June 15, 2021
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Extracts from A Memoir

My Singing Teachers

Malika Pukhraj's memoirs had been her obsession for most of the last two decades of her life. She resisted tremendous opposition from her family who wanted her to abandon the work. In these extracts, she talks about the ustads who taught her singing

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My Singing Teachers
My Singing Teachers
Song Sung True: A Memoir
By Malika Pukhraj
Kali for Women/Zubaan Rs 400; Pages: 376

It was very difficult to choose passages from Song Sung True ,  for the chapters on Hari Singh, the last maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, and on Hindu-Muslim relations would perhaps interest many more readers, but we decided to choose those where Malika Pukhraj talks about the teachers who taught her singing in early childhood.

My First Singing Teacher
[From Chapter 5, pp25-28]

Ali Baksh was the father of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and lived in Jammu. Once a year he visited Lahore or Sindh, but he preferred to stay in Jammu. Mother enrolled me as his disciple. God had given him a voice that had no parallel. When he strummed the tanpura and began singing, his tunefulness would have his listeners in raptures. He would never go off-key. Great musicians have said that if the voice and instrument become one, their power can move mountains. There was no one to match him in singing the Sindhi kafi or khayal. He was a master of the Sindhi bhairavi too. He sang the todi khayal "Sain Allah jane Maula jane" very well. The general opinion about him was that he lacked teaming. However, as a singer he was superb. There was a relative of his called Allah Baksh who also lived in Jammu. His voice and singing were much better than my ustad's, but he had gone insane

My ustad, Ali Baksh, was penniless. He was, however, ready to teach me for two meals a day rather than leave Jammu. Lord knows what attractions, what magic, Jammu had that he did not want to leave even though he was on the verge of starvation. Ali Baksh was very happy with me. He always said, "She will sing in tune. The musical articulation of her voice will be correct." Often he would explain to me: "Listen child, no matter what you sing, even it it is a jugni, sing in tune for only then will it reach the heart. You can stretch a tuneless phrase till the earth shatters, but that will not matter a jot to the ear. Music is only that which is in tune. You should know how to articulate musically. If one does not know how to articulate, one should not sing". Till I was five, all he taught me was to travel back and forth berween the note sa. For two years I was just practising the notes. It was only after that, that he began teaching me the todi, "Sain Allab Jane".

I have not heard voices like those of Ali Baksh, Mian Maula Baksh Talwandiwale, who was to teach me later, and the mad Allah Baksh. When any one of them started strumming the tanpura, in the lower octaves, it seemed as if the entire music of the world had contracted into their music. You felt that tanpuras were playing all around and every nook echoed with music. When they sang a khayal their music was so eloquent that the listener was transported into another world.

In those days I was not interested in music and was learning it only because I was made to. Ali Baksh was keen that I learn more. He himself did not know more than five or ten ragas even though he was famous as a singer. Maula Baksh was very learned and his knowledge was like an endless ocean. Both my ustads -- the one who taught me to read and write and the one who taught me to sing -- were very pleased with me. I was intelligent and quick in picking up what they taught. I never had to be punished for anything and was only praised

If I was ever beaten, it was for smoking the huqqa. I began smoking it when I was four. Mother used to smoke but she did not want me to start smoking too. She was right, for it is not very wise to start at that age. Phupho Nikki, who loved me to the point of madness, smoked too. She would gently try and discourage me.

"Please do not smoke She will hit you "

"No I will," I would insist.

She would give in, "All right, go ahead," she would say gently.

If mother caught me smoking, she would beat me mercilessly. and would also insult poor Phupho Nikki. My smoking reached such a point that I started to collect the cigarette stubs I found on the road and secretly smoke them at the shop. Sometimes in my eagerness to take advantage of an opportunity, I would quickly take so many drags from the huqqa that I would almost faint. The vice did not leave me.

The fathers of Ali Baksh and Allah Baksh were brothers. As I have mentioned, Allah Baksh sang much better than Ali Baksh and his voice, too, was better but he had lost his sanity and never left Jammu. Everyone had the same story to narrate about him. On one occasion, the Maharaja of Jammu had invited the best known singers from all over. Alah Baksh's ustad was a well-recognized master. All the ustads assembled at the court sang in turn, offered their salaams to the Maharaja and returned to their places. Then it was the turn of Allah Baksh and his ustad, and the ustad began to sing. The ustad and the pupil would perform together and it was the duty of the pupil to only imitate the ustad. If the ustad sang a note or indicated his musical intentions, the pupil was to repeat it, just as it had been sung, and not add anything new to it.

The ustad was very old and weak by then. Allah Baksh, on the other hand, was young and strong. It was the court of the Maharaja and all the best-known musicians were present. In this atmosphere Allah Baksh forgot etiquette and got carried away. Instead of mimicking his ustad, he sang such a complicated arpeggio that the entire durbar broke out in applause. The ustad could not match him and was terribly embarrassed. The ustad's heart broke. The note Allah Baksh had sung had been so difficult that he looked back helplessly. He looked at Allah Baksh and all he said was "You mad man. Shut up."

In those days the ustads were paternal and had the student's best intentions at heart. In return for obedience and service, they taught their students their art night and day. In fact, it was commonly believed that music could not be bought for money. There were some students who not only ate with their ustad but also served him unflinchingly, even if they had to stay up nights. Allah Baksh's ustad must have really felt humiliated for his words turned into a curse For the next two months Allah Baksh fell silent. Then he went insane. He would sit quietly and never say a word to anyone. Nor did he ever wash. His nails were long. His  unwashed hair fell in matted braids. There was a thick layer of dirt and grime on his neck, which was nauseating. He never spoke to anyone, so he never asked for anything. On one of the terraces in our house, there was a balcony. He would come and sit on it. With his stoned, bloodshot eyes he would stare into space. Everyone requested him to sing but he never did. Sometimes he would make me sit in his lap and start singing on his own. I was very scared of him. When I turned five he constantly tried to get me to sit in his lap; as a result, when he came to the house, I would run away and hide. His clothes were so dirty that the dirt on them would shine as if it was charcoal. The colour of his hair, face and body seemed almost identical. He always wanted to play with me like a child.

By age of five, I had learnt a bit about music. One day while sitting he suddenly started singing. The words of the song were, 'What indifference my beloved! Your ignorance of my state."  What a voice! What pathos! What a song! It seemed that everything in the universe had come to a standstill. I did not know much but the others there -- mother, aunt and ustad -- were all sobbing like children. For one, the words of the kafi described his state so well. And then the way he sang! I started crying even though I did not understand anything. He sang the full kafi and then fell silent. People tried very hard to make him sing again for them. Some gave him milk to drink and some fed him. Others pleaded and begged. But he was indifferent to everything. He was his own master.

He came to our house every day. I was no longer scared of him. Like a child, he would sometimes play with my feet or my fingers. When I learnt music he would sit and listen. Sometimes he would begin to sing with the tablas. One day he sang a khayal in bhairavi. What style! His singing was so moving that whether you understood music or not, you forgot about the world. He never taught me, but I learnt a great deal from just listening to him. I could never understand why he loved me so much. Sometimes he would even sing when I asked him to. Listenmg to good singing is a lesson in itself, and he was the emperor of singing.  God had given him music but snatched away his senses.


The Addition of Another Ustad
From Chapter 12, pp56-59

I have mentioned how beautiful my aunt was. In winter, when my singing  lessons began at five, a man wrapped in a quilted sheet would come and sit on the stairs. He would stare at my aunt and keep repealing "Allah, Allah" and weep copiously. His tears would pour out of him like water from rainwater drains. He was assumed to be a faqir, and was invited in. He sat where people kept their shoes, at the threshold of the house, and cried while I sang. One day he gave me a naat in praise of the Prophet which he had written and asked me to sing it for him I sang it as best I could but he was not happy with my rendering and found countless errors in my diction. He would often make requests for naats or ghazals, yet he always found fault with my rendering. I used to seethe with anger. "If he does not like my singing," I'd say to myself, "what is his problem? Why does he have to be so kind to me every evening? Why does he not go and ask someone else to sing for him?

A while later we found out that he was a professor in a well-known college and also an initiate in the 'Warsi' order. Near Lucknow  there is a village called Dewa Sharif where Hazrat Syed Waris Ali  is buried.  He was a well educated and a saintly man. Lengthy, thick books have been written about him in which his life -- from childhood to old age -- is described in detail. Thousands of believers  in the Warsi order collect for his urs annually. The Warsis were usually well educated with BA and MA degrees, and were litterateurs or poets. Bedam Warsi, many of whose ghazals were sung by Akhtari Bai, was one of them.

For those who just wanted to attach themselves to the order, the message was  simple "Love others for it is in love that God is to be found." But to become a part of the order was far more difficult and there were many stages through which seekers had to pass. In the first stage, they were ordered to love small children, then little girls and after that, young unmarried girls. Then came the turn of married women. The rules were that the seekers had to look at them from afar, love them unquestionably  and never touch them. Anyone who passed through those challenging phases with his purity intact could become a faqir. He would have to wear unstitched clothes for the rest of his life. Wearing of shirt or  shoes was forbidden and they were only allowed to wrap themselves in sheets of coarse cloth. However they had a choice of colours- yellow or orange. They would tie these sheets around their waists and drape them like a sari. Throughout their lives, no matter what they did, they had to wear only the colour they had chosen.

They were also forbidden to sleep on beds or use pillows. They could not ask for anything, nor could they carry any money except when they went on the hajj. They had to trust God to take care of their needs. They were required to pray five times a day, fast regularly, and read the Quran daily. They were not allowed to ride on any living thing and had to stay single. All this was necessary to be a faqir of the order. Those who could not meet there demands were barred from this status.

The man who came wrapped in a quilted sheet to hear me learning music was a professor in a renowned college, as I have mentioned. He could not only, speak Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Enlglish and Turkish fluently but could also read and write these languages. He had gone abroad twice as part of a delegation, which included Dr Ansari .Very well educated, he was in the first stages of initiation into the Warsi order. He came to hear me sing every day and also fell in love with my aunt. He had found out where she lived and would turn up there every day and would sit and stare at her. If it was hot, he would fan her. My uncle came lo respect him. Their son, Amanat All, however, had a lot of fun at his expense. He would ask him, "Maulana, tell me about the machine you have inside you, the one that produces these endless tears."

When my aunt visited us, he would hang around our house to late at night. His name was Tafazzul Hussain Warsi. He was a good-looking, well-born person. He usually came in the evening after college was over. During the vacations he would spend the entire day at our house, though he would eat nothing. In spite of our insistence he would not touch the sweets, fruit or sharbat offered m him. There were days when he would not eat or drink anything between nine in the morning and ten at night because he did not want to let my aunt out of his sight. If she asked for water, he would rush and get it for her; if she indicated that she was about to get up, he would place her slippers at her feet so that she could step into them. When she slept in the afternoon, he sat with a fan in his hand, fanning her.

Matters were the same at her own house. My uncle tried very lard to force him to eat or drink, but in vain. He did not touch anything there either. We were all amazed at how he survived without eating from morning to night. My aunt was really irritated by all this attention. She wanted him out of her sight and wished that she need never see him. Others would try and calm her: "What does it matter to you?  He is involved in his own quest. However, she was right to feel that way, for when she had to see the same face everywhere she went, she was bound to feel agitated.

When mother found out how well-educated he was, she became very respectful of him. Maulana liked my voice very much, but was critical of my singing. Once, irked by this, mother asked, "Why do you not teach her for an hour or two?''

So he agreed to teach me Urdu and Arabic. I categorically refused to learn Arabic. "I do not understand Arabic nor do I feel like learning it," I told them. He had wanted to teach me Arabic through translations.  Now I regret my obduracy and wish I had learnt Arabic. I lost such a good opportunity because of my  stubbornness.  But, how can one recapture time?

But he did teach me some things. The first of these was the meaning  of each couplet of the naat. He would correct every word, particularly the sounds of the letters qaaf and kaaf.  If I did not get the qaaf right he would place his thumb on my throat, press it hard,  and say, 'Now say qaaf.' I hated this and felt like killing him for doing it. He also used to emphasize the letters ayn, he and se. When he was satisfied with my reading, he would order, "Sing it now". When I sang, he would say the same thing. "If you pronounce the word correctly when you read it, why do you ruin it when you sing it?" He would  listen to the same couplet over and over again. Gently, he would say, "Hai,  how beautifully  you destroy the word in that wonderful voice of yours!" When this was not enough, he would try and imitate me even though he could not sing, and was never in tune or rhythm. I would get tired of repetition but he would not be satisfied. All he would ask was, "Do words change when they are sung?"

I began to hate him. I constantly wondered and prayed, "Allah, why has this curse attached itself to me? O God, free me from it." But there he was, without fail, every day. I was making fewer mistakes now, but sometimes I would still mispronounce a few words. If I made a mistake, he would wail, "Hai," as if he had been stung by a snake, "my heart is broken." I would say to myself, "May God really rupture your heart." I used to be so furious that every day I would pray that he would fall ill, break a leg or be bitten by a rabid dog, and not appear at our house again! In the morning there were three hours of learning from Mamman Khan, then another hour or two of singing lessons. In the evening it was ghazals and naats. Instead of praise, he only found fault, "Do not deliver it like that, do not pronounce it like this." For fear of my mother I could do nothing but curse him silently even though I hated him so much that I could not look at him for more than five minutes at a time. Often I prayed at the shrine of Hare Bhare Shah and Hazrat Nizamuddin to be rid of him, but he would turn up hale and hearty and on the dot, every day

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