I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Friday, May 27, 2011

....Of The Tall, Coquettish Beloved

Two of my most favorite Qawwali recordings are both markedly different  versions of the same beautiful ghazal of Amir Khusrau's, Aye Sarve Nazneene Mun, Az Mun Che Deeda-ee. I have tried my hand at translating it as best as I can, and I must admit I haven't done a very good job. Some of the verbs were a tad too obtuse for me, so I have taken more than my share of poetic license.


اے سرو نازنین من، از من چھ دیدہ ای 
یک بار مہر از من مسکین بریدہ ای 

اول وفا نمودی و بردی دل مرا 
آخر چھ شد کہ آ رض از من کشیدہ ای 

آرے بہ سیم و زر ہمہ کس بندہ می خرند
ما بندہ تویم کہ تو بے زر خریدہ ای 

فخرم بس است این کہ کمینہ سگ تویم
نازم برآں زماں کہ بہ لطفم وریدہ ای 

خسرو تو بس بلند شدی در قرین عشق 
گویا بہ پاے بوس سگا نش رسیدہ ای

O tall, coquettish beloved of mine; what change have you perceived in me?
 What has caused you to suddenly extinguish the benign light of your favors?

 First you displayed affection and whisked my heart away, and now;
What has occurred to make you withdraw the sight of your beauteous face?

Everyone buys slaves, paying handsomely in silver and gold.
Yet I am your slave, one that you bought free of cost.

It suffices my pride that I am a lowly dog living at your doorstep.
I am distinguished in the whole world, because you have blessed me with your pleasure.

Khusrau, you have reached great heights in your journey of love.
Now finally you are worthy of kissing the feet of the dogs of your beloved's alley.


 The first is from 1969 and features the four scions of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana - Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Bahauddin Khan, Manzoor Ahmed Niazi and Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami - presenting the kallam in the mellifluous Raag Anandi. This is taken from the exquisite performance - all of which can be heard at Qaul - that I have listened to hundreds of times and still can't get enough of. The slow, contemplative build-up, Bahauddin Khan's brilliant changes of taal and the brilliant collaborative singing make it an absolute gem. I have tweaked the recording a bit to equalize the sound and bring out the vocals. It is unquestionably one of my most favorite Qawwali recordings.

The second recording is by Haji Mehboob Qawwal from the seventies. A departure from Haji saheb's usual declarative style of singing, this version features no girahs. A stately mid-tempo arrangement interspersed with Haji Mushtaq's alaaps and short but beautiful takraars, it makes for delightful listening. Another recording that I've listened to hundreds of times, it ranks with the above recording among my most favorite ones.

P.S, If anyone can improve on my rather primitive translation, please feel free to do so in the comments.

Monday, May 23, 2011

....Of Me And Mr. Dylan, A Birthday List.

 I would've wished that I'd do at least five posts on Dylan's 70th, but being a doctor with 24-hour duties doesn't let me indulge my wishes. Still, as a bookend to my personal commemoration of Dylan's 70th birthday, here's a slightly modified something I wrote two years ago. Happy Birthday Mr. Bob, and thank you for everything.

Dylan's 70 today. I first heard him in '04, when he was 63," just a kid with a crazy dream" as Leonard Cohen says.
Time doesn't permit a 'proper post', but here's a random list of sorts of ten things that more or less chart my personal Dylan story..

First Listen : Late 2004, I think sometime after I had joined med school.

First Song : 'Like A Rolling Stone" from the Manchester Free Trade Hall '66 concert. (Some initiation !!)

First Dylan Record I bought : " Love And Theft"

First Dylan record I downloaded : "Bringing It All Back Home"

Greatest Gift I Ever Got : The complete Dylan discography, Don't Look Back, Bob Dylan : No Direction Home, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and the entire 1st season of Theme Time Radio Hour. All at once.

Current Harddrive Space Dylan Occupies : 25.45 gigs and counting.

Average Daily Trips To Expectingrain.com : 15

Number Of Dylan Books On My Shelf : 7

Theme Time Radio Hour : All three seasons. Plus the two compilation CD's.

Number Of Bootleg Albums : 54 (and counting)

Currently Listening To :

Abandoned Love :

Dark Eyes :

Carribean Wind :

Restless Farewell :

Last thoughts On Bobby's 70 : Happy Birthday Bob, keep on keepin' on !!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

....Of Me And Mr. Dylan - 'Loyal And Much Loved Companions'

One of the things I credit Bob Dylan for is turning me into a musical expeditionary. Bob's music introduced me to an amazing selection of people and songs and stories that have given me countless hours of joy. This also had the serendipitous effect of steering me away from the cult of the rabid Dylan fans that Ron Rosenbaum has christened Bobdolators. Because a while into my newfound obsession I realized that Dylan, although the brightest star in the sky, wasn't the only one. Over the years, as I've explored more and more of the musical constellation that Dylan inhabits, I've found that he's surrounded by a large and diverse group of brilliant stars, each shining with it's own distinctive and brilliant light.

The first thing that got me exploring was 'Chronicles'. I'd known for a while that Dylan had written an autobiography but I wasn't sure if I could find it somewhere around Rawalpindi. An inquiry to a local bookstore in Islamabad revealed they stocked it, so I rushed there and got a paperback copy. Having read a number of celebrity biographies, I wasn't sure what to expect. But Dylan exceeded whatever expectations I might've or could've had. It is such an absolutely delicious book, and Dylan writes with the same distinctive style that populates his greatest songs. Both concealing and revealing according to the whims of it's author, Chronicles gave an insight more into Dylan's mind than to his life. If he was stingy in proving accurate details in tems of what-where  and when, one thing he was generous in was paying tribute to musicians and artists who had inspired him. On and on he went, name checking everyone from Johnny Cash and Elvis to obscure artists like Karen Dalton and Slim Whitman. I knew I had to listen to these folks, these people who had left such an indelible mark on Dylan's life and music. I also realized at once that it was a nearly impossible task considering the sheer number of people Dylan had mentioned (conveniently and painstakingly listed here). But thanks to Chronicles, I discovered such jaw-droppingly magnificent singers like Karen Dalton (“My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”), Johnny Ray, Lord Buckley, Dave Van Ronk and countless others.

It was around the same time that I watched Martin Scorcese's brilliant No Direction Home. To me, it was like the continuation of Chronicles. It was Dylan himself, telling his story with a little help from his friends. He was warm, funny and revealing. The archival footage and the interviews - some of them with people who had since then passed away - were phenominal. But what got me buzzed up were the painfully brief audio and video clips of the artists that had been associated with Dylan in one way or the other. Some of the artists and songs referenced in the film were absolutely breathtaking, and the minute I'd finished watching the film (and watching it a second time immediately after|), I set about trying to find recordings from the artists seen in those clips. Suffice to say that today I can't imagine not having the great Odetta , Muddy Waters , The Clancy Brothers And Tommy Makem or Hank Williams.

Most of the artists and songs that Dylan had introduced me to were people from Dylan's youth or from before his time, direct or indirect influences. It was partly because of my daily scouring of Expecting Rain that I started listening to Dylan's peers and contemporaries. I had only known Neil Young as the guy who sang 'Heart Of Gold', but I decided to give him a listen and I was blown away. Suffice to say that within two weeks, ol' Shakey was my hero and 'On The Beach' was one of my favorite albums (it still is). The first time I heard Tom Waits was one of the most earthshakingest experiences of my life, comparable to the first time I'd heard Dylan.These three -Dylan,Young and Waits- remain my musical Holy Trinity. Later, others joined in. Again, I was introduced to them because of their association with Bob. More often than not, they had the misfortune of being saddled with the title of 'the next Bob Dylan'. People like the amazing Townes van Zandt, Warren Zevon, Jeff Buckley, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty etc. Pretty soon, the Trinity had it's apostles and the church was rockin' down to it's foundations.

The final part of my musical education was again carried out by Dylan himself, in what must count among his greatest creations - your friendly DJ , spinnin' the tracks on arguably the greatest radio show ever - Theme Time Radio Hour. The artist name for TTRH on my iPod is 'Uncle Bob', and I think that's the persona Dylan adapted for the show. Since I couldn't get Sirius sattleite radio here in Pakistan, I religiously downloaded the shows on MP3 every week for two years, and they form a priceless part of what I'm not ashamed to call my 'musical education'. Dylan sang a capella , read recipes, mused on all topics under the sun, got taped messages from Tom Waits, and played music from his (and producer Eddie Gorodetsky's) record collection. In each show, I was gauranteed to find one or two absolutely hair raising performances, from artists as varied as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Clash, Charlie Parker, Elvis Costello and Los Lobos. It was ballsburstingly exciting for me to listen in each week and discover one brilliant artist after the other. Around the same time that a friend gave me the complete, 93 CD 'Blues Collection' that contained most of the more obscure artists Dylan played on his radio show. (Yes, my friends have impeccable taste). Since then' I've spent many a hour, enjoying the sheer brilliance of people like Professor Longhair, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Tampa Red, Wynonie Harris et al.

The debt I owe to Dylan for directly or indirectly introducing me to this absolute musical treasure is enormous. It has provided me (and will continue to provide me) company and companionship in times of happiness, loneliness and sorrow. I can't imagine my life today without having listened to any of the artists mentioned above. On this 24th, when I think about Bob on his 70th birthday, I'll be sure to add another thank-you to a long list, a thank-you to Uncle Bob for introducing me to his 'loyal and much loved companions'.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

....Of Me And Mr. Dylan - 'Born In Time'

She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”

I guess I discovered Dylan at the most opportune time possible. I was 17, just finishing high school and preparing to join Medical School. This involved, among other things, moving from Jhelum - a modestly big city - to Rawalpindi - a proper 'big city'. Rawalpindi had, in my opinion, the greatest record store in all of Pakistan - Sadaf CD's - a place that was tragically destroyed in an unfortunate fire in 2008. It was at Sadaf that I bought my first Dylan record, the only one they stocked - The Essential Bob Dylan. In hindsight, it was lucky for me that a compilation album was my first Dylan record, because in these two CD's, I got to hear a pretty good sampling of Dylan's career from 1962 to the end of the nineties. So that I was blown away by the beauty of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" one instant, and laughing bemusedly at "Quinn The Eskimo" the next. The drunken hilarity of "Rainy Day Women #12 And #35" was followed by the evangelical earnestness of "Gotta Serve Somebody".

Over the course of two hours and two CD's, I tried to digest - or at least swallow - four decades of Dylan, from Blowin' In The Wind to Things Have Changed. The album was on constant rotation on my discman for two weeks, to the point where I literally wore out the discs. I was entranced by the lyrics - not understanding them but nevertheless being moved - , the melody and Bob's singing style. The selections were all from studio albums, so there was a minimum of Bob's infamous live performance mumble-drawl-growl-yelp on display, but still, the voice was something new for me. As I've written somewhere earlier, English music for most of my childhood began and ended with John -Sweet 'n Melodious- Denver, followed by a brief infatuation with boy-bands. Dylan was my first experience of a ,howshallIputit, an unusual voice. It was a voice that for lesser artists would have been a liability, but Bob's delivery, his phrasing turned it into almost a distinct musical instrument. It was later, when I discovered Tom Waits and Neil Young, that I realized that Bob wasn't the only genius blessed with a distinctive voice.

Two weeks after I had bought my first record, I was back in the record store, scouring their shelves for something, anything by Dylan. They had only one other Dylan album - Love And Theft. I wasn't sure if latter-day Dylan would be to my liking or not, but a Dylan record was a Dylan record. I bought it, brought it to my dorm room and popped it on the discman. I was in for a shock, unless I was too addled by my new found admiration for Dylan or latter-day Dylan was just as absolutely amazing- if not more - as the Dylan of the mid-sixties. The voice was clearly shot, but man was he rocking! In one album, he was crooning - in Bye And Bye and Moonlight, belting out the blues in Lonesome Day Blues and Honest With Me, and weaving lyrical magic - in Mississippi and Floater(Too Much To Ask). Here was the brilliant tongue-in-cheek wit of Leopard Skin Piil-Box Hat and Bob Dylan's 115th Dream all over again in lyrics like

Romeo, he said to Juliet, “You got a poor complexion
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!”
Juliet said back to Romeo, “Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much”

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?”
She says, “I gave it to you, you drank it”

That's when I discovered 'my' Dylan. To me, he was not a protest singer, a folkie or a folk-rocker, a relic of the sixties or the seventies. My Dylan was a current, relevant artist who was very much a part of the present and not a relic of the past. Over time, thanks to a friend gifting me the complete Dylan discography - to this day, the greatest gift I've ever recieved - , I'd spend months at a time exploring the various eras of Dylan's career, but overwhelmingly, the Dylan I related to was modern Dylan. As I wrote to a friend around this time four years ago :

"It's Bob Dylan's birthday today, the 66th,and I'm sittin here listening to the Basement Tapes,thinking of writing a post 'bout the grand old man... The seventh Harry Potter book,finally time for closure to childhood.Dunno why,but it feels like I've been part of something while reading 'em. I mean,I wasn't there when the Beatles were there,or when The Catcher In The Rye came out,or when the Lord Of The Rings was published,or when whatever happened. That part of our collective conscience has been passed down to us through others older than us.
        But this has been going on in front of me,In my own lifetime,and I've taken part in it in a way.I mean,I'll be able to tell my children one day,(highly unlikely)as they pore at my dog-eared copies of the Potter books,"Yeah laddie,I was there when these came out,and I read each one of 'em hot off the presses !!"
          That's the case with Dylan as well.His work from the '60s,'70s and '80s,although magnificent,is not that personal.But Modern Bob,that's my personal Dylan.He's all the more personal 'coz he's doing it all in front of my own eyes. When he says, 'The future for me is already a thing of the past", you can almost feel yourself nodding and saying, 'I get what you're saying,man.'. I hope I got the meaning across....."

 It was after Love And Theft that I initiated myself into the cult of the Bobsessives. Expecting Rain became my internet home-page, I eagerly read the set-lists and reviews after each Dylan concert and started counting down to the new album that was going to be released, "Modern Times". I remember pre-ordering the album and walking a mile to the record store to get it the day it arrived. It was just half a minute into the first track that I discovered that 'my' Dylan was at it again,

"I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee"

As Bob turns seventy, I thank the fates that he's still at it. Still touring, still releasing albums and still keepin' on at what he does best,  reinventing popular music, not tied down by half a century of creative output; living up to the challenge he so confidently threw in the brilliant Spirit On The Water :

You think I'm over the hill,
You think I'm past my prime?
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time!!

All lyrics  Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music

 In the next installment, I write about Uncle Bob and his extended family..

Thursday, May 19, 2011

....Of Me And Mr. Dylan - A 'New Morning'

"My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence.
She doesn't have to say she's faithful
Yet she's true like ice, like fire".

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

I have been putting off Dylan posts ever since I started this blog. There's just so much to say that the thought of writing it all down makes my lazy bones tremble. But now that the great man's turning 70 and it seems that everyone and their mothers have lined up to pay tribute,it only seems fair that I should overcome my procastrination and get writing.. Still, there’s too much to say for a single post. So, laziness permitting, what follows is a series of posts, all of which deal basically with Dylan and how he's affected me…

This first post is about the start of my personal Dylan journey.

I thought I’d begin from the beginning, from the first Dylan song I ever heard. It was “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and I still wonder how everything would’ve turned out if it had been Dylan himself singing it. As it turns out, it was Rod Stewart. I was in seventh grade and had just bought one of the "Princess Diana Tribute" albums on tape from the local record store. This was immediately after my embarrassing but thankfully short dabbling in Boy-bands (still makes me wake up shuddering at night) and my desire to break free from the all enveloping John Denver.

Of all the songs on the tape, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” struck me. It was a mixture of Rod Stewart’s ragged “lost boy” voice and the strangely appealing lyrics. It would be presumptuous to say that I understood what the song meant. I didn’t. But I could see the astounding images, see them crystal clear.

“…draw conclusions on the wall.”

“…in ceremonies of the horsemen,
Even the pawn must hold a grudge.”

“The bridge at midnight trembles…”

“The wind howls like a hammer…”

I didn’t know who had written the song, of course. It was only later that I found out. That was the end of that till about seven years ago. By that time I had made up for my earlier misadventures and gradually developed an ear for passable music. What I remember clearly is a series of three events coming in rapid succession that finally got me hooked.

The first was a Readers’ Digest article written by His Bobness himself, about his relationship with Woody Guthrie. Now Guthrie I knew; had read up on him and heard snippets of a few of his songs. Thus Dylan’s name was linked with Woody’s and a relationship had developed.

The second was getting to see Dylan perform. Random channel-flipping brought me to an ubiquitous music channel and there he was. It was a snippet from the MTV Unplugged sessions, hardly the right stuff for a neophyte, and he was singing "Dignity", the outtake from the "Oh Mercy" album. That thin reedy frame,that frumpled mess of hair, those strange, almost Tourette's like twitches and that voice.... this was something new and interesting.

I must admit I was hooked.A quick google of Dylan's name showed one song title again and again, "Like A Rolling Stone". A quick trip to a file sharing site (God bless 'em !!) resulted in a listing of almost a dozen versions of the song (this was before I stopped being amazed by Dylan's chameleon-like re-interpretive skills). I randomly selected one and put it on download. The name of the track was, "Like A Rolling Stone - MAnchester Free Trade Hall 1966". Little did I know that I had, in Dylan's own words,  "bargained for salvation an' they gave me a lethal dose." I played the song, there was a second of silence before someone said "Play it f*ckin' loud!!" and suddenly, a snare-drum went boom! What followed were eight minutes of the purest, most brain-meltingly alive rock and roll I had ever heard. Guitar licks and organ pieces fought with each other behind the impudent screech-howl that was Bob's voice. At the end of those eight minutes, I was an honest-to-goodness convert. I still think that if I'd heard any other version , even the studio version of 'LARS', it wouldn't have affected me the way that (as I was to find out later) legendary recording did. It was like a 'Corkscrew to my heart' and Dylan had found his way in.

In the next installment, I'll write about how, among all his various faces and phases, I found 'my' Dylan.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

...Of Five Forgotten Voices

One of the many things I try in order to get myself out of ruts like the one I have been in for the past month and a half is to make lists. Lists help me organize the clutter that is my mind and provide me with rudimentary scaffolding on which I can string up the one or two ideas that I may have. More often than not, my blogger's block stems from having an excess of, rather than a dearth of ideas, topics and themes to write about. The photo/video studded posts about my Great Roadtrip remain unwritten, my photographing trips across Lahore remain undocumented and the long-brewing piece on Dylan languishes in the drafts (though that is something I should push to the front of the 'pending' cue given Bob's 70th birthday in less than two weeks time.) So today, on one of those rare occasions called 'a day off', I've decided to force myself to sit down and finish two posts that are all but complete and have only my extraordinary sloth to blame for being kept from the reading public.

The hallmark of a great book is that not only does it enlighten/entertain/inform during the read itself, it opens up new avenues of thought and exploration that go on long after the book's been read. Possibly my most rewarding read of the year has been Raza Ali Abidi's "Naghma Gar", an exhaustive history of songwriting and popular songs in the subcontinent. I've already written about one of the many amazing new songs/musicians/singers that I've discovered after reading about them in the book. A tangential effect has been a re-exploration of some of my favorite musical touchstones from the golden age of Sub-continental film music (which I now think spans three decades rather than just two). One of the things I discovered was that a lot of great music and great talent lies forgotten, and it's not just because of the dusts of time that cover it. Names like Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Rafi sahab, even Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, Shamshad Begum etc are known to most people with mnore than a passing interest in old film music. But there are certain artists that were headed for obscurity even before their careers were over.

The history of Playback singing in Bollywood has been of two or three towering figures, with other artists restricted to secondary billing. There were Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh and Talat and there were the Mangeshkar sisters, and for all practical purposes, that was it. People like Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey, Bhupinder and Mahendra Kapoor among the men and Geeta Dutt, Suman Kalyanpur, Suraiyya, Shamshad Begum etc among the women were more like bit players in the industry and their contributions, though great, can not compare to the handful of "superstars" that reigned over Bollywood film music. An interesting observation is that there was still a sizeable number of men singing in Bollywood, with each having his own distinctive voice suited for his own type of song. Among the women, the story was different.

The arrival on the scene of Lata Mangeshkar (and what an arrival !!) in 1949 sounded the death knell for the careers of a number of playback singers who had been jointly ruling the roost since the mid '30s. Their more 'mature' voices soon lost favour with cinemagoers who preferred the sweeter, younger voice of Lata. Over the years, as the Mangeshkar sisters strengthened their hold over Bollywood playback, the careers of many promising singers fell by the way-side as a result of a combination of professional intrigue and audience tastes. Some names are still remembered as smaller stars on the firmament, but there are a few who shone so briefly that their names have all been forgotten. That is a pity, because even though they shone for a painfully brief moment, they produced a most brilliant light. What follows is a selection of performances from five of the most gifted singers ever to have sung playback, who are now sadly, all but forgotten.

Mubarak Begum

I first wrote about Mubarak Begum three years ago. At the time, she was living in absolute obscurity. At one time, she was among one of the most promising singers of Bollywood with a number of hits under her belt. But her fall into obscurity was sudden. When I heard of her, she was in her seventies, living in a one room house in the Bombay slums with a daughter who suffered from early onset Parkinson's and a son who barely made ends meet as a Taxi-driver. Thankfully, as a result of efforts of a number of her fans, she has been somewhat rehabilitated. She regularly performs and has a steady (though still small) source of income. I still remember the first time I heard her voice, it was hair-raising, crystal clear, sharp as a dagger and very mellifluous. I've heard a few of her other songs, but the one that still moves me the most is the first one I heard, "Kabhi Yanhaiyon Main Yun Hamari Yaad Ayegi" from the film "Hamari Yaad Ayegi". It's a haunting melody, and Mubarak sings it with immense feeling, making an obscure song from an obscure film by an obscure music director one of the great musical performances of the golden age of Playback.

Jagjit Kaur
Another of the 'niche singers' who made a small but extremely important contribution to the Indian playback industry is Jagjit Kaur. The wife of the great music director Khayyam, Jagjit started singing in the mid-fifties, mostly for films scored by her husband. If I were to use just one song to introduce someone to her work, it would be from 1964's Shagun, which features some of the most beautiful music and lyrics of any film from that era. This isn't surprising considering it was scored by Khayyam and had lyrics by the great Sahir Ludhainvi. It also contains Jagjit Kaur's signature tune, one of the greatest songs in Bollywood's history. Picturised on Nivideta, with the luminous Waheeda Rehman and her husband Kanwaljeet providing the requisite emotional backdrop, "Tum Apna Ranj-o-Ghum,Apni Pareshani Mujhe De Do" is an amazing evocation of the love that's been lost but still lingers in the heart, a tenderness that persists despite betrayal and separation.

Jagjit Kaur kept on singing sporadically, again mainly compositions by her husband. Highlights from her later career include "Dekh Lo Aaj Hum Ko Ji Bhar Ke" from 1982's 'Bazar', which again featured brilliant Khayyam compositions, and her duet with Khayyam on his beautiful composition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's "Kab Yaad Main Tera Saath Nahi".

Meena Kapoor

From the wife of one great music director to the wife of another. Meena Kapoor was a semi-successful playback singer who started her career in the late '40s. One of her earliest hits was from 1947's Shehnai, "Sunday Ke Sunday" the super-hit novelty/comedy number that Meena Kapoor sung with Shamshad Begum and the film's music director C. Ramchandra. Early in the fifties, she married the legendary composer Anil Biswas and all but left the film industry, instead dedvoting her time to her family. One of her greatest songs was "Kuch Aur Zaman Kehta Hai" for a film that was significant for a number of reasons. "Choti Choti Baatain" was the last film scored by Anil Biswas, it was a labour of love produced by one of Bollywood's greatest character actors, Motilal and starred him and his wife, the ravishing Nadira in lead roles. Sadly, the film was a failure and Motilal died before seeing it completed. Thus, it was the bookend to four Bollywood careers that had flourished with varying degrees of success.

Zohrabai Ambalewali

One of pre-partition cinema's greatest singers, Zohrabai had one of those full-throated, deep voices that exuded a sort of rustic maturity that was to disappear from Bollywood following the arrival of Lata Mangeshkar. Her greatest songs were for Naushad and  Master Ghulam Haider. The songs of 1944's Rattan are especially beautiful, scored by Naushad in his star-making turn and picturised on Karan Devan and a young Swarnalata (who later migrated to Pakistan to become the country's first female film producer). She didn't sing much after partition, restricting herself to ghazals in stage performances, but her expressive voice lives on in the few recordings that remain. Her greatest hit was from Rattan, a song that catapulted both the singer and the music director to instant fame.


The final artist in this list is the great Rajkumari, one of the most beautiful voices of Indian film. She started her career as a singing actress in the late '30s but soon had to quit acting because in her own words she 'couldn't keep herself off food' and gained a lot of weight. But a loss for the screen was a gain for the listening public as she concentrated on her voice and soon became one of the pre-eminent singers of the pre-partition era. After partition, her career slowed down to a few songs per year. She however had two superhit films to her credit in the immediate post-partition years, 1950's "Bawre Nain" in which she provided playback for the vivacious Geeta Bali, and 1949's Kamal Amrohi masterpiece "Mahal", a film that heralded a great change in the Indian film industry. It thrust a young Madhubala into superstardom and it provided Lata Mangeshkar with her first, career altering hit. Scored by the immensely talented Khemchand Prakash (who unfortunately died rather young), Mahal was an immaculately produced supernatural thriller and early Noir that still holds up more than 60 years later as one of the greatest films produced in the sub-continent. Rajkumari sang one of the film's, and indeed Indian cinema's most haunting songs, "Ghabra Ke Jo Hum Sar Ko Takrayen To Accha Ho"

Unfortunately, after Rajkumari's career fizzled out, she was reduced to penury and made her living singing in the backing choruses on film songs. It was while she was singing on the chorus for another great Kamal Amrohi film, 1972's "Pakeezah" that she was spotted by Naushad, who thought her condition exceedingly pitiful, having worked with her in her heydey. He offered her the chance to sing one of the thumris he had composed for the film and so Rajkumari sang for the first time in nearly two decades.

Rajkumari lived out her last days in strained circumstances, occasionally going on stage to perform songs from her golden days. She died in 2000 at a broken down house in Bombay.

  As a footnote to this list of some of the greatest singers of the 20th Century is another song from Kamal Amrohi's Mahal. It is sung by two of the luminaries mentioned above, Zohrabai Ambalewali and Rajkumari. Everything that made the film a masterpiece is evident in the song - from the haunting melody to the brilliant cinematography to the expressive and emotive performances. Also, the song serves as a final glimpse at the passing parade of Old Bollywood at the brink of a major upheaval, when the faces, voices and names of the pre-partition era were suddenly thrust aside to make way for the new lot that was to rule sub-continental film for the next three decades.

Zohrabai Ambalewali And Rajkumari - "Yeh Raat Beet Jayegi, Jawani Phir Na Ayegi"