She was the last of an era that was. Zarina Begum was once the star attraction at royal mehfils and marriages, singing thumris, dadras and ghazals. Today, she wonders where her patrons have gone? Khush hoon ki mera husn-e-talab kaam to aaya, Khaali hi sahi meri taraf jaam to aaya…The sound of her captivating voice draws you up a narrow staircase, wide enough for just one person, broken at places, to reach her abode. There is nothing in the impoverished surroundings of that one-room hovel to indicate that it has ever seen better days. But Zarina Begum, now nearly ninety, has. Among the last of Lucknow’s famous mehfil singers, she retains all the graces of a Lakhnavi courtesan as she sits up with a scowl on her face, straightens her khizab-dyed hair and arches a brow to question you.
“You want to interview me. I hope you will not label me a nautch girl. Before talking to me you must understand my art. Then I will tell you all you want. Even today people remember me with respect”, she said.
Zarina Begum’s musical journey began as a child. Her earliest memories are of being locked inside a cupboard by her younger brother, “Sister, you may sing now,” he would say. “And I would start off, from inside the cupboard, trying to sing my best. Outside, the children would clap.
The sharp eyes have softened as she travels back in time. “It was my father who first realized I had a gifted voice. He made sure I took professional training. He was as strict as I was naughty. The morning would start with cries of ‘Where is that upstart Zarina. Why hasn’t she come for riyaz,’ she laughs. “I did not like being tied down. So they lured me with promises of new clothes and bangles. Only that would tempt me to sit down with my ustad and learn the difficult Persian couplets.”
Zarina Begum trained under her father, Shahenshah Hussain, and later under Ghulam Hazrat of Firangi Mahal. “I was obsessed with Begum Akhtar. My favourite ghazal was Deewana banana hai to deewana de. We would riyaz for seven hours at a stretch. Then one day at the age of nine I was told, “Today is your big day. Today you will sing at a proper mehfil.”
Her eyes mist over. “I sat beside my father in the rickshaw, huddled in my black shawl with which I had covered myself. I was very nervous. We passed a large gate and then came to a huge hall. There was a white chandni and masnad prepared for us. When I sat down on the floor all I could see in front of me was a huge gathering of very rich looking people, mostly men. They wore fancy clothes and jewels and I felt a thousand eyes were piercing into me. I was so scared that I just closed my eyes and concentrated on my singing. I did not let my father down. After I finished, they heaped rewards on me. I just bent low and kept doing salaam. My father was very proud of me that day,” she says.
She was soon to audition with the All India Radio, Lucknow, and was approved as an artiste. “In those days we were summoned to big mehfils to sing, at royal gatherings and marriages. But never unescorted. My father and a faithful chaperone always accompanied me,” she says, adding, “I was taken to this meeting of classical singers at Vardha. The man singing before me was reciting pure khayal. Then it was my ustad’s turn, I told him, ‘Let me go. Only a female voice can break the magic of his spell.’ And I did.”
It was at one such mehfil that Zarina met her husband, Qurban Hussain. “Don’t go by the way he is now. My man was quite a sparkler in those days,” she says coyly, I was wanting for a tabla player and he volunteered to play for me. We’ve never been separated since. His fingers worked magic on the tabla,” she says.
Lying on the mattress beside her, Qurban Hussain looks up at her and flashes a toothless smile. “That’s because you sang like a koel, my dear. No one could match your voice. I still remember that song you were singing that day – Ka leke jaaye gawanwa morey Ram. And I knew I was lost.”
Today, Qurban Hussain no longer accompanies his favourite Zarina when she sings. A broken hip, in an accident four years ago, has put paid to that. It is with great difficulty that he props himself up to play for her when she croons his favourite thumri, Bahut din beete, sainyya ko dekhe, then lies down, wiping the sweat on his brow. “I get dizzy now, sitting up too long because of the pain.”
With few calls for mehfils nowadays, it is left to their lame son Ayub to play the tabla and dholak with local qawwals and help run the house on his meager earnings. Her daughter Rubina still awaits her rukhsati for want of proper dowry. “How can I send her off from my house in just the clothes she wears?” Zarina laments. Once the star of many a glittering mehfil, Zarina has only tales from the past to relate now – of royal mehfils with an inebriated Maharaja swaying to her thumris, zamindars requesting her to sing a fast song, to enable them to do a quick twirl with their English memsahibs… of lavish dinners and elaborate feasts. But it’s been a long time since she’s attended any of these.
Rubbing her fingernail against the falling plaster on her walls, she sighs, “All that is in the past now. There have been no calls for me for nearly a year. I wonder what curse has befallen the people of this city. Have they lost their taste in music or do they not throw parties any longer? It’s not easy managing the finances without a regular income” she quips. “Will you tell them, Zarina Begum still sings, maybe they will call me then,” she says, her eyes full of hope.
A sample of her singing talent can be heard in Muzaffar Ali’s album Husn-e-Jaana. Listen to the song ‘Nihure Nihure‘ from the same album :