Unheard and unsung -- not quite
The story of how one man's initiative set a chain of events that restored dignity to Mubarak Begum, a forgotten playback singer in Mumbai
It must have been the saddest message that anybody would hope to receive on New Years Day. The year 2008 had just begun and the place was Boston, USA.
I had just learnt from a friend, SC Bhatia (based in New Delhi) that yesteryear's queen of playback singers Mubarak Begum was barely alive and was struggling amidst many hardships in Mumbai. I heard that in her twilight years and facing multiple health issues herself, she was having a hard time keeping her head above water. With little or no income she had the additional responsibility of taking care of her 40-year old daughter, who is suffering from advanced Parkinson's Disease. The singer's husband had walked out on her many years ago and her only son was a cab driver with his own family to look after. She did not even have money to buy medicines let alone food and was living in a two-room dilapidated government flat in Jogeshwari. Mubarak Begum was clearly a forgotten part of Bollywood's history, having last sung for films 40 years ago.
I obtained her phone number within a couple of days and called her from Boston. She herself picked up the phone. I introduced myself as her fan, and mentioned her song Nigahon se dil mein chalay aye ga as an ice-breaker to get the conversation going. As we talked, in response to my questions, she related her nightmarish tale of survival. During the conversation, I was struck by her lack of self-pity - and her voice: she sounded as if she was in her 40s, not 70s. Her unfortunate circumstances had clearly failed to contaminate the gift that God had given her in abundance. Despite her misfortunes, her voice remained miraculously unaffected: it was so saturated in melody even as she spoke that I could not help requesting her to sing a few lines from Mujh ko apne galay laga lo... She hesitated, but then obliged. I was dumbstruck.
On January 12, 2008, I sent an email to my inner circle of local friends, seeking financial assistance for her. We - expatriate Pakistani as well as Indians professionals -- managed to raise over a thousand dollars in just three days. I wired her the funds. More importantly, a journalist friend then based in Boston, Beena Sarwar, forwarded my message to friends in India. That set the torch alight. My e-mail ended up being published in various journals and periodicals in India, having been "upgraded" to an article. As they began hearing about Mubarak Begum's plight, admirers, Bollywood personalities included, started to take action. Visitor traffic started to form outside her humble abode. Reporters of prominent magazines followed.
Even women's rights activists wanted to support her. My next challenge was to convince her to perform on stage, because it wasn't just about sending her money to enable her to live with dignity. I also wanted her to regain her self-esteem and pride. Fortunately, I wasn't the only one to think on those lines. Actor Nana Patekar lost no time in arranging a concert for Bibi, as she is affectionately known, in Pune, early February 2008. Mubarak Begum was nervous and it took some time to convince her that she could do it. And she did. Her stage presence was simply magical. She received unprecedented appreciation and a standing ovation, plus a purse of Rs50,000.
Next to follow was an incredible benefit concert Hamari Yaad Ayegi organised in New Delhi on April 13, 2008, by friends Naveen Anand, Purinder Ganju and Prithvi Haldea. Salma Sultan of Doordarshan fame hosted the colourful event. Shikha Biswas Vohra, the illustrious daughter of the late maestro Anil Biswas, arranged the music with her music group Sangeet Smriti. Mubarak Begum received tremendous accolades. The organisers raised funds, and passed on a net Rs300,000 to her.
On the heels of the Delhi concert came her highly publicised Hyderabad concert in July 2008. By this time, a prominent Zee TV personality (who wishes to remain anonymous) had pledged to deposit a monthly sum of Rs10,000 in Bibi's bank account, an arrangement that continues to this day.
Mubarak Begum has not looked back. She has enjoyed performing regularly on stage in Baroda, Chandigarh, and several times again in Pune, New Delhi and Mumbai. In October 2009, The Rafi Lovers Circle invited her to Kolkata and presented her with the Rafi Memorial Award for 2009. The Rafi Foundation Mumbai presented her with the Mohammad Rafi Award on the late singer's birthday in December 2009. At all these events, she has been prominent on stage, coordinating with local musicians, singing her hit songs, leaving audiences spellbound with her performance, her sense of humour, renditions of classic Urdu poetry and contagious stage presence.
These concerts have obviously benefited her tremendously. In these past two years, she has managed to pay off all her loans and retrieve her personal jewellery held collateral by lenders. Her flat has been repaired and renovated appreciably. Her daughter is now able to get proper medicines and regular medical attention. As Mubarak Begum's story continues to unfold at this stage in her life, I am compelled to wonder whether there are likes of it anywhere in the world of music.
Post script: Put your speakers on and listen to this awesome song. Mubarak Begum sings a haunting number for a Pakistani film Raaz in 1957, picturised on Shamim Ara before she became a big star. We did so much towards cultural diplomacy in those days, before we lost our way -
http://tinyurl.com/ycbwn8m (incidentally, there are three other songs of Bibi singing in Raaz on YouTube -- in a way a raaz in itself!)
Siraj Khan is a Boston-based Pakistani lover of Indo-Pak film music.
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