Mubarak Begum

Song of solitude

Print edition : August 19, 2016

In a recording studio. Opportunity seldom knocked at her door. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Mubarak Begum at the women's Prerna Awards in Mumbai in 2013. Photo: PTI

Mubarak Begum (1936-2016) found sustenance in the scarce opportunities that came her way and with such grace.

SONGS were her life. And her life was a sad song. Fate never doled out a rich slice to Mubarak Begum. Living at a time when Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum and Lata Mangeshkar ruled the roost, it was only crumbs that came her way. At a time when many singers got to sing all the songs in a film, Mubarak Begum got merely a song or two in the films she did. Music directors, not ready to challenge the supremacy of Lata Mangeshkar, seldom reserved their best creations for Mubarak Begum or indeed for the likes of Suman Kalyanpur and Sudha Malhotra. But Suman Kalyanpur stood to benefit from Mohammed Rafi’s tiff with Lata Mangeshkar. Mubarak Begum though had to learn to wait, do her riyaz every day, and be ready just in case an opportunity knocked at her door.

The opportunity seldom came. When it did, Mubarak Begum made a good fist of it, proving her mettle in even a single song allotted to her as, for instance, “Hum haal-e-dil sunaenge, suniye ke na suniye” in Bimal Roy’s Madhumati. When the film was released, the masses hummed Lata Mangeshkar’s “Aaja re pardesi” and “Zulmi sang aankh ladi”, but the discerning few took to Mubarak Begum’s song. It had a touch of irony to it; the soft-spoken Mubarak Begum, who had poverty as her constant companion in the last decade or so of her life, seldom talked of her plight or ever said an ill word about her contemporaries. Happy to sing the numbers that came her way, she was once asked in an interview if she felt that she would have had a more successful career had she not been born in an era dominated by the Mangeshkar sisters. She pointed out Lata Mangeshkar’s “Ae mere watan ke logon” as one of her favourite songs. “She sang it beautifully. It is a pleasure to listen to it again and again,” Mubarak Begum said warmly.

Yet, like the songs she sang in her playback career spanning three decades with a repertoire of 200 songs, in life too one had to often understand her pain from some of the words unexpressed, some half sentences. About a year before she breathed her last in Mumbai at the age of 76 on July 18, she was asked to name her favourite song of all time on All India Radio. Her choice of lyrics and songs said it all: “Ae mere dil kahin aur chal”, one that expressed the angst of a companion left behind. Then she added Rafi’s “Caravaan guzar gaya”, penned by the noted lyricist Neeraj.

Young talent

One of the memories that she left behind centres around her early days in Jhunjhunu district in Rajasthan where her grandfather ran a tea stall. Young Mubarak would hum a tune as she played with the cups. A handful of customers who observed her talent asked her for an encore though her grandfather would have none of it. Later, she shifted to Ahmedabad where her father, though a trained musician, eked out a living as a fruit vendor. Here, in the 1940s, she accompanied her father to a cinema hall for her first Hindi film. However, once the film started, she went off to sleep on her father’s shoulder.

Her father, who respected her talents, soon started taking her to film studios to get work. Once he took her to meet S.D. Burman and Bimal Roy. She was initially dismissed as just another newcomer who needed to polish her skills. But polish her skills she did under Thirakva Khan, who was her father’s guru too. Later, she learnt classical music under Ustad Riazuddin Khan and Samad Khan of the Kirana gharana. In a matter of time, she ended up singing for more than one film of Bimal Roy, notably Devdas and Madhumati; the end product surprised Roy no end. Much before these films, she had carved out a little niche with her songs for films such as Aaiye and Dayera. This niche, however, remained so apparently because of politicking in the film industry. It was alleged that one of her songs was dropped from Mother India to please prominent personalities in the film industry.

A rumour that did the rounds about her migrating to Pakistan post-1965 rankled her to the last day. It not only resulted in Mubarak Begum fading out of the limelight but also reduced her to surviving on government doles in the last years of her life. Occasionally, she performed for private parties in India and the United Arab Emirates, besides cutting albums of hymns in the form of naats and hamds. She was lonely in her last years, and was alone in death; her funeral was graced by only a couple of Hindi film stars.

Aaiye (Come) appropriately marked her debut in the world of cinema in 1949. The film came her way thanks to her stint with All India Radio where, following an audition, she was selected as a ghazal singer. One of her ghazals was noticed by Rafiq Ghaznavi, who got her to sing “Mohe aane lagi angdai aaja balam” in Aaiye. Kamal Amrohi’s Dayera came soon after. It was a rare opportunity when she got to sing all the songs in a movie. Notable among them was “Devata tum ho mera sahara”. Interestingly, the lot fell on Mubarak Begum only because the lead singer fell ill on the day the recording was to begin. Begum had to find sustenance on such fortuitous crumbs. That she did it with grace showed her to be a fine person, happy with what came her way without envying her colleagues.

Her best came with Kidar Sharma’s film Hamari Yaad Aayegi; the song “Kabhi tanhaiyon mein hamari yaad aayegi” in that is remembered to this day. When the film was released, some playback singers complained to Sharma about not having been given the chance to sing the song. It became her passport to fame.

It is said that the song was initially supposed to be played only in the background. But thanks to Mubarak Begum’s fine singing, it was picturised on the heroine and used three times in the film. However, the song proved to be a one-off. Slowly, despite songs like “Mujhko apne gale lagalo” in Humrahi, “Kuchh ajnabee se aap hain” in Shagun and “Woh na ayenge palat kar” in Devdas, Mubarak Begum was never to experience the height of glory in her career again. Her moment of fame came and went with “Kabhi tanhaiyon mein hamari yaad aayegi” (In solitude you will remember me). In one of the ironies of life, this is the song she had to sing in private mehfils to eke out a living in the autumn of her life.

Towards the end of her life, when asked the reasons for not singing many songs after 1965, she came up with a famous one-liner that betrayed her anguish: “I did not leave songs. Songs left me.” Mubarak Begum, never formally educated or blessed with the gift of the gab, was not quite right. Her songs never left her. Indeed, her life too was a song, even if a sad one.