Yesterday, I went to a Farida Khanum performance at Kamani Auditorium. According to me, this is one of the signs that you are finally growing up - when you realise you now like the same kind of music that your mother does.
This doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly into Ghazals overnight – it’s just that this particular woman has, according to me, the most beautiful voice in the whole world. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I knew and judged this through the one song I’ve heard of hers over and over again – the ubiquitous ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’.
However, I am a little ashamed, to admit that when my mother mentioned this upcoming performance, my first reaction was ‘Farida Khanum is still alive?’. I had already mentally written her off as one of the greats of a past era. However, I quickly got over her non-death and decided to accompany Mum for the concert.
Vijay was a bit sceptical. ‘You’ll probably just like that one song, if she sings it, and get bored during the rest’. I think he was just jealous that he couldn’t make it, being in Bombay and all.
So we got there yesterday evening at 6.15 p.m., and just in the nick of time. The authorities, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to issue approximately three times the number of passes than the number of available seats. Apparently, right after we entered, they shut the gates, and there was danger of a real riot taking place outside – the furious crowd was actually threatening to break the gates down. In fact, Farida Khanum was herself 20 minutes late because they weren’t opening the gates to let her and her accompanying musicians inside!
She came in eventually and took her seat. She was dressed in this pretty, shiny, pinkish sari and she gave me the impression of being a nice, big birthday cake with delicate pink frosting. I don’t actually know how old she is, but she didn’t look particularly decrepit or anywhere near being on her deathbed as I had imagined. She exuded a great deal of charm, and I could almost swear that from the minute she took her place on the stage, the aroma of beteljuice or supari, whether real or imagined, reached me in the 8th row, and for once, it was not altogether unpleasant at all. The real magic began when she started to speak - her voice was so low, pleasant and soothing, and her entire manner so humble and winning, that it didn’t matter to me that I couldn’t understand half the words she was using. Urdu is such a beautiful language to listen to, I must learn it sometime.
And then she sang! Wow. There is absolutely no way to describe her singing. I have decided that you have to be a real writer to be able to accurately describe her singing, or maybe it’s just not possible. For me, the only thing I can think of is that her listening to her singing is like the vocal equivalent of warm chocolate melting slowly in your mouth – and that the occasional break that you get from her smooth flowing voice, in the form of a sudden heady rasp, is like the finding of an unexpected, delicious piece of chocolate chip that needs to be separately savoured for a moment. Damn- I think I am obsessed with food. Don’t worry, I’ll work on it. One day, I will find that description.
Surprisingly, after two of her songs, somebody yelled out a request to her. I thought it was rather rude, I didn’t know this kind of thing was acceptable. But Farida just said ‘Acchha Ji, Acchi Baat’ and accommodated the request. After this, it was a mixture of her performing her prepared songs, and the audience getting louder and louder with their requests. Some people were rude enough to yell out while she was actually speaking and describing the history behind a particular song, but she still continued to be supremely polite and charming and accommodated almost every request, pulling out three or four different diaries to refresh her memory of the lyrics, in some cases. Of course, I was secretly pleased when some silly boor yelled ‘Aaj Jaane ki Zid Na Karon’ and the whole audience applauded in unanimous agreement– and then, she actually sang it and blew me away even further. The only sad thing about this was that everybody in the hall had apparently heard of this song, with the sole exception of her tabla player, who blatantly refused to get the taal right - despite her attempts to gracefully direct him with elegant waves of her chubby white arm. It says something that despite this impediment, she still managed to effortlessly squeeze out this beautiful song with great poise.
But unlike Vijay’s sour prediction, I actually enjoyed every single song that she sang though I fervently wished I could understand the inherent shayari within each song. As it was, I clapped along but couldn’t bring myself to actually say ‘Wah, wah’ like the rest of the audience, at lines which were apparently particularly poignant. I also wished Vijay was around to translate – and oh, he would have loved the entire thing, too.
As usual, there were also the typical cretins who were rude enough to talk on their phones during the performance – ‘Haan, bolo. Mein Farida Khanum ko sun raha hoon, Kamani mein. Nahin, nahin...Bolo, na!’. I wanted to swoop down on them like an eagle, snatch their phones and run away – but the great thing was that Farida’s voice was so all-powerful that I could actually tune these people out so it really didn’t matter, for once. In fact, at one point, the authorities had to let in the restless crowd waiting outside into the hall (something they should have done in the very beginning) and they all piled in sat around on the floor, or leaning against the wall, a noisy mixture of self righteous indignation and triumph at having finally entered– but Farida just continued to sing, without batting an eyelid.
The performance went on for around 2.5 hours without a break - and proof of how much I enjoyed it lies in the fact that I held my urge to pee for over 45 minutes, before eventually stepping on a lot of toes, (deliberately aiming for as many cell phone cretins as I could manage), to get out and relieve myself.
Overall, it was absolutely magical.
Yes, maybe I’m getting old now and I’m sure a lot of my friends will be a bit taken aback to read this post. All this from the girl who some years back would float around Delhi University in baggy jeans with a guitar slung over her shoulder, singing Alanis songs at the fests? But what the heck! That was then, this is now. I still like Alanis. I can like Farida Khanum too. And frankly, if growing up or growing old, whatever you call it, means being able to appreciate something so beautiful – well, it ain’t half bad!
One final thing – another bit of slightly strange behaviour I observed was that some people were recording her on their fancy cell phones. I don’t particularly mind this because it is quite non-intrusive. But I don’t understand the mentality. She is right there in front of you, singing for you - live! Enjoy it and be in the moment, for once!
It’s potentially almost spiritual.
(I was going to end this post with a couple of the video clips we took on my Mum’s fancy cell phone, but decided against it – the video quality wasn’t that great and didn’t do justice to the Begum's performance. So you will just have to imagine it!)