My late mother was an unsung film critic and a devoted K L Saigol fan. As a young woman in the 1930s, she along with her cousins (chaperoned by my grandmother) would rarely miss these classics. Her collection of 78 RPM records featuring Saigol, Pankhaj Malik, K C Dey, Kanan Bala and other celebrity singers of the era was a family treasure till the 1980s, when an unfortunate accident caused their total loss. There was one K L Saigol movie that was amongst her favorites – this film was titled ‘Street Singer’, wherein the hero appeared cradling a ‘harmonium’ and singing in the streets to eke a living.
Street singing is a vocation that has been in practice all over the world since centuries. In the Sub Continent this form of entertainment manifested itself in both rural and urban environments. I remember a pair of blind individuals, who visited our house in Lahore on a regular basis. Their arrival would be heralded by the sound of a Sarangi and soon after a melodious voice rendering religious lyrics. The performing duo would stand in the shade of the ‘Dharaik’ tree on our drive and were soon rewarded with a small crowd of listeners consisting of youngsters from neighboring houses. I now think that had the two artists been given an opportunity on a radio program of the time, they would have made their mark as folk and devotional singers.
It was during a wedding reception in Bahawalpur, somewhere in the 1970s, that I saw a gaggle of women gaily clad in ‘chunris’, barge their way into the marquee. The group was accompanied by two musicians, one of whom carried a ‘dholak’, while the other was lugging a ‘harmonium’. Without wasting any time and in spite of repeated requests to leave, the ‘band’ began a performance that turned out to be memorable. Though their lyrics were largely incomprehensible to me, their cadence and beat had a mesmerizing effect on the listeners. Sure enough, fifteen minutes and four renditions later, the group left with a respectable amount of cash in their purses. I later came to know that the females and their male companions hailed from Cholistan and gave public performances like the one I had just witnessed to earn their living.
There was a time, when no ‘mela’ was complete without its minstrels whose repertoire included ballads of love and romance. Regretfully these performers are on their way to extinction along with the rural festivals of my childhood. I have however received the good news that the art of ballad singing is alive and well in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Perhaps one of these days I shall ask an old Pashtun pal of mine to invite me to a traditional ‘Hujra’, which I believe is a venue for such performances.
I must also pay tribute to some vocalists, who if not acceptable in the street singing genre must be included therein peripherally. These were the travelling vendors, who marketed their products in song. Anwar Masood, the celebrated Punjabi poet (of incomparable wit) has ably described his encounter with one such individual, when his bus stopped at the old Jhelum Bridge. A similar character ruled the Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore selling ‘Chana Jor Garam’ and his hit lyric went something like “Mera Chana bara hi aala, isko khae Madhubala, Nargis lagay hai iski khala – Chana Jor Garam Baboo, mulayam mazedar, chana jor garam”.
I cannot sign off this week’s column without mentioning the unforgettable character that once roamed the roads around Company Bagh in the Cantonment Area of Multan. Dressed in grubby western clothes, a cigarette perched between his lips, the man insisted on accosting total strangers in ‘Yinglish’. If one happened to respond, he would act as if he had met a long lost friend. This was the time to flee the spot, for if one did not do so, then a hand would latch on to one’s dress to be followed by a back to back performance of a series of Saigol songs, delivered to rouse the dead.
The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.