Iqbal Bano died in 2009 and left a country, an audience and a music bereft. In a land with a deep and rich tradition of music Iqbal Bano sat head and shoulders above her peers. This position is remarkable when you consider that among her peers she counted Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali. And that she was not born into a family where making music was part of the tradition.
Born in pre-Partition Delhi, Iqbal Bano’s voice was noted by musical friends who recommended her to Ustad Chand Khan, a major figure the Delhi gharana. The young (strong willed) girl was accepted and learned the usual forms of light classical music that were deemed the natural domain of the female personality: the thumri and dadra and ghazal. This was not patronizing mentoring. It was serious work. In an fascinating interview several years before her passing, she spoke of how in the cold Delhi winters she would wrap herself in a shawl and come to her Ustad’s house for lessons. Khan sahib would object and tell her to get rid of the shawl. “You want my voice,” she retorted, wrapping the shawl more tightly. “What has the rest of my body to do with it?”
Ustad Chand Khan snapped back, “Stop this nonsense. Get rid of the shawl and lets’ get started.”
In a world where the ustad-shagird relationship is intensely intimate and respectful, and in which practice (riyaz) in harsh conditions and for long hours is considered not just beneficial but essential, Iqbal Bano was able to shape her immature but interesting voice into one of the iconic and deeply admired voices of her time.
A few years after Partition, Iqbal moved to Multan in Pakistan and pleaded with her Ustad to join her but he insisted (like most Delhi lovers) that he could never leave his dear city. Iqbal Bano married a landlord who much to his credit did not interfere in his new wife’s passion for singing. In Pakistan the young lady sang Thumris on national radio and gave live performances to a growing and admiring audience. In those days such groups existed who patronized classical music in Pakistan. Film work, for which she felt very unqualified, developed, again to great approval from the audience and it was her interpretation of ghazal that forever earned her a special place in the fine arts of South Asia.
The thumri is a genre of Indian semi classical music with roots in both the courtesan (tawaif) culture of 19th century north India as well as Krishna worship. In a tradition where most of the performers were Muslim, both the the romantic/erotic and devotional aspects of thumri have been malleable, depending on the circumstance. Traditionally, thumri is sung in either Braj bhasa (the dialect of Hindi around Brindavan/Mathura associated with Krishna worship) and Poorvi (eastern UP Hindi). Iqbal Bano, perhaps to distance herself from the perception of performing a Hindu art, has always performed thumri in Punjabi. It certainly was a language she had greater knowledge of than dialect Hindi and whatever the ultimate reason or reasons for her singing in Punjabi it demonstrates her fierce commitment to do things her way without compromise.
Indeed, though her place as a supreme artist and cultural figure was secured years earlier, Iqbal Bano is dearly loved by many Pakistanis for standing up to the military ruler and great conservative Islamic crusader of her country, Gen. Zia ul Haq. During his 11 years in control of Pakistan, Zia, had banned the public recitation of the poetry of left wing poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In 1985 in front of a huge audience Iqbal Bano defied the dictator’s dictat and sang a passionate rendition of one of Faiz’s poems, Hum Dekhenge (We Shall See), which in some ways could be seen as a loose Urdu equivalent of the American civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome (though Faiz’s poem runs circles around the other song in its literary merit). In a dark period of history Iqbal Bano demonstrated the true courage and moral leadership of public artists and inspired her countrymen and women to take courage. A few short years later the General was gone and the country was ruled by, of all things, a woman!
Tonight’s selection is a series of 8 wonderful thumris sung by the stupendous Iqbal Bano.
01 Thumri Khamach
02 Thumri Tilak Kamod
03 Thumri Des
04 Thumri Peeloo
05 Thumri Peeloo
06 Thumri Bhairvin
07 Thumri Mishar Tilang
08 Thumri Tilak Kamod