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Unparalleled queen of gayaki

Malika Pukhraj's music echoed the earthly sounds of melody. She died at Islamabad early this year but her "nazm" recitations and ghazal renditions live on. A tribute by JYOTI NAIR BELLIAPPA ...

MALIKA PUKHRAJ was the unrivalled queen of verse in the court of Maharaja Hari Singh of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. She sought employment as a court singer at the young age of nine and negotiated court life until its intrigues compelled her to leave her benefactor whom she respected dearly.

Once in Lahore, Malika Pukhraj continued to give private concerts and emerged as one of the top singers of the sub-continent. She adhered to strict norms of no alcohol at her `mehfils' and was far ahead of her times in her professionalism. She maintained her independence and attended concerts on her own. It is believed that even the Maharaja of Patiala took dictation from her and changed his flamboyant style to accord her the pride of place in his `darbar.'

Malika Pukhraj died at Islamabad on February 4 this year at the age of 90, but her enticing `nazm' recitations and `ghazal' renditions in the conventional couplet form that have been recorded live on. She breathed warmth into her lyrics. She was persuasive and articulate in modulating each note and embellished her poetry with great energy. The harmonious existence of poetry and music was in keeping with the sub-continental tradition of Bhakti and Sufi poetry. She started to recite `Nohas' and `Marsiyas' at the age of five. Although she belonged to a puritanical family, as a rasika she straddled two different worlds, singing bhajans in the court of Raja Hari Singh, and was also appreciative of good music, poetry, food and dress. She had grown up with Voh kahte hain ranjish ki baatein bhula do ("they say forget the world of pain"). Her recitation transported her listeners to the romantic world of make-believe, the pain of unrequited love and the fragrance of perfumed gardens frequented by the bulbul. She was trained in music by Ustad Ali Baksh, the esteemed father of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and Allah Baksh. She received training in the classical dance form which complemented Thumri, from Ustad Mamman Khan.

Malika Pukhraj left the greatest poetry alone so that her music would not flounder under its heavy weight. She worked upon this idea from Thumri where the poetry of the text is deliberately suggestive and the listener chooses from a multiplicity of meanings. In a similar fashion, great poets like Ghalib Mir and Momin owed nothing to music — the ghazal was itself a self-sufficient literary form, which needed no props from the world of music. The ghazal addressing the beloved was never meant to be sung or even recited in tarannum, lest it should take away from its word structure and disturb the flow of the line.

Her inimitable style brought forth a repertoire where poetry and music blended. Hafeez Jalandhari's Abhi to main jawan hoon ("I am still youthful") continues to ring with the youth and vitality of her voice. Besides singing Hafeez Jalandhari's poems, her rendition included Lo phir basant aay and Quli Qutub's Piya baaj piyale piya jaye na and Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Mere qatil mere dildar mere paas raho. In her music, she never lost sight of the meaning of poetry and in the flow and ebb of the voice she kept to the dynamics of the couplet. In her gayaki, to the sweetness of Purabi and Avadhi were added the rich nuances of Urdu poetry.

Her music created a yearning for things long ago and echoed the earthly sounds of the folk music as well as the sophistication of the princely courts. In recognition of her contribution to music, she received the Presidential Pride of Performance Award in 1980, and the Legend of Voice Award from the All India Radio.

She is remembered in the valley as an icon and Lahore is still nostalgic with the resonance of her gayaki. Continuing in her style is her daughter, Tahira Sayed.

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