The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- From tradition to modernity with a 20th-century performer

Song Sung True: a Memoir By Malka Pukhraj, Kali for Women, Rs 400

Song Sung True is one of those memoirs that make for compulsive reading. It is at once a rare and rich document of a woman singer caught in changing times — one who is forced to make the transition from the court and the salon to the transformed public space of south Asia. It is also a remarkable commentary on the social landscape of south Asia in the first half of the 20th century, when tradition and royalty gave way to new forms of urban culture and sensibility and to the realities of Partition and modern political life.

Those familiar with the genre of musicians’ memoirs will find Malka Pukhraj’s account resonate with the magic of myth and experience, of the peccadilloes and virtues of ustads and fakirs. Those interested in the flavour of south Asia’s social life at the crossroads of tradition and modernity will find fascinating snippets of fact and detail while those who just wish to settle for a good read will not be disappointed.

Christened as the “topaz empress” by her aunt and Baba Roti Ram, a celebrated fakir in Jammu, Malka was born to a somewhat mismatched couple — her father an inveterate gambler whose irresponsibility was only matched by his extreme generosity, and her mother an abstemious and cold woman incapable of expressing her affection. This seemed to have had a crippling effect on Malka, who confesses right through her memoirs that she simply did not know how to demonstrate her feelings unless those which bordered on anger or irritation.

As a child, she was imperious enough and guarded her little treasures of hoarded coins and sweetmeats with great vigilance and went to extraordinary lengths in punishing her father who on one occasion broke into her savings chest to pay off debts. Blessed with a golden voice, she was moved by music even as a child and engaged almost intuitively with her ustads. The family seems to have demonstrated a great deal of gumption in sending the child to learn music and dance from various masters in Jammu and elsewhere — Delhi for instance — with the result that by the tender age of seven or eight, she was able to attract the attention of the Raja of Jammu.

Her first meeting with the raja was not especially elegant — she ran through the durbar and did not appear sufficiently demure when it came to tying her anklets. But the child’s innocence and candour made such an impression on the ruler that she became a regular employee of the court. The memoirs bring out the uninhibited pleasure the child experienced in court as she watched spectacle after spectacle, participated in cooking ceremonies with His Majesty and performed during the major public ceremonies.

The coronation procession of Raja Hari Singh is described in wonderful detail — as crowned heads of India met with their entourage of courtiers, dancers, musicians and eunuchs. In fact the memoirs bring out the richness of public life during festivals like Holi and Muharram — occasions for not just communal conviviality but for mounting handicraft exhibitions and musical soirees. Malka’s sojourn in the Jammu court ended in the shadow of Hindu-Muslim tensions and with that she crossed over to a new space of consumption and patronage. It would seem that she travelled fairly regularly between Lahore and Karachi, recorded for the radio and dabbled in films before marrying Shabbir and settling down to domesticity.

Just what kind of music Malka sang is not elaborated. A few melodies are mentioned in passing and the fact that she was naturally tuneful is stated with great relish. Piecing together facts, it would appear that she improvised with local masnavis and thumris and that she responded to theatre songs more naturally than to the art forms of khayal. As both consumer and performer outside the court, Malka became part of the new public culture that was beginning to circulate in the subcontinent from the first quarter of the 20th century. The memoirs most unexpectedly touch on current fashions and tastes — the widespread popularity of the musical drama, Inder Sabha, for instance — and thereby eloquently locate the milieu of the early 20th century performer.

The translation is more than adequate for it manages to capture the finer tones of Malka’s voice. As a self-willed child who hated her father, as a curious child performer throwing tantrums in front of the maharaja, as a young woman confused in love and as a mature adult confronting the crises of dislocation, the memoirs sing true. What is absent is chronology— we have no dates whatsoever. It would have helped had the translator introduced the memoirs with a short preface indicating dates and also some relevant details about the original manuscript.

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