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Rambling on: lady sings the blues

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

lady sings the blues

The genius of Farida Khanum
Ali la Pointe
The Friday Times February 4-10, 2005 - Vol. XVI, No. 50
I once attended a tribute to Farida Khanum at PTV Studios in Lahore. It was a humid summer evening and the event had been scheduled to take place over tea. Anwar Maqsood was compeering. Once the recording had begun, he invited guests from the audience to come up to the podium and say a few words about the ghazal queen.

One of these guests made a very intriguing remark. He said that Farida Khanum was the only singer in the subcontinent whose voice had always been able to keep rhythm on a leash: “ Taal aap ki aavaaz ka peechha karti hai .” Farida Khanum, sitting in the front row, nodded knowingly.
That evening, I went home and played all my Farida Khanum CD’s, paying special attention to the relationship between her voice and the tabla, and arrived at the same conclusion. The man from PTV Studios had been absolutely right. I, an aspiring crooner, tried to replicate what I had heard but couldn’t; every time, I ended up losing track of the beat. How did she do it?

I have, I believe, found the answer. It’s taken months of consistent, almost pernickety attention to detail in every single ghazal that she has recorded. In the end, however, the discovery of Farida Khanum’s genius has been like finding Tutankhamen’s tomb: it has shed light on something fascinating and profound.

Consider Habib Wali Mohammed first sang Fayaz Hashmi’s Aaj Jaaney Ki Zid Na Karo in the fifties. It was a melancholy tune, composed in the raga Aiman and sung in the style of a geet . When, a decade or two later, Farida Khanum sang the same song, she had transformed it into a ghazal .

What do I mean by that statement? What I mean is not that Hashmi’s lyrics weren’t originally part of a ghazal (they were). Nor do I suggest that Farida Khanum merely slowed down the pace of the song. What I mean is this: Farida Khanum, when singing Aaj Jaaney Ki Zid Na Karo , established a unique relationship with the same rhythm that ended up leading it on a chase.
This elusive “chase” is accomplished by figuring out the exact timing of each beat – the number of seconds that it takes for the tabalchi to arrive at his starting point – and then corrugating the internal rhythm of the song. If each round lasts eight seconds, for example, Farida Khanum will start at the first second, collapse the next six seconds, and arrive triumphantly to end the verse she is singing at the eighth second.
The bewildering beauty of the technique, of course, lies in what happens in those intermediate six seconds; the voice wreaks havoc on the tabla by rising and falling as it pleases, stretching here, shortening there, until it arrives, miraculously, perfectly intact and in control at the eighth second. It is this temporary anarchy that establishes tension between the voice and the rhythm.
It is important to note, however, that the rhythm remains consistent over those eight seconds. It is the voice that displays irreverence towards the rhythm, the voice that teases the rhythm by temporarily breaking its rules. The result is that we, the listeners, end up with a vague image of the rhythm being led on a leash.
Compare, for instance, Farida Khanum’s rendition of Obaidullah Aleem’s Tere Pyaar Mein Ruswa Ho Kar with Noor Jehan’s. The way Noor Jehan sung it, the ghazal followed a pattern set by the rhythm; if one were to play Madam’s version on a computer and eliminate the beat, one would find that even in the absence of the tabla the voice follows a rhythmic pattern; which is to say that Madam’s vocal inflections act as signifiers for where the tabalchi should strike his tabla.
Farida Khanum’s version, on the other hand, would appear on the same computer strangely arrhythmic but not irregular. Let us focus on one phrase from the ghazal : the voice stretches the word “deewaanay” but compensates by cleverly shortening the duration of the word “log”. Even within the phrase “ jaayein kahaan deewaanay log ”, therefore, a brief tension has been raised and then resolved. It is Farida Khanum’s resolution of this tension that leads us to cheer and sigh.
There is another function this brilliant technique performs: it exploits the aesthetic value of contrast. Aristotle, when writing on poetics, praised contrast in art by using the metaphor of mountains and plateaus: a plateau, wrote Aristotle, is boring to the viewer, while an endless range of mountains is exhausting. It is the protrusion of the occasional mountain from a plateau that makes for interesting viewing. Two millennia later, Roland Barthes took the same theory further by likening the aesthetic value of contrast to orgasm.
But these great critics were writing about contrast in the context of literature. How would the same theory apply to music? The best demonstration of that can be found in a ghazal sung by Farida Khanum; by combining plateaus with mountains – that is, long, linear notes with rapidly delivered vocal incisions that are lapidary in their precision – Farida Khanum employs a fabulously successful principle of contrast. In other words, we are left with the giddy feeling that the only thing consistent about Farida Khanum’s voice is its harmonious inconsistency !
In the end, of course, there are several other factors that make Farida Khanum’s singing such a pleasure to experience: her clear pronunciation of every letter (from the crisp qaaf s to the silky swaad s) as well as the “reversible” quality of her voice (like a two-sided shawl, it flips from smooth and honey-like to slightly gravelly). But these achievements are dwarfed by her radical, startlingly mathematical approach to rhythm. It is a technique that endlessly pleases the listener, but one that no rival can imitate.
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PS - What I like about this article is that I can relate to the two examples cited. firstly Habib Wali Mohammed in "aaj jaanay kee zid na karoo" is a man pleading his love not to leave. this was popular in the 70s but leaves me a little cold... to an extent that i never bothered about the words or paid attention. Farida Khanum's rendition is seductive, alluring...a lady singing this, adds a certain degree of passion and a dimention of a romantic nuance, maybe a personal experience is closer that i can relate to this...a lady saying to me "baat itnee mairee maan lo" pierces the heart more than listening to a man saying this....
Noor Jehan's rendition of "tairay pyar main ruswa hokar" is different. It has a nice impact but the choice of the "geet" format diminishes it a little...the slow ghazal format followed by Farida Khanum adds a magic of her own...i have listened to both these live by farida khanum and her consumate perfection has a mesmerizing impact...she is also a bit of a the 'all pakistan music conference' last year, farida, having performed for the president on the first day, she came as a visitor on the second day and she sat down in one of the back rows, very close to where i was, and she listened to the ongoing concert with rapt attention
despite being greeted with love from people close by which she gracefully acknowledged, she made no fuss about her celebrity as the crowd enjoyed the experience of the concert as well as seeing farida among them


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