While driving through the busy streets of Lahore on a Saturday, I was trying to prepare myself for my meeting with the legendary Ghazal singer herself. As it happened, it wasn’t easy to get hold of her.

With time and age, she has been very selective in the people she meets. It took me a while to get hold of her contact numbers, and to feel that courage which let me dial her number for the very first time.

“Ma’am Farida Khanum baat ker rhe hein?” “Ji mein bol rhe hon” When the first time I talked to her via phone, it was as if I have had known her for ages (While driving to and from work, I listen to her melodious voice on an almost daily basis, so for me she is pretty much a regular part of my life).

While driving towards her residence, I was thinking about all these things, breathing deeply to prepare myself for the moment when I will be in the presence of Malika-e-Ghazal. To be honest with my readers, I was not sure what to expect.

Women in performing arts can be too plastic for my liking. Will she be the same? And within my heart I was hoping that it will not be the case. After talking to her a few times via phone, I was sure it will not be the case. Farida Khanum, Malika-e-Ghazal, will not be a disappointment, I told myself before ringing the bell at the entrance of her bungalow.

Farida Khanum is known for various popular ghazals she has sung. The list includes “Woh Ishq jo hum se rooth gaya” “Aaj Janey ki Zidd na karo” “Mere Ham nafas” “Dil Jalaney ki bat kerte ho” and geets like “Meine pairon mein payal to bandhi nahin”.

Farida Khanum has an outstanding command over semi classical pieces like “sajan laagi tori lagan manma”. I am from the generation who grew up watching PTV. PTV had a certain class in those days. My generation grew up listening to Noor Jehan, Iqbal Bano, Abida Parveen, Reshma, Farida Khanum and Nayyara Noor courtesy PTV.

I believe without any training in music or any knowledge about the raags, my generation can differentiate between good, bad singing and music. Following the same criterion, due to her quality art, Farida Khanum has always been one of my favorite ghazal singers from Pakistan.

My first memory of Farida Khanum is from her famous song “Meine pairon mein payal to baandhi nahin”. As a child I always adored that woman in blood red sari adorned with some garlands. For many years to come, that look remained etched in my memory. To me, for many years to come, that was how a perfectly dressed woman looked like.

I was ushered in, and that was where I found Farida ji waiting for me. Ever graceful, she looked fragile with age. My heart missed a few beats; I wasn’t prepared for seeing an aged Farida Khanum.

Through all my research, and my talks with her, I was aware of her age, but somehow I still came to her place to meet her with that very young image of hers in my mind. That blood red sari and those garlands never left my imagination. But did it matter? Not at all. She is a beautiful woman even today.

However, in about 30 seconds, she made me comfortable by her welcome note. In a minute, she was treating me like I was of her own flesh and blood. I would love to mention here that overall there was a feel of love and happiness at her place. I was happy to enjoy a cup of tea with her, along with the delicacies which were being served. She has one loving family.

Those of you, who have never met Farida Khanum, let me tell you that she is just like your grandmother, loving and warm towards you, appreciative of whatever you do. Solving the mystery of “who Farida Khanum really is” in my mind, I realized that she is a woman who has smiled her jubilance at life.

Life in return has smiled back at her. She, to me, is a woman who is contented and deeply satisfied with life. The kind of love and care she showered, the way she held her authority despite all the leverage she offered during the discussion made me feel as if I was in the presence of my own grandparents.

I am sure all of you have got the point by now. Oh, yes, meeting her was an exhilarating experience! I have rarely come across anyone who has impressed me this much in only one sitting. Farida Khanum has aged very gracefully.

Unlike others who have this habit of denying their age, she has accepted it with elegance. I would say when I met Farida ji, I came to know how a person looks when he or she is happy with the outcome of life.

I had many questions listed for the interview. The most important answer I got was however not to any of those questions. That special answer was the peace with life I felt in her. She is simple to the core. Very humble for a woman who is often called as Malika-e-Ghazal.

Interesting was the discussion about modern music and her obvious disagreement with skin shows in cinematic art today. (It was just like I was talking to my ami; just that I didn’t dare tell Farida ji to let it go. If it was ami, I would have said, yar ami, choren ap).

“Artists are the identity of any nation” said Farida Khanum, with an air of aristocracy which she has truly earned through her fabulous singing career. Farida Khanum mentioned that she was born in 1934.

At many places it is mentioned that her year of birth is 1935, but she made it clear that in those days nobody gave much attention to these facts so she is not sure. “Farida is my real name” she replied to my question.

“I was born in Calcutta”. I enquired about her times in Amritsar and she replied that her elder sister moved to Calcutta to pursue her music passion as a serious singer. Rest of the family moved too.

Mukhtar Begum whom Farida Khanum lovingly calls “Bibi” was the wife of Agha Hashr Kashmiri. “When I was born” said Malika-e-Ghazal, “a movie was in making whose lead female role (enacted by her Bibi) was named Farida. I was named after that character.

It was a nice name”. “It is all because of my sister that I became an artist. My mother was not a formally educated woman. It was my sister who knew better.”

In typical Farida Khanum style of being humble, she mentioned that when her elder sister used to sing, there were no mic and her sister, the legendary Mukhtar Begum, used to sing brilliantly.

Even without a mic she used to be loud enough and had excellent control over her “sur”. Farida Khanum mentioned Mukhtar begum with utmost respect. She mentioned that their father passed away when Farida sahiba was only a toddler. It was her sister, Mukhtar Begum, who actually brought her up.

Understanding Farida Khanum is not possible without knowing Bibi better. Mukhtar Begum not only trained Farida Khanum in classical music, but she also trained other artists like Naseem Begum.

Mukhtar Begum is known to have contributed towards growth of the artist in Malika e Taranum Noor Jahan. She encouraged Noor Jehan sahiba a lot. Mukhtar Begum was the guardian of Pakistani film actress Rani.

Bibi, as Farida Khanum lovingly calls her, was not only an artist of great caliber, she was a person who knew how to bring the best out of other artists. Thank you Bibi, for polishing the art in Naseem Begum, Rani and Farida Khanum for us!

In 2013, Times of India published an article naming Farida Khanum as “Malika-e-Ghazal”. When she was asked about her feelings regarding such appreciation across the borders, she humbly said “ap sab bachon ki mohabbat hai bs or kuch nahin”. Farida Khanum was awarded Halal-e-Imtiaz by Gen. Musharaf’s government.

Farida Khanum as a person is very simple. If you have ever met the legend, you will agree with me. While we were discussing her early life, in her typical grandmotherly fashion she “ordered” me to have tea and enjoy the delicacies served along with it.

When I took time in following her instructions, she very sweetly told me to stop working for a minute and have tea first. “Khaada ee kuj nahin” was the statement! Farida Khanum mentioned that she was trained in classical music by Ustaad Ashiq Ali Khan sahib from the famous Patiyala gharana.

Farida Khanum said that she has sung in various genres but ghazal is her forte which she always enjoyed more. Although she did not imitate anyone’s style, but was greatly impressed by Mukhtar Begum and Begum Akhtar’s style of singing.

Talking about pre-partition music, she said that those music directors, most of them were Muslims. It was pre-partition time. Those directors like O.P. Nayyer and Madan Mohan, they had the talent. Also, Madan Mohan came from a rigid Muslim family and when he started taking interest in music his family did not appreciate it much.

He came from a well off family of Rawalpindi, but when his family criticized him for this passion for music, Madan Mohan left Rawalpindi and went straight to Bombay.

“My singing career began at Radio Pakistan. Bukhari sb auditioned me. I used to sing classical. When Z. A. Bukhari sb auditioned me, he said (Ashiq Ali) Khan sahib has trained Farida really well.

Bukhari sb said that with this quality of singing, I cannot reject her in this audition, but I will offer one program a month. My selection of raags depended on the time of the day”.

Remembering her days at Radio Pakistan, Farida Khanum mentioned that there were gems from the field of music who were associated with Radio Pakistan in those days. Barkat Ali Khan sahib was one of them.

“When selecting a ghazal to sing, I focused on the poet’s caliber and on the music director’s ability of creating melody which public could remember. In PTV days when it used to be our only TV channel, I participated in programs like Jashn-e-Baharan and Mehfil e Mosiqi. I had very little formal education, so for correct pronunciation of words, I worked very hard with the music directors. They corrected us and helped in learning correct pronunciation and throw of each word”.

Remembering partition, she mentioned that it was a tough time and Muslims migrating from India suffered a lot. From the point of view of art too, it was a loss. We lost many technicians and investors to India at the time of partition.

According to Farida Khanum “Ayub Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and Pervaiz Musharraf were the leaders who truly promoted art”. She mentioned that during Ayub sahib’s era trend of Islamization had just started. At that time the society was much more tolerant.

The difference can be seen in the way female singers used to dress in 1960s, 1970s and then in later decades. In earlier decades of PTV anything decent was acceptable as dress code.

In 1980s, things changed and rules at PTV became a little stricter. Farida Khanum is a living legend, and the beauty of her persona is that she is not even a little affected by the grandeur of her stature. She is a simple, down to earth lady.

I mentioned to her the popularity of her geet and ghazals like “Meine pairon mein payal to bandhi nahin” and “wo ishq jo hum se rooth gaya” in the younger lot. Her only response was “pyar hai ap logon ka”.

In a PTV program Taghazal, Farida Khanum sang together with Ustad Amanat Ali Khan sahib. She also talked about Fateh ali Khan sahib, mentioning his great ability to sing various raags.

Nawab Shehenshah recorded that song which became an instant hit. The song was “Milan rut aee”. Talking about her contemporaries and especially about the younger lot of musicians and singers, she mentioned that Nayyara Noor and Mehnaz were two very talented artists.

She also appreciated Malika e Taranum Noor Jehan sahiba for her hard work in music and her unusual musical talent. She named Iqbal Bano sahiba too, who is undoubtedly one of the best Ghazal singers ever.

Roshan Ara Begum in Farida Khanum’s view was a great classical singer. Appreciating her contemporaries she mentioned that “when we started off our careers, it was not about money. We got paid very little amount from radio and TV, but were passionate about our work and the art of music.”

She mentioned that in those good old days it was the art that was held in high esteem. Remembering Master Manzoor Farida Khanum mentioned that he was the one who conceived “Wo ishq jo hum se rooth gaya”. “Initially he wanted someone else to sing that tune, but then I convinced him through my rehearsals that I could do a better job with this one”.

She is skeptical of the modern approach of not respecting the artist for his/ her artistic caliber, but for sheer amount of money people make. Excessive focus on Islamization in the 1980s and this lack of respect for the art itself has pushed many artists away from the centre of stage she believes.

Apparently our beloved Malika e Ghazal is a social person who was on good terms with her contemporaries. The way she talks about her colleagues and their children shows what a soft hearted and loving person she is on the inner side. She has 4 daughters and a son.

She lives with her son, his wife and his kids, and her second eldest daughter in Lahore. Farida Khanum mentioned that music is not an easy field to reach the top. It demands a lot of efforts.

She mentioned about the lack of desire in her kids to learn music, none of them pursued music as a career. “I have performed in many countries. Moscow in Russia and Kabul in Afghanistan were among the first few destinations where I sang a few of my ghazals”.

She fondly remembered Jashan-e-Kabul of that time when Afghanistan used to be peaceful. She has sung a few times for movies from across the border and a couple of ventures for Hollywood too.

In 1953, she appeared on screen in the movie “Sailaab” alongside Sabiha Khanum, the leading lady of silver screen in that decade. In 1975 her work appeared in “Towers of silence” (Hollywood) and in 2001 her famous ghazal “Aaj jane ki zidd na karo” graced the screen for ‘Monsoon Wedding”.

For the modern day singers and especially for the female lot, Farida Khanum is an example. She has raised her kids with complete attention, has a complete family life, and yet, is an artist of a rare caliber. Throughout her life as a singer, she has maintained herself in all these aspects with utter grace.

Ma’am when did you actually realize you are a singing sensation? I asked her. “Russia se wapsi per” she confided in me as if she still did not believe herself to be a singing sensation.

Only if she knew the height of this pedestal where she stands! How would you rate Indian music in comparison to Pakistani music, I asked. She said that legends like Lata and Asha have performed very well over the course of their career.

When people like Naushad and Khayyam were composing, the quality of music was very high. Now the music teachers in India do not have that same old quality. “I recorded only one album in my career. I was always busy in other commitments, and albums took a lot of time. I preferred PTV and Radio thus.

Singing for movies was not my cup of tea. Due to the difference in environment and the way things were done in films back then, I felt it was not my style of work. My family supported me in my career all through my life.

In 1960s, after I got married, it was my husband who said that I should go to Russia with the troupe and sing. My selection of ghazals always came from great poets including Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Iqbal, Ghalib, Faraz, Ehsan Danish etc.

Compositions were also by people who really understood music. Khalil Ahmed is an example. I had very good control over Raag Darbari and I preferred to sing in it. She fondly remembered Syed Mohiuddin sahib for arranging her musical evenings at Customs Karachi.

After the list of question exhausted, we talked for another few minutes, on general topics. I was keen to know how she used to treat her orchestra who played various musical organs for her.

She is a very soft spoken person, who is never harsh with people; she always knew how to guide the orchestra to play to her satisfaction. Farida Khanum appears to be a very agreeable personality.

However, she is authoritative in her own way. It is more like if she says something, it is said in such a convincing way that it’s next to impossible to not agree to whatever she is saying. (On a different note, I would love to learn this trick of the trade from her. As a woman this is what you are supposed to do, right? Be authoritative in a way that does not make you look or sound like that, right?)

All through the sitting, I felt a strong presence of the real woman within her. When answering the questions dealing with the art she is master of, the artist within came to the fore.

When the discussion moved on to events less related to music and more about her, she appeared to be like any other woman who cares deeply about her kids and other people around her. I have huge respect for her for the fact that she dares to be a woman first.

At one point during the interview, I was compelled to tell her that it seems she is still not aware of the status she holds in the world of music and that she is surprisingly too humble. To this she replied with a beautiful statement that “aajzi he Allah ko achi lgti hai”.

Another aspect I noted in her is that she must have been a fun loving kid herself back in her childhood. Also, she has all kinds of witty answers for you, in truly Punjabi style, and she has a great sense of humor too.

After a beautiful and memorable evening with Farida Khanum, Malika-e-Ghazal, I was about to leave when she herself wrapped a sandwich for me and told (read ordered) me to eat it on my way back. (kujj khaada he nh) You have eaten nothing so far, she said, a little angry with me.

When I left, her family came to see me off. A wonderful evening with a wonderful artist and an exceptional woman came to an end. I so wanted this evening to never end, but it had to.

Well, it’s me, so I came back with a truck load of answers to the questions for the readers, and an invite for myself, to meet her soon again. May Allah grant her health and a long blessed life. Ameen.

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