'Malka Pukhraj shows little concern for the feelings and emotions of others. Her exclusive concern is with herself, and with the behaviour of others towards her'
'Her early recordings are brilliant, but her later recordings (anything past the 1950s) are unreliable -- the quality of her singing fluctuates a lot'
A musical life that forgets the music
Song Sung True, Malka Pukhraj's memoir, is miserly in musical detail. She lived during very eventful years for India and Pakistan, and yet comes across only as an inconsistent and self-centred singer
Song Sung True: A Memoir
by Malka Pukhraj
Translated from the Urdu by Saleem Kidwai
Kali For Women, New Delhi
Price: Rs 400
What does one say about a singer's autobiography - especially one titled Song Sung True - that treats her music as just an incidental fact of life? In Malka Pukhraj's 377-page memoir, her music finds significant mention barely a dozen times, and then too in no great detail. The book should perhaps come with a disclaimer that those looking for a memoir of Malka Pukhraj qua singer shouldn't bother reading it. And yet, the book is fascinating as a portrait of the person who sang true, and that person has led an unusual life indeed.
Born in a village near Jammu, Malka Pukhraj (referred to as 'MP' hereafter) spent her early life (till the age of nine) in Jammu and Delhi, with an occasional sojourn in Lahore. Her parents did not live together. Her mother's family seem to have been farmers; her father, a Pathan, ran several gambling dens in Jammu. The young Malka's life seems to have revolved around learning to read and write, learning to sing and dance, being indulged by relatives on her mother's side -- and stealing money from her father and her teacher! From her parents -- especially her mother -- she does not seem to have received much affection, a point she makes repeatedly in her book.
She learnt music (from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's father) and dance for about 4-5 years in Jammu and then in Delhi. When visiting Jammu to see Hari Singh's coronation, she was asked to sing before him and was immediately appointed as a singer in his court -- at the age of nine! Her duties seem to have consisted of visiting the palace each evening at seven and spending time with the Maharaja and his cronies till 11 pm; some of this time, she sang. She speaks of Hari Singh with great fondness and seems to have been quite infatuated with him; he seems to have treated her as a child and indulged her accordingly.
This phase continued for about 10 years, with the king and his retinue -- including MP -- spending six months of each year in Jammu and the other six in Srinagar. Then suddenly, she decides to stop working at the court and leaves Jammu to live in Lahore; the reason she gives is that there were persistent rumours that she was trying to poison the king, and she was scared that someone would plant poison on her and get her imprisoned. Her departure greatly displeased Hari Singh and they never met again.
(Malka Pukhraj is miserly with dates throughout her book; one has to turn to other sources to link these events to a specific timeline. Hari Singh's coronation took place in 1925; if MP was 9 years old then, it is safe to assume that she was born in 1916, and that her tenure as court singer lasted from 1925 till 1934/35.)
She then lived in Lahore for a long time, and again briefly in Jammu. She continued singing, both at her house for a select group each evening and at a few of the places where she was invited to sing. Having run through a circle of admirers, she got married to Syed Shabbir Hussain Shah whom she had led a merry dance for over four years. She makes no bones about the fact that, while he was deeply in love with her, SHE was not in love with HIM. (At the end of the book, however, there is a moving piece where she talks about how she realised, after his death, just how much he had meant to her.) She moved all around present-day Pakistan with him on his various postings in his government job. A few topsy-turvy decades followed, a series of ups and downs -- financial and otherwise -- that is recounted at length. She ends the book with an account of how one of her sons cheated her and how she lives with what she has left.
I have often wondered about the uneven quality of MP's music. Her early recordings are brilliant, but her later recordings (anything past the 1950s) are unreliable - the quality of her singing fluctuates a lot. One of the probable reasons for this is that, going by her book, MP seems to have had little formal training in music beyond the age of nine! Her description of her years at the Kashmir court makes no mention of any guru teaching her music; her narrative of the period beyond Kashmir mentions a couple of instances of picking up specific 'bandish-es' from other singers but again no consistent musical training. Also, she speaks of a period of time (starting just before her marriage and extending for some time after her marriage - again, no specific timelines!) when she had stopped singing. Could these things account for the inconsistency in her music?
(Another feature of her later recordings -- I am talking post-1960s now -- is the use of excessive -- almost raucous -- orchestration. I have no idea how this came about; the book sheds no light on it. I am tempted to blame her daughter Tahera Syed, for the latter's own recordings also have this lamentable feature.)
If I were to describe the person who comes through in the book (in the anecdotes recounted, in what is said and how it is said, in the perspective assumed in recounting incidents), the first word that would spring to mind is "self-centred". Throughout the book, MP shows little concern for the feelings and emotions of others. Her exclusive concern is with herself, and with the behaviour of others towards her. Be it her parents, her other relatives, her husband, her friends, her children -- anyone -- at no point is there any sense of empathy with another. (To take an instance, she often speaks of her mother's lack of love and affection for her and of how this in turn prevented MP from herself being able to express her love for her children; at no point is there any attempt to understand why the mother behaved the way she did, even though the pointers are all there.) The sole exception to this is a child called Chachu whom MP brought home from a refugee camp: the child was ill and died within a few months; the short time she spent with MP and her subsequent death seem to have truly touched a chord within MP.
MP also tried her hand at films! She was apparently eager to act in films and came to Bombay (again, the time is not specified, but using the other events in the book as a guide, this must have been around 1944/45) to try her hand at it. She visited the sets for a few days, actually worked for a couple of days, then got thoroughly bored with the process of shooting and just went straight back to Lahore! She did, however, produce two films that were shot in Bombay, directed by one Babu Sadiq -- Kajal and Char Din.
She was 'allocated' one of Dalsukh Pancholi's studios after Partition, but it was tied up in litigation for a long time and she never made any film there.
One of the surprising things about the book is that there is very little mention of either Independence or Partition in it! Given that she is someone who has lived in both India and Pakistan, and hails from Jammu and Kashmir, one would expect more from her on her experience of Partition, but perhaps she had little direct experience of any events connected with Partition (except for the adoption of the girl from the refugee camp, the studio allocation, and her purchase of some property from a Hindu leaving for India).
Though a translation, the book does not seem to have been published in Urdu: the translator worked directly from the notebooks in which MP had written her memoirs. The translation is quite good, but there are some awkward phrases that a good editor would not have left in. For example, there is a line: "...I had finished reading two or three books of Persian, and six or seven of Urdu..." While phrases like "do-tiin kitaabe pa.Dhii thii" would sound perfectly natural in Urdu/Hindi, the translated version seems clumsy. How much simpler to just say, "...studied some Urdu and a little Persian"! But these moments are mercifully few and do not really divert one's attention from the story being told. One only wishes that the storytelling had been a little more brisk and a little less repetitive; these faults, however, are not the translator's but the original author's.
The book opens with a brief "Translator's Note". I found the final paragraph of this note unaccountably moving: after speaking earlier about the difficulties of translation and the efforts taken to stay true to the author's original intent, Kidwai says:
"Finally, it was Malka Pukhraj's music that helped most. I often played it while working so that her voice, so enchanting musically, was in no way deprived of its power once translated into words."
Kyaa baat hai!
More by the same author:
The queen I loved: A tribute to Begum Akhtar
Published on 3 July 2003
to the editor