Voice from across



“Music lovers in Pakistan have grown up listening to stalwarts like Mehndi Hasan, Farida Khanum, Ghulam Ali, Iqbal, Noor Jahan and Amanat Ali Khan Sahib, and it is only natural for them to expect extraordinary talent. It is a very discerning audience that expects singers to have their own style,” she adds.
Sani, a recipient of Pakistan’s highest civilian award — the President’s Pride of Performance in 2004 — recently enthralled audiences in New Delhi when she performed along with Peenaz Masani. The duo came together at the invitation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and Routes 2 Roots, a non-profit organisation.

In fact, the ghazal singer with the golden voice established an instant rapport with her listeners, even as she paid rich tribute to the poetic genius of Ghalib by referring to Delhi as the city of Mirza Ghalib.

Sani’s musical journey began in 1979 when she started leaning from Ustad Nizamuddin Khan Sahib, son of Ustad Ramzan Khan Sahib of the Delhi ‘gharana’. She hails from a family that loves music and is deeply indebted to her father, a petroleum engineer, who encouraged her to pursue her dream. “In school, everybody liked my voice but it was only after my graduation that I began learning music from Ustad Nizamuudin Khan Sahib. He taught me to pronounce words correctly,” she recalls.
Professionally, she began by recording ghazals for the Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV). “PTV’s auditions were very tough. I made my debut on the channel in 1980 and was very lucky that my very first song, a Punjabi rendition, became a big hit,” Sani says happily.

From that point, her career as an artiste took off. In the beginning, Sani had to resist pressure from producers to try pop music. “I loved western music but was absolutely adamant about doing ghazals. I am a purist. I like qawaali, ghazal and classical music in its pure form. Even today, I work with acoustic instruments — no synthesisers, no drum machines, no guitars for me. I don’t think an artiste should be made to go through the misery of singing all kinds of music,” she feels.
Sani was content with televised performances till her husband persuaded her to go for live concerts. Now, of course, she is convinced that ghazals are a very communicative genre and it thrills her to establish a rapport with her audience. But she also fears that if conscious efforts are not made to encourage this form of singing, which originated in Iran in the 10th century AD, it may fade away. “I would give full credit to PTV in helping me evolve as an artiste and promoting ghazals in a big way. But the pool of ghazal singers is shrinking,” she says.

Nevertheless, in the Indian Sub-continent, Pakistan has the largest number of ghazal singers. Not many of them, however, have stepped out of their country. “We have a lot of voice variety in Pakistan. There are women Sufi singers in Sindh who don’t come out. It’s nobody’s fault that I have come to India after so many years of singing in Pakistan. I have had such great backing in my home country. We have a pool of very talented ghazal singers — there’s Mehnaz Begum, Tarannum Naz and Abida Parveen, to name a few,” she says.

In fact, Sani has been inspired by many of her seniors and contemporaries. “Madam Noor Jehan sounded her best in the Seventies but she was more of a film singer. I had the good fortune of seeing her in the EMI studio in Karachi in the early 1980s. EMI was an institution in Pakistan at that time. I learnt from Khan Sahib Mehndi Hasan in the early Eighties. He has been my source of inspiration. It was he who first sang the ghazal like a ‘raga’ without actually sacrificing the ghazal.”
She speaks about Farida Khanum and Ghulam Ali in equally glowing terms: “I absolutely revere Farida Khanum for her tonality. And Ghulam Aliji had a style that was extremely difficult to emulate.” Does she have any Indian favourites? “I really like Hari Haranji. I heard him on tape. We get lots of Indian music in Pakistan. But Begum Akhtar remains my favourite Indian ghazal singer,” she says.

Sani was in India — where she was “absolutely at home” — for a fortnight and was happy with the overwhelming response her concerts received in Delhi, Chandigarh and Hyderabad. She also plans to come back to perform in the holy city of Amritsar, Punjab, at the invitation of the Faiz Foundation in October.

Besides her musical engagements she found time for some sight-seeing as well. She visited the ‘dargah’ (shrine) in Ajmer; Ghalib ki Haweli, Humayun’s Tomb and Nizamuddin Aulia ‘dargah’ in Delhi; and the Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad.
But while ghazal singing is her passion, Sani feels strongly about many other concerns as well. She says, “I believe in the power of cultural diplomacy. It’s a lot to do with people to people contact.” Asked if Pakistan is fair to its women, she remarks, “I’m a total product of Pakistan, born and bred there. As a society, we are very tough on ourselves. Global perceptions about Pakistan are shaped by a very candid national media and an international media that has a pinhole vision.”
Coming back to her first love, ghazals, Sani reveals, “I sing classic poetry of great masters such as Ghalib, Firaq, Meer, Daagh, Allama Iqbal, and even Bahadur Shah Zafar (she sang some of his works during her concert in Hyderabad). From the modern times, I give voice to the contemporary works of women poets like Parveen Shakir, Fahmida Riaz and Zehra Nigah.”

She has even been flooded with requests from young women who want to learn ghazal singing but she is reluctant to teach. “It is very difficult to impart knowledge as a creative artiste,” she says.

But Sani is brimming with ideas in terms of experimenting with the form. “By the end of this year or early next year, I will be going to Spain with my musicians to record Masjad-e-Qartab (a mosque in Spain called Cordoba), considered to be one of the finest ‘nazm’ by Allama Iqbal. Besides, I have started doing Rumi’s poetry. I want to bring together the works of Sufi saints — be it Kabir, Baba Bullehshah or Hafiz. My association with Sufi poetry has brought me to Multan, the city of saints with an incredible history. I am a member of the board of Multan College of Art in Bahauddin Zakaria University. I also want to encourage Sufi tourism. Sufism binds cultures of Aghanistan, Iran, Turkey and the entire Indian Sub-continent,” she says enthusiastically.

Here is a woman who knows how to touch the high note — not just in terms of music but poetry as well.

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