Thursday, May 29, 2014

‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’

Farida Khanum is one of the last of the Ghazal greats. She grew up in Kolkata and has great fondness for the city. The denizens of this city are known for their musical taste, and they have (naturally) great love for Farida. A beautiful love story that is reaching its end as the giants exit the stage one by one.

THE CONCERT WAS THE BRAINCHILD of Malavika Banerjee, who organises the annual Kolkata Literary Meet. I met Banerjee—“Mala”—at last year’s KaLaM, and told her I was making a documentary film about Farida Khanum. 

Our conversation took place one night in a car; we were weaving past rotten old buildings somewhere near the Victoria Memorial and I was telling Mala about Khanum’s Calcutta connection. Her older sister, Mukhtar Begum, was a Punjabi gaanewali who had come to the city in the 1920s to work for a Parsi-owned theatrical company. Within a few years she had become a star of the Calcutta stage—she was advertised on flyers as the “Bulbul-e-Punjab” (the Punjabi bulbul)-—and had moved into a house on Rippon Street. 

Khanum herself was born, sometime in the 1930s, somewhere in these now-decrepit parts.
Mala was held: she asked if I could bring Khanum to next year’s festival. She also asked, in a sort of polite murmur, “She’s still singing and all?”

“Of course!” I said, mainly to serve my own interests: I had been looking for a reason—a ruse, really—to bring Khanum to Calcutta and film her in the locations where she had passed her childhood.

“Theek hai,” Mala said. “Let me work on this.”

IT WAS A DIM JANUARY AFTERNOON IN LAHORE, there was a power outage on Zahoor Elahi Road, and Farida Khanum had finally woken up....I had come to prepare Khanum for a concert she was to give in a week’s time in Calcutta, and was trying to engage her, in this fragile early phase of her day, with innocuous-sounding questions: which ghazals was she planning on singing there, and in what order?

“Do-tin cheezaan Agha Sahab diyan” (Two-three items of Agha Sahib’s), she said in Punjabi, her voice cracking. She was referring to the pre-Independence poet and playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri.

“Daagh vi gaana jay” (You must sing Daagh too), I said. “Othay sab Daagh de deewane ne” (Everyone there is crazy about Daagh)—Daagh Dehlvi, the nineteenth-century poet.
“Aa!” she said, and stared at me in appalled agreement, as if I had recognised an old vice of Calcutta’s citizens.

“Te do-tin cheezaan Faiz Sahabdiyan vi gaadena” (And you can also sing two-three pieces from Faiz Ahmad Faiz).

“Buss,” she said, meaning it not as a termination (in the sense of “That’s enough”) but as a melancholy deferral, something between “Alas” and “We’ll have to wait and see.”

I knew she was nervous about the trip—the distance, the many flights, the high standards of Bengalis—and to distract her I removed the lid of my harmonium and held down the Sa, Ga and Pa of Bhairavi. I was chhero-ing the thumri ‘Baju band khul khul jaye.’

“Farida ji, ai kistaran ai?” (How does it go, Farida ji?) I asked, all goading and familiar.
“Gaao na,” she said.
I screwed up my face and started the aalaap.

“Aaaaaa…” Her mouth was a cave, her palm was held out like a mendicant’s.
“Subhanallah,” I said, and pumped the bellows.

Her singing filled up the room: she climbed atop the chords, spread out on them, did somersaults.

“Wah wah, Farida ji! Mein kehnavaan kamal ho jayega! Calcutta valey deewane ho jaangey” (Bravo, Farida ji! It will be extraordinary! The people of Calcutta will go crazy), I said.
“Haan,” she said, looking away and making a sideways moue that managed to convey deliberation, disinterest and derision all at once.

Fehmeda was referring to Khanum’s debility of the last three years, which has been accompanied by hospital visits, physiotherapy and rounds of medication. (Khanum herself had described it to me in terms of demonic sensations: her foot going numb, a tube entering her throat, being forced to swallow strange pills and feeling a subsequent whirling in her head.) 

But worse, I had sensed, was the gloom accompanying this illness—an awareness of the body’s vulnerability that led constantly to thoughts of mortality, wistful ones not unlike those expressed in Khanum’s most famous song, ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’:

Waqt ki qaid mein zindagi hai magar
Chand ghariyan yehi hein jo azaad hain
(In time’s cage is life, but
Some moments now are free)
The song is set in Aiman Kalyan, also called Yaman Kalyan, the evening raag prescribed for creating a mood of romance.

Her ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ is delivered in this semi-free vein: her wilful, uneven pacing of the lyrics creates the illusion of a chase, a constant fleeing of the words from the entrapments of beat. (This technique, which has the mark of her teacher—the erratic and perennially intoxicated Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan—bears its sweetest fruit in Khanum’s ghazals, where strategic lags and compressions in the singing can enhance the pleasures of a deferred rhyme.)

But what after these outlines have been described? How to account for the slightly torn texture, the husky tone, the maddening rass of the voice? And what to do about Khanum’s devastating deployment of the word “haye” in the phrase “haye marr jayeingey”? I once heard the Bollywood playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj say, “Yeh gaana hai hee ‘haye’ pey” (This song is all about the ‘haye’). I think she is right, in that Khanum’s transformation of that word—from a jerky exclamation in the original to a dizzying upward glide, a veritable swoon, in her own version—has made of it a mini-mauzu, or thematic locus, of the lyric.
There is, to be sure, an element of truncation in Khanum’s musical trajectory: she has said many times that Partition, which resulted in the loss of her Amritsar home, signaled the end of her training and forced her to make compromises—personal as well as musical. For a few years, while living in the alien city of Rawalpindi, Khanum travelled regularly to Lahore to sing for radio and act in films. But she failed to make an impact. Soon she was consumed by marriage, and gave up singing at the insistence of the industrialist who offered her the securities of a “settled life.” Later, when she returned to music, she took up not khayal or thumri but the accessible and mercifully “semi-classical” Urdu ghazal.

IN OCTOBER, three months before the concert in Calcutta, Farida Khanum moved an audience in Lahore to tears.

This happened at the Khayal Literature Festival. I was interviewing Khanum, in a session called “The Love Song of Pakistan,” about her life in music. Adding star power to our panel was the ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. I had spotted Ali—urbane in black kurta and rimless glasses—in the audience at the start of the show and asked him to join us with a spontaneous announcement.

“Farida ji,” I said, switching on the shruti box I had placed before her. “Could you please, for just a little bit, sing for us the bandish in Aiman that you learned as a child? Just a little sample, please.”

This part was rehearsed. I had suggested to Khanum earlier in the week that she present on stage a “thread” of Aiman: she could start with a classical piece, then proceed to ghazals and geets—including the crowd-pleasing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’—all in her favorite raag. This would give our session a musical coherence, I had said, and make it easy to follow.

“Achcha?” she had replied. “Sirf Aiman karna ai?” (Really? You want to dwell only on Aiman?) She pressed her lips together, in her inscrutable way. Then, with a mildly warning look, she said, “Theekai. Ay achcha sochya ai.” (Okay. This sounds like a good plan.)

Now, onstage, she ceded to my request for the bandish with an indulging smile. What happened next surpassed everyone’s expectations. Khanum’s voice, in contrast to her ailing frame, was robust, full-throated, steady, flexible. Everything she sang glowed with energy: she unfolded an aalaap, a bandish in teentaal, Faiz’s ghazal ‘Shaam-e-firaaq ab na poochch,’ Sufi Tabassum’s ghazal ‘Woh mujhse huway humkalam’ and her signature ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.’ 

She was bringing out the raag in different forms, showing its familiar movements, making it reveal its secrets. But she was also compressing a century of cultural evolution: interspersing the singing with anecdotes about her childhood in Calcutta, the riaz with her ustad in Amritsar, her post-Partition collaborations with poets and music directors at Lahore’s radio station, and the fortuitous way in which she had come to sing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ (someone had asked her to sing it at a mehfil). For the lay Lahore audience, the overall experience—one of observing a constant or eternal thing (the raag) endure in ephemeral or perishable forms—was eye-opening, cathartic and extra-musical.

In the case of a singer like Farida Khanum, her role as a transmitter of djinns is magnified by social and historical contexts. When she sings ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo,’ she is passing on the cumulus of centuries—the laws of Aiman, according to one legend, were fixed by Amir Khusro in the thirteenth century—in an accessible, contemporary form. And the process is made poignant and ironic by our ignorance: how many of the amateurs who upload videos of themselves singing ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo’ on YouTube and Facebook know what they are really channelling?

On the night of the concert, a final hurdle appeared. I had gone to the GD Birla Mandir, the venue of the show, for a sound check. There I was told, an hour before the concert, that Khanum would have to go down several flights of stairs in order to reach the auditorium.

“What are we going to do?” I asked one of the organisers, a woman in a sari who looked back at me uncomprehendingly.

Then she said, “Wait.”

Approximately twenty minutes later, a little before 7 pm, a white car carrying Khanum pulled up to the GD Birla Mandir. The legendary singer emerged in a pink-and-gold sari, and was led by helpers and admirers into the foyer. Then the Mandir’s doors closed, and the foyer emptied. 

Khanum, who had only just sat down in a chair, spent the next few minutes in a state of airborne transport, gripping the chair’s arms and muttering the lord’s name under her breath, until she found herself seated in her usual, regal way on a stage decorated with flowers. “Ya Ali Madad” (Help me, Ali), she said, invoking the prophet’s heir and fourth caliph of Islam, before the curtain went up.

“Ek muddat ho gayi hai” (It has been an age), Khanum said, shivering a little but looking serene before her Calcutta audience, which was comprised of young and old alike. “Innhon ne kaha aap chalein, buss thhora sa safar hai” (They said I should go, the journey is not long).

She stuck to the rules: she sang two ghazals from Daagh, two from Faiz, the thumri in Bhairavi and ‘Aaj jaane ki zid na karo.’ I had the privilege of sitting next to her on the stage and holding open the book that contained the words to the songs. I marvelled at her composure—and, yes, at the soundness of her training—when I saw how she conducted the audience, the accompanying musicians and the sound technicians behind the curtain with just her hand-movements and facial expressions. And I saw—a novice observing a master, a mortal observing a living legend—how she managed her voice: the expansions in the middle octave, the careful narrowing at the higher notes, the strategic truncation of words and notes when she was running out of breath. Occasionally, when I feared she was going to skip a beat, I found myself clenching the book in my hands and glancing at the audience for signs of a crisis.

But there were none, because even the odd anti-climax, when it did occur, was a pleasure.  

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