Not to be your typical aunt-next-door, but go ahead and list some of the most legendary Pakistani Musicians that you know about. If Madam Noor Jehan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are all you could name, you might want to continue reading this article.
Now, if I ask you to name a few of the most iconic singers of the Hollywood music industry, the list might never end. Notice a pattern here?
Allow me to bring to light another phenomena observed among the indie-teen™ crowd: the more vintage music you listen to, the cooler you are (because that makes total sense, right?).
It’s time we begin to appreciate Pakistani Legends and how they immortalized themselves with the evergreen art they left (read: blessed) us with. For the sake of their art and the truly enchanting experience of drifting into the realm of musical ecstasy, here is a list of some of the most celebrated classical singers of Pakistan. Let’s dive into some of the most brilliant poetry, and harmonious melodies that have graced the Earth (and well, YouTube).
● Ustaad Amanat Ali Khan
“Honton pe kabhi unke, mera naam hi aaye
Aaye tou sahi, bar-sar-e-ilzaam hi aaye”
(I wish that my beloved utters my name once,
even if it is to say something against me)
Born in 1922 in Hoshiarpur, Amanat Ali Khan started young; he sang for mehfils (gatherings) and gained recognition at an early age. One of his most acclaimed masterpieces include ‘Insha Ji Utho‘ a poem written by Ibn-e-Insha -a multifaceted person who was not only a poet, but a diplomat, author, and Marxist. The poem is about a young man, blanketed in gloom, who gets up and leaves not only the gathering he spent the night in, but the city itself. He tells himself,
“Insha jee utho, ab kuuch karo
Iss shehr mein ab jee ko lagana kya?”
(Get up Insha ji, let’s leave here
It is of no use setting your heart on this city)
Ustaad Amanat Ali, once handed the poem, immediately expressed his desire to give it his own personality and vocalise it. He asked Ibn-e-Insha’s permission who was immensely impressed by how Amanat Ali metamorphosed into the protagonist of the poem while singing it.
This ghazal, however, is laced by superstition, labelling it as a “cursed” song that took the lives of three men: Ustaad Amanat Ali who died after performing this ghazal, Ibn-e-Insha himself who stated, “How many more lives will this cursed poem take?” and late Amanat Ali’s son Asad Amanat Ali who too, died shortly after performing this ghazal. It is mainly due to this, that despite its popularity amongst ghazal enthusiasts, very few singers have attempted to cover it.
Ustaad Amanat Ali’s untimely death proved to be an irreplaceable loss for the Pakistani music industry. Some of his most loved work includes: Honton Pe Kabhi Unke, Aa Mere Pyaar Ki Khushboo Manzil Pe Tujhe Pohanchaye and of course, Aye Watan Pyare Watan.
● Iqbal Bano
“Dur ufaq par chamakati hui qatra qatra
gir rahi hai teri dil daar nazar ki shabnam”
(Far away, across the horizon, glistens drop by drop
The falling dew of your beguiling glance)
Born in 1935 in Delhi, British India, Iqbal Bano showed keen interest in music since her early childhood and learned classical music from Ustad Chand Khan (who despite simultaneously training his own daughters as well, believed that Bano’s talent would supersede all others). A well-known classical singer, Bano had achieved fame and acclaim by the 1950s however, it was only during the 80s that the Queen of Ghazal developed an affinity for the writings of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and soon became a musical specialist on Faiz.
On February 13 1986, Bano became a symbol of dissent as Faiz’s work had been banned under the authoritarian regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. Clad in a black sari—a piece of clothing banned by General Zia Ul Haq—Bano sang Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhein Ge‘ in front of a crowd of 50 000 amidst chants of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long Live the Revolution). Bano died at the age of 74 on 21 April 2009, however her legacy continues to live on, symbolizing freedom of speech, equality, and social justice.
Some of her most renowned works include,
Daagh-e-Dil Humko Yaad Aane Lage, Dasht-e-Tanhayi Mein Aye Jaan e Jahan and Payal Mein Geet Hein.
● Mehdi Hassan
“Rafta Rafta wo meri hasti ka saman ho gaye
Pehle jaan, phir jaan-e-jaan, phir jaan-e-jaana hogaye”
(Subtly and gradually, she became a part of my personality
First my life, then the love of my life, then she became the beloved of my life)
Mehdi Hassan was born on 18 July 1927, in Rajasthan’s Luna village to a family of acclaimed musicians and was tutored under his father and uncle. After his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947, hard times fell upon them and the future ‘King of Ghazal’ worked as a mechanic in his spare time. His career took off in 1957 and he became a household name after singing Faiz’s ‘Gulon Mein Rang Bhare’ for the film Firangi (1964). Faiz Ahmed Faiz was so moved by it that he bequeathed the song to Mehdi Hassan, similar to how he credited his poem “Mujhe Se Pehli Si Muhabbat” to Noor Jehan. One of the most influential figures in the history of Ghazal singing, he is credited with popularizing the ghazal in the international audience. When Lata Mangeshkar heard him perform in a concert in 1977 in Delhi, she said,
“Aesa lagta hai ke unke galay mein Bhagwan bolte hain.”
(It’s as if God sings through his voice.)
Mehdi Hassan is said to have sung an estimate of 300 songs for different Pakistani films. He passed away at the age of 84, on the 13th of June, 2012. Some of his most acclaimed works include: Zindagi Mein Tou Sab He Pyaar Karte Hein, Gulon Mein Rang Bhare, Ranjish Hee Sahi and Raaftah Raaftah Wo Meri Hasti Ka Saman Hogaye.
“Diloun nu naa tori jivein sajna nu rool rool
Chan pardesiya, bol bhanwe na bol”
(Don’t break your beloved’s heart by neglecting them
Beloved traveller, talk to me if you wish to)
Unlike many renowned artists, Reshma was not from a family of musicians, but from a family of nomads that had migrated to Karachi after the partition in 1947. The Bulbul-e-Sahra (Nightingale of the Desert) began singing at the shrines of Sindh, especially that of Laal Shahbaz Qalandar where she took on dhamaal singing—a rhythmic sequence of the drum which is essential for inducing ritual ecstasy—where Radio Pakistan producer Saleem Gillani heard her sing and was so deeply moved by her voice that he allowed her to sing on the radio, at the age of 12. She sang in Pashto, Sindhi, and Rajistani languages besides Urdu. Her lilting desert voice became a household favourite in 1982, when Bollywood Producer Subhash Ghai, convinced her to sing for his film ‘Hero’.
Before her sad demise in 2013, the Bulbul-e-Sehra left us with masterpieces such as Lambi Judaai, Haye O Rabba Nahion Lagda Dil Mera, and Dama Dam Mast Qalandar.
If you made it to the end of this very short list that does absolutely no justice to the brilliant maestros of this country: congratulations! You might just be able to diversify (read: flex) your ‘Vibe’ playlist on Spotify! (Yes, most of these ghazals are on Spotify.)
But in all seriousness, the soulful, velvety voice of Ustaad Amanat Ali; the fearless, melancholic voice of Iqbal Bano; the hauntingly beautiful voice of Mehdi Hassan; and the earthy voice of Reshma paired with a cup of tea and a rainy summer evening invokes a feeling too divine to be put into words. Try it out for yourself, you’ll know what I’m talking about.