Lost Heiress: Mehnaz Begum

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Some of you may know that I am currently writing a book on Lollywood, the not-very-original sobriquet for the movie making industry of Pakistan based in Lahore.

 

As I continue to dig and uncover more information about this rather unknown industry and cultural enterprise I am discovering all sorts of new singers, composers and musicians.* Or re-discovering some that I knew a bit about previously but hadn’t necessarily associated with filmi music.

 

Mehnaz Begum is one such artist and it is a great privilege to share with you some of her wonderful singing in this post.

 

Mehnaz Begum was born (1950) into a family which had a very particular musical heritage. As the Mughal Empire began to weakened after the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir, who exhausted its authority with incessant expansionary wars in the Deccan, smaller principalities and ‘kingdoms’ across the subcontinent began to exert power in their regions. One of the most important and prosperous of these was Avadh, which had its capital in the city of Lucknow. The Avadhi rulers were Shi’a, a major branch of Islam that pays special allegiance to the Prophet’s (PBUH) son-in-law Ali and grandson Hussain. Significant ritual and spiritual space is given to commemorating the

Martyrdom of the latter at Karbala [present day Iraq] during the month of Moharrum.

 

Two distinct but related forms of artistic expression developed in Avadh that were used to accompany Shi’a religious practices: marsiya and soz khwani. Marsiya is elegiac poetry recited in praise of Hussain and other Shi’a martyrs. The poems are recited or sung a cappella and solo as inspiration for the faithful to persevere in their spiritual lives. Generally, marsiya is classified as a poetic, rather than musical genre.

 

Soz khwani is a modified and refined form of marsiya. An innovation of the 19th century it is a consciously melancholy music and as such, and given the occasion, it is considered jayiz (permitted) by Shi’a orthodoxy. Unlike marsiya soz khwani involves [the] singing of poetic content without instrumental or rhythmic support, but a group of accompanying vocalists hums along [with] the lead singer, maintaining emphasis in the ground notes of the composition and producing a drone-like effect that helps the lead singer to stay on pitch.  (The Last Avadhi Songstress by Sheraz Hyder, TFT Feb01-07, 2013)

 

Interestingly, the Nawabs of Avadh not only tolerated women singers but actively encouraged a cohort of females to perform soz khwani for the royal women. Mehnaz’s mother, Kajjan Begum, was one of these. She grew up and was trained in the feudal estate of the raja of Mahmoodabad in Avadh by her mother Imam Bandi one of the first Indian singers to be recorded in the early 20th century. Though Imam Bandi and Kajjan Begum and other female soz khwan were primarily trained in the signing of lamentations they also became well versed in other forms such as thumri, dadra, Banarsi ang, tappa and hori.

 

When Mehnaz came on the scene in the mid-1970s, primarily as a playback singer for films, her early exposure to such a rich tradition and lineage of music, allowed her to find an audience as a ghazal singer as well. That she was successful in both spheres—film and ghazal—is an impressive testament of her talent, for in films she had to contend with the iconic Madam Noor Jehan and in ghazal with the storied voices of Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum.

 

As I’ve listened to her with more intent in the past few weeks I am coming to the conclusion that Mehnaz’s voice is one of the most beautiful and pleasing I’ve heard. It is full of melody, lilt and a deceptive softness that is actually power under masterful control.

 

The collection of ghazals I share today is one of the fabulous (and now out of print) 57 CD Box Set of Pakistani music produced by Shalimar Records. According to critics and fans with more awareness and experience than myself this particular CD also contains some of the best examples of popular ghazal singing ever recorded.

Mehnaz Begum Mehnaz Begum_center

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Track Listing:

01 Kaise Kaise Khwab

02 Ishq jab Zum Zama

03 Jo Dil mein Khatakti

04 Ab Dekhiye kiya Haal

05 Shaheed e Ishq Hue

06 Zahir ki Aankh

07 Lutf Woh Ishq Mein

08 Rang batain karein

09 Tu Uroose Shaam

10 Hazar Gardish Sham O Sahar

11 Kissi ki Yaad Ko Dil

12 Be tabiye Dil

13 Gham mujhe

14 Garehe So bar

15 Ashk aankhon mein

16 Ho teri yaad ka

 

Mehnaz

 

*I have another blog where I share music that is specific to Pakistani films which I invite you to enjoy.

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