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Music & memories with ghazal queen

She is 79, she is known as the queen of ghazal and she has set many a heart aflutter with her soulful renditions. He is a young author, singer and filmmaker. Farida Khanum and Ali Sethi engaged in a chat at the Kolkata Literary Meet, co-hosted by Victoria Memorial in association with The Telegraph, on Wednesday evening.

Sethi is working on a documentary (The Love Song of Pakistan) on the singer who was born in Calcutta but had to shift to Pakistan after 1947. “Faridaji has been tolerating and indulging us for the last four-and-a-half years while we have been creating an archive of her music and getting the docu done. She is a wonderful personality, a rare khazana of music and knowledge,” Sethi said before taking Farida Khanum on a trip down memory lane.

Excerpts from the legendary singer’s reminisces.

Holy land of music

Ever since we moved out of this city, I have been eager to come back. This is the holy land of music. So many great artistes have been from this city.

We used to stay near Ripon Street. There were artistes whose lifestyle was the talk of the town — someone riding a carriage drawn by seven horses and getting fined by British officers (no Indian was allowed to ride such a carriage, it was the Queen’s privilege alone).

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, brother of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, was one artiste whose voice I will never forget. My sister (Mukhtar Begum) had hosted a dinner party for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. I was a child then and forbidden to enter but I peeped through the door and saw some of the greatest music personalities at the dinner table.

Control over sur

I was sent to Calcutta from Amritsar to learn music from Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. But he was busy touring the country and suggested that I take lessons from Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan instead. He was a strict disciplinarian. He would keep a chhari (stick) to discipline his students. He always forbade us from listening to film songs. He had a style of his own. Ek khubsoorat andaaz tha unka. It is he who taught me Yaman and Darbari with care. He gifted me the control over sur.... There was so much respect for music in Calcutta.

They broke the nation

Sukoon chala gaya zindagi se…. It was a shift from befikra zindagi to bhaag daur ki zindagi…. We were displaced, uncertainty engulfed our lives. Nobody knew us in Lahore. Neither did we know anyone there. They broke the nation. We had never imagined it would be a permanent break. Lahore had just been a shopping destination for us before Partition. We knew a few people in Rawalpindi who suggested we stay there. We moved into a haveli abandoned by a Sikh family. There was a well that my mother thought was haunted. We were scared. So we left that house and shifted to another.

A-class artiste

I gave an audition at Radio Pakistan in Lahore. Bukhari sahab (Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari, the then director general of Radio Pakistan) ne suna… I sang Malkauns, Puriya Dhanashree, Shankara and got selected as an “A-class” artiste, a very prestigious status, in 1951. The fee I got then was Rs 50!

A journey in Yaman

A few years later, a special dinner was held at Hotel Nido’s (now Avari hotel) in Lahore where the cream of society — barristers, philosophers, poets, musicians — were invited. I was asked to perform there. My sister told me that if I sang well, I would get noticed by the who’s who of the industry. I sang Shaam-e-firaaq ab na poochh in Yaman. That was the first song that made heads turn and changed my life. My life is almost a journey in Yaman.

Ray of regret

I still regret not having been able to sing in Satyajit Ray’s film. He had written to me, requesting me to sing for Shatranj Ke Khilari. But I couldn’t go because I was not given a no-objection certificate from the visa office. It’s a dream that remained unfulfilled. At least today I am in his city. That makes me happy. Afsos hota hai ki kaash woh no-objection certificate dete aur main Satyajit Ray ki film mein gaa paati. Naseeb mein nahin tha woh….

Aaj jaane ki zid na karo

One day I was to perform at a concert in Karachi. I was rehearsing at home when a visitor came and asked me to sing Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. It is one of Sohail Rana’s best compositions. That remained with me and I sang it at the concert. The rest is history. I was surprised when Ali Sethi showed me on YouTube how many people across the globe have sung it, inspired by my rendition.

Sharmila Tagore

I love her films. I have seen almost all of them. Not only me, Pakistan is full of her fans. Hum unke liye Kabul jaate the… to watch her films and get DVDs. The first time I met her at a party, I was so impressed with her beauty. She and her husband were a lovely couple. She gave a lot of honour. She used to call me in Lahore. How can I forget her?

[Sharmila Tagore was in the audience and on her request Khanum sang Na rava kahiye.]

Back at birthplace

This is where I was born. And this is where I received training in music. This is where I learnt and got all the good things in life. Today I am back and performing. I am so happy. What else can I want? Inshallah, aapse fir mulakaat hogi…