at her daughter’s residence in Chanapora on Wednesday morning after a prolonged illness. She was 89.
“The melody is gone from Kashmir. She was the queen of it as far as Kashmir is concerned. Raj Begum ruled the hearts of Kashmir for as long as I can remember,” said prominent poet and former media adviser to the Chief Minister, Farooq Nazki in an interview to The Indian Express.
Born in 1927 and raised in a modest, conservative family, Begum began her career as a small-time wedding singer until she was discovered by well-known folk singer Ghulam Qadir Langoo and brought to Radio Kashmir. He whispered the poetry and scripts in her ears as she could neither read nor write Urdu or Kashmiri and Begum sang, imbibing every emotion that the lyrics spoke of, into her sonorous voice.
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“The traffic stopped on the streets when Gulrez came on radio. It’s how Punjabis have the Heer. Gulrez is a parallel to that. The voice was iconic and will remain as Kashmir’s most prominent singing voices. She was synonymous with music in Kashmir,” said writer, painter and former Regional Director ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations), Kashmir, Ayaz Rasool Nazki.Begum, who went on to win the Padma Shri in 2002 and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2013, sang for Radio Kashmir until 1986.In the ’70s, actor Dilip Kumar heard her at a hotel in Srinagar and was enraptured. “As long as Kashmir has Raj Begum, its mesmerising voices shall never die.” The Valley lost its Gulrez today.