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‘Distressing is the enveloping night’

Iqbal Bano,74,Indian-born Pakistani singer,died on April 21

Written by Murtaza Razvi |
April 23, 2009 12:32:54 am

The year was 1985,Pakistan’s darkest period under the General Zia dictatorship. The regime only reluctantly allowed the celebration of the dissident poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s birthday the year after he died,virtually banished from public life. An unspoken ban remained on his poetry on state TV and radio. The organisers had chosen the Lahore Arts Council’s Alhamra auditorium (a sarkari venue) on The Mall,neighbouring the Governor House,and Iqbal Bano was to sing Faiz.

Not only was Faiz banned by the quasi-Islamic regime,but also the wearing of saree at public venues. The mild-mannered Bano came draped in a silk saree,a perfect picture of her Dehli gharana style,but that day she roared like a lioness as Lahore swung along. The crowd was so huge the organisers had to throw the auditorium doors open,asking the youngsters to sit on the floor and vacate the seats for the elderly,who also came in droves. Then,loudspeakers had to be put up outside the hall,along The Mall,because the crowd outside just would not leave without hearing Bano sing Faiz.

A nearly hour-long recital of the otherwise short but poignant poem,Ham dekhain ge (‘we shall see the promised day of deliverance’) followed. The thumping and swinging by the huge crowd was so dramatic,a revolution seemed imminent. Zia’s riot police watched in a state of shock,and then disappeared from the scene. Any gathering of more than four persons in the street,and certainly all merrymaking,were outlawed. But here were thousands crying out loud and ecstatically dancing with joy. Bano rocked Lahore that day,resurrecting Faiz who suddenly seemed to have risen from the grave to lead his people to deliverance from tyranny.

Her deep-throated,controlled and trained voice commanded respect and awe in equal measure. When she took to the stage,the world came to a halt. Over the years,as classical music died an unsung death in Pakistan,Bano had moved over from the singing of pure ragas to semi-classical khayal,thumri,dadra,geet,ghazal and nazm. If Noorjehan was gifted with Mujh se pehli si mohabbat by Faiz,the poet also gave away his equally haunting Dasht-e-Tanhai nazm to Bano. He would not recite these poems himself,and whenever pressed,would say these were not his anymore. They belonged to Noorjehan and Iqbal Bano; only they could recite them.

Moving to Pakistan from Delhi in 1952,Bano brought with her the graces and sophistication of the high Muslim elite culture exemplified by the Delhi and Lucknow of yore. Her coy but graceful style epitomised the romance inherent in Poorbi geets and thumris,composed to riveting tunes harped by a minimalist orchestra that comprised of no more than a harmonium,with a steady beat of tabla or an occasional flute for accompaniment. Bano,when she crooned,would eat up the music; little was needed for she had a jaltarang of her own going. Diverse classical and custom-written Poorbi numbers like Moray saiyyan utrain ge paar (1953),and Payal mein geet hain chham chham ke (1959) remain classics,as do many Bano ghazals by Faiz,Nasir Kazmi and Faraz among the contemporaries,and Ghalib,Daagh and Hafiz,among the classical Urdu/Persian poets.

She was equally known for singing Persian ghazals,and performed regularly at the Jashn-e-Kabul festival,an annual high-profile event in imperial Afghanistan until the early 1970s. Her Persian renditions include the classical Ma ra be-gham ze kusht…

Upon migration to Pakistan,Bano,at 17,married a conservative zamindar who,however,fostered her talent

urging her never to give up singing. She also lent her voice to several Pakistani films as a playback singer,mostly in the 1950s. After her husband passed away in 1981,she moved to Lahore from her farmhouse near Multan,to live with her two sons and a daughter. In 1974,she was awarded the President’s Pride of Performance.

As a master of the genre,she is now survived only by Mehdi Hasan,who is critically ill,and the still very charming Farida Khanum. No living artist today comes even near the benchmarks set by these ghazal maestros,along with the late Begum Akhtar and Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. And in Pakistan,a land under the shadow of encroaching Talibanisation,Bano’s classic number from the 1950s,Parishaan raat saari hai,sitaro tum to so jao (‘distressing is the enveloping night,stars you go to sleep’) is all the more haunting — as yet another bright star goes out.

The writer is an editor with ‘Dawn’,Karachi

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