Wearing a crisp maroon Banarasi sari, the frail woman, well into her 80s, took the stage. One hand on her throat, afraid perhaps of not finding her voice, she started with Behzaad Lakhnavi’s ghazal:
“Deewana banana hai to, deewana bana de
Varna kahin taqdeer, tamasha na bana de”
The crowd at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) was transfixed as she crooned ghazals by Moumin and Shakeel Badayuni. The mehfil was complete when the begum sang Chhaa rahi kaali ghata, replicating the mood of the rain outside.
The long journey from the narrow lanes of Aminabad in Lucknow to the IGNCA auditorium has been an exhausting one for Zarina Begum, once a fixture at the mehfils in Sheeshmahal, home to the Nawabs of Awadh. Arguably the last living singer from the court of Awadh, Zarina is quick to assert her status as a darbari gayika (court singer) and not a tawaif (courtesan). She is one of the very few disciples and practitioners of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi’s (better known as Begum Akhtar) style of thumri, dadra and tappa.
Born in Nanpara, Bahraich, it is difficult to calculate Zarina’s exact age but if you try to extract an estimate out of her, she smiles, “Likho ki pachas ki umar hai humari (Write that I am only 50).’’ But Zarina distinctly remembers that she was all of 10 years when she bought a small harmonium for Rs 5 and made a daily ritual of practising at night under the lihaaf (quilt). Her father, Shehenshah Hussain, a zamindar for the then Nawab of Nanpara, Raja Syed Mohammad Saadat Ali Khan, and a singer himself, overheard Zarina one night and was impressed with her voice.
Traditionally, music in Muslim families had a patriarchal set-up, where the hereditary art flowed from father to son. Wives and daughters were restricted to their domestic roles. However, Shahensha Hussain enrolled Zarina to train under the famous qawwal Ghulam Hazarat. Still a teenager, she soon became a regular at the soirees of the Awadh court and the Nawab called her to perform at weddings, godh bharai or any other royal occasion.
“Though she was not from a courtesan background, Zarina performed as a mehfil singer and, hence, became a quintessential outsider,” explains Saba Dewan, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, who heard about Zarina in 2003, while researching for her three-part project on the stigmatisation of female performers. “I got her reference from very well-known musicians. She was obviously very popular in her time.”
Abiding by the traditions of the old Lucknow gharanas, Zarina used to sing in purdah. “Women were not allowed to sing in a male gathering without purdah,” she says. “I mostly sang for the maharanis.’’ During one such mehfil in Bahraich, Begum Akhtar heard Zarina sing and made her a shagird (disciple). Zarina remembers her first encounter with Akhtaribai. When she went over to meet her idol, Begum was smoking. “It took me a while to recognise her,” she recalls. Akhtaribai was known for her very impressionable teaching style that her disciples reflect in their singing. “She didn’t teach by speaking but through singing,” Zarina says. It was during this time that Zarina met her husband Qurban Hussain, who used to play the tabla for Begum Akhtar.
Renowned vocalist Ustad Iqbal Ahmad Khan of the Delhi gharana, who has known Zarina for 55 years, testifies to the purity of her style. “She could sing exactly like Begum Akhtar, maybe even better,” says Khan. “Today, people can barely differentiate between thumri and dadra.’’
Zarina received a part of her training from the Bhatkhande Music Institute and performed extensively at private mehfils and pubic concerts in Delhi, Kolkata, Patna, Rampur, Varanasi, Mumbai, Muzaffarnagar and many other places. Among those who became a regular audience of Zarina’s performance were the Nawab and Rani of Rampur, where she spent five years at their insistence. She had to leave the place after she felt threatened. “I used to be very attractive in my youth,” she says. “Dacoits once chased me and forcibly made me sing.” She takes deep breaths in between giggles as she narrates how she sang Majrooh Sultanpuri’s Nazar lagi raja tore bangle pe for the dacoits and ran for her life through the jungles with her eldest son Aslam in tow. The Raja of Mehmoodabad was another connoisseur of music for whom Zarina performed.
In the late 50s, Zarina was a singer for the All India Radio (AIR). “It was an extraordinary experience but they stopped calling me because there was no dearth of singers like me then,” she says. With the abolition of princely states, court musicians lost patronage. Zarina Begum and other female performers suffered because of their exclusion from mehfils in post-colonial India.
Zarina and Qurban Hussain had three children. After her only brother allegedly occupied the ancestral family house in Nanpara, she was forced to shift to a one-room dilapidated structure in Aminabad that belonged to her husband. Strangely, she did not introduce her children to her music. “Pehle ke log jahil the, tawaif aur randi bulate the (Earlier people were illiterate, they used to call me a courtesan and prostitute),’’ she explains as a reason. For someone who was accustomed to a life under the limelight, Zarina and her family have been living in poverty for the past four decades.
Over the years, Zarina’s health has deteriorated. She suffered from a partial loss of memory after the demise of her husband. “She even forgot the verses from the Quran, I made her learn everything again,” says daughter Rubina. She and her husband Mohammad Naved live with Zarina in their one-room Aminabad house and have no children of their own. “My mother means everything to me,” says Rubina.
Zarina’s eldest son, Aslam, married and moved to Kanpur and has no standing familial ties with them while her younger son Ayyub, is mentally challenged. With no one else to rely on, Rubina takes care of her mother and brother. Owing to her inability to walk, Naved has to carry Zarina, even for short distances. The family receives a monthly pension of Rs 2,000 under a scheme run by the Sufi Kathak Foundation (SKF), a Delhi-based NGO. Although the amount is more than any assistance they ever got from the state government, it’s almost inconsequential for a family whose medical expenses sometimes run up to Rs 30,000 a month. “Our foundation provides musicians like Zarina medical support and pensions as a service for their lifetime’s work,” says Manjari Chaturvedi, founder of SKF.
As a registered society, the foundation performs a two-fold operation of archiving older traditions and artists and providing them with pension schemes and medical support. Chaturvedi, the pioneer of sufi kathak, asserts the need for research and documentation of music of the erstwhile courts as a serious form of art. “The court performances of Zarina ji and the likes had class and etiquette, which is now widely displaced,” she says. “What people in those days sang has not been archived in any form. It was an oral tradition that is now lost.’’ She points towards the 200-odd ghazals and thumris Zarina wrote and sang herself, which will be lost after she is gone. “The lineage of mehfil singers will die with her, because Zarina didn’t pass on her craft to her daughter and there has also been no documentation of what she sang. We need to create a format in which if a Yo Yo Honey Singh can exist, so can Zarina Begum.”
Wajahat Hussain Badayuni, who performed alongside Chaturvedi at the Royal Festival Hall in London last year, was the grandnephew of illustrious qawwal Jafar Hussain Badayuni. Wajahat was the only practicing qawwal of this rich lineage, but he died during a performance at Thane in February 2014. His wife and children are now supported by Wajahat’s pension scheme under the SKF, which also organises annual qawwali seminars in association with India International Centre.
Vikram Lall, a music scholar and founder of The Society for Art Appreciation and Research (SAAR), says contextualising art could be a solution. “Art does not have to die with a loss of patronage,” he says. “Every art form undergoes change. It is important to create synergy between traditionalism and modernity. Indians have failed to appreciate their own heritage as a result of which we are not very culturally educated or sensitive.” Lall also talks about the need for investing a share of corporate social responsibility for preservation of art forms (or artists) that are on the verge of extinction.
“What Zarina Begum took back from her concert in a metro like Delhi is something that will allow her to die in peace. A need for reassurance was more urgent than money for her,” adds Chaturvedi, explaining that in a city where people are wary of donating and sharing, it is worth applauding that they indulge in something that is not Bollywood.
As the overflowing crowd at the IGNCA rose in standing ovation, Zarine Begum closed her eyes and bowed her head. Finally, her gayaki had made a mark on the bada sheher.
Readers can send their contributions to Zarina Begum at the following address:
C/o Qurban Hussain,
House No. C-33, Hata Khuda Baksh Colony,
Aminabad, Lucknow – 226018
Account No. – 02510100022066
Bank – UCO Bank
Branch – Charbagh, Lucknow
IFSC code – UCBA0002022