THE LAST SONG OF AWADH
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When Manjari Chaturvedi, a Delhi-based kathak dancer, went looking for someone who could sing the baithak thumri once sung in the royal mehfils of Lucknow, the city's qawwals came up with one name. Zarina Begum, the last living singer of the Awadh court.
Little remains of Zarina's work by way of recordings or tapes. Of the thousands of videos floating around on YouTube, only a couple features her. They are mostly grainy footage of an old, fidgety woman, clinging to a harmonium. And a rich, striking voice singing the famous ghazal written by Bahadur Shah Zafar: Lagta nahi hai dil mera ujde dayar mein (My heart's not happy in this barren city).
For the 83-year-old, present-day Lucknow is indeed a barren city, where the sarangis have fallen silent and the mehfils died out. The narrow lanes of Aminabad and a narrower staircase lead to the tiny, crumbling room where she lives with her husband and children. We enter just as she is about to sit down for her riyaaz. "I have been living in this house for more then 35 years now. No one remembers me. I don't know what happened to the people of Lucknow. I think they lost their interest in good music," she says.
She seems wary at this interview, this intrusion from the outside world. "Bibi, ye bata du ki hum Awadhi raj durbaron ki gayika hai. Humen tawaif to na kahogi? (I am a court singer of Awadhi durbars. I hope you won't label me a tawaif)." she says.
In the Lucknow of the 1930s, when women singers like Begum Akhtar and Siddheswari Devi found fame and fortune, Zarina was a teenager being initiated into its competitive world of music. Her father Shehehshah Hussain, a singer himself, was her teacher. She was also trained by Begum Akhtar.
Zarina still remembers the clip-clop of the tonga as it took her to the court, an eager 16-year-old dressed in her finest, to sing for the then Nawab of Nanpara, Raja Saadat Ali Khan. "I would sing for hours. The Nawab of Nanpara christened me Zarina Begum, as a mark of respect," she says.
Soon, she was a must at the soirees of the Awadh court, the favoured destinations of the local aristocracy in the 1940s and 50s. At Sheesh Mahal, the abode of the Nawabs of Awadh, she was a regular performer. "Nawab Sajjat Ali Khan used to call for me every time there was a wedding in the family or just a royal court mehfil. The Raja of Mehmoodabad was another connoisseur of music and his chhoti rani was really fond of me," she says.
The Nawabs of Awadh came into their own after the decline of the Mughals in the mid-18th century. Many courtesans and singers from Delhi moved to Lucknow, where money was available in plenty. But by the time Zarina Begum started singing at the royal mehfils, the royalty was in a decline.
It was at one such mehfil that she met her husband, Qurban Hussain, who used to play the tabla with Begum Akhtar. Qurbaan is now 90. He stares out from the only window in the room with hollow eyes, a painfully impoverished man who can barely talk. "He broke his hip in an accident some years back and could never regain his health. But mashallah bahut khoobsurat dikhte the us zamaane mein. (He used to be really good-looking then)," she says with a laugh.
In the 1950s, radio happened. "We all were awed by it. Ad when I started singing on radio in 1956 as a regular artist, it was an out of the world experience," she says. But she never got a chance to become a recording artiste. "My shows were off and on air. So nobody really noticed a regular court singer. There were many like me in Awadh and after some time they stopped calling me," she says.
Zarina Begum was not the only one to fall off Lucknow's culture map. Her fate was part of the decline of an entire community of women performers. "The complete culture of courtesans and court singers was suddenly stigmatised as they were associated with displacement of morality. The society that had held them in great esteem for their art now started to look down upon them as mere sex workers and then followed the decline," says Kabir Khan, a retired forest officer in Lucknow, who organised a few concerts for Zarina in the 1970s.
A family friendship with Muzaffar Ali got her an opportunity to sing for one of his albums, Husn-e-jaana, in 1997. He also recorded her voice for a film called Daaman that was never shot. "This woman deserves much more than what she got. Her voice, which is still so powerful, was full of richness and a unique depth that was the shaan (pride) of many mehfils," says Ali.
Zarina hardly sings now but she practises daily; her riyaaz is as important to her as her daily prayer. She is at the harmonium when it's time for us to leave. She sings one last song for her visitors: Deewana banana hai to deewana bana de, a famous Begum Akhtar ghazal.
"Jab tak jaan hai hum gayenge aur chahte hai ki log humko bhi yaad kare. (I will sing as long as I live and want people to remember me.) Tell them that Zarina still sings," she says.