February 29, 2020
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A Tune From The Past

A disarmingly frank memoir in a wonderful translation by Saleem Kidwai.

A Tune From The Past
A Tune From The Past
Song Sung True: A Memoir
By Malika Pukhraj
Kali for Women Rs 400; Pages: 376
Readers of a certain age will surely remember the song, Abhi to main jawan hoon. It was hugely popular and was from one of the first films to be made in Pakistan, Qaatil. The singer was Malika Pukhraj. She has written a disarmingly frank memoir. She grew up in a mud hut in Jammu with a good-for-nothing father who ran a gambling den and stole from her piggy bank. She caught the eye of Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir. She sang and danced in his court, accompanied him on hunting trips and, with encouragement from her mother, became his rakhel for nine years.

She escaped to Lahore, fearing for her life, when Hindu fanatics accused her of trying to poison the Maharaja. The accusation was false. She loved the man. It was the lecherous Maharaja of Patiala she hated. We’re also told that the Maharaja of Alwar had a thing for hijras and there were strange goings-on in the Rampur household. It’s all there in a wonderful translation by Saleem Kidwai. But why does he insist on calling her Malka when she’s always been known as Malika?

She had a robust voice, peculiar to Muslim singers of that time: Amirbai Karnataki, Zohrabai Ambalawali, Shamshad Begum. That kind of singing went out of fashion when a young Lata Mangeshkar burst on the scene in the ’40s with a softer sound. Ms Pukhraj, I regret to say, was a one-trick pony. That recording from Qaatil was her only hit. The blame lay with the Pakistani film industry which never took off. Most film-makers who migrated from Bombay after Partition regretted the move till their dying days. She kept singing and dancing at parties, invested in real estate and lived comfortably in Lahore. She writes nostalgically of evening walks in Nishat Bagh and of a Maharaja to whom she had given her heart and soul. But, strangely, there is not a word in the book on that song. Or any of her other songs.

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