Roshan Ara Begum: The kheyal queen | Art & Culture |

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Roshan Ara Begum: The kheyal queen | Art & Culture |

The tastes in music have changed so much that the younger fans will have difficulty in recognising Roshan Ara Begum. For them, anything that happened before the dawn of the twenty-first century belongs to a distant past. The psychological barrier is so huge that it creates a distance that seems to be wholly decisive: something that happened in the last century needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Particularly with the post-modern approach, the historical process is becoming more and more meaningless. There is little respect for the evolution of an idea, institution or an art form. It is a characteristic trait of the present age that references to time and space no longer carry any intellectual significance.

The second most important change has been the very free interaction between cultures and societies at a physical level, especially at the level of exchanges facilitated through the digital media. No part of the world is unseen and unknown. Everything is accessible; given the gadget in your hand it is just a click away. The exposure is fleeting and does not really sink in for maturation. Such processes are probably seen to be redundant, obsolete and irrelevant to the contemporary needs.

The result is an eclectic formation, a rushed togetherness, a jumble that has fallen in one place at one time, or just a collection that does not configure into a whole, or a gradual maturation that comes about with age and time. It appears to be a heap, a collection of things being put together without a design. It’s just that time has smoothed its rough edges. The reality is eclectic and the truth is to experience the various strands without bothering too much to weave them into a single thread.

To such a generation, Roshan Ara Begum might just appear to be a relic. Classical music itself was on the verge of becoming a relic with the creation of Pakistan where the pull of more popular forms ensured their existence and then growth. The older system of patronage had disappeared overnight with the abolition of the princely states and the debates about the cultural identity of the new state ran counter to the syncretic worth of its cultural heritage. As a result, for 10 odd years she lived in a small town, Lala Musa, only occasionally travelling to Lahore to sing for the radio when requested. She was no more than a village woman whom the world had almost forgotten.

Being the leading kheyal vocalist, she probably made the decision to migrate to Pakistan because she preferred marital security over public presence and fame. And there she was, a housewife spending her days supervising household chores, juggling and managing a joint family and the extended unit of her husband’s domestic outfit.

However, she was eventually rescued from anonymity and made to re-familiarise herself to the role of a public performer. This, once again brought her in touch with a life where she could be the musical voice of the collective rather than just address the concerns of one household.


Khurshid Shahid, then a young vocalist and a radio broadcaster got to know Roshan Ara Begum as an adoring fan. She got close enough to become a young disciple. As an admirer, she won her confidence to be invited to stay in the boondocks of Lala Musa and spend some time seeing and assessing one of the greatest vocalists of her time tending the cattle, managing the kitchen and addressing the issues of the extended family totally imbued in the familial manner of rural Punjab. However, tucked somewhere was her tanpura, which she was forced to unwrap on the persistent entreaties of her shagird, tune it and give a few lessons after securing the doors and windows of her room.

The real forte of Roshan Ara Begum was not the lighter forms of singing, not even the semi-classical numbers that she sang often on popular demand. Those were sung on requests from those who had heard her ustad, Abdul Karim Khan sing the thumris. It was really to remember the genius of Abdul Karim Khan and a way of paying tribute that she sang these thumris as she knew that she was not the greatest of thumri singers, certainly no patch on her great mentor.

Kheyal is the elaboration of the notes in a certain pattern that follows the tonal structure of the raga. Roshan Ara Begum’s expansion of the raga, her command over taans and her very subtle division of the rhythmic cycle, laikari, were exemplary. These aspects cannot be seen as isolated instances of virtuosity. Rather, they rather have to be seen in the perspective of a gradual musical buildup that a vocalist or an instrumentalist aspires for. This cannot be achieved in a song format where one asthai and two antaras are ensconced in an orchestral arrangement.

The last time Roshan Ara Begum performed was at the Alhamra. She was as usual very composed, her un-aging self. For more than an hour, she sang her favourite raga, Shudh Kalyan. This was followed by a thumri in jhanjhoti. As usual, her performance was flawless; the sur was just as forceful and steady, the delivery very clear. Her performance always maintained a certain level, at times she was brilliant and really excelled, inspired by the moment. Otherwise, she was very professional and competent and hardly ever faltered. That evening performance could not have predicted that this was going to be her last performance. However, it was. She died in the first week of December, 1982.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

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