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On a string and a prayer

india Updated: Dec 13, 2007 22:35 IST
Kumkum Chadha
Kumkum Chadha
Hindustan Times
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Controversy haunts ghazal singer Zila Khan. Be it her relationship with her siblings or her father, sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, Zila Khan is often scotching rumours about her father’s unhappiness over her taking to the stage. Ask Zila and she asserts that this is the handiwork of the envious who grudge her emergence as a successful artiste. She concedes that the only time her father was furious was when he was told that she was singing while liquor flowed. Zila’s version: “He called me and sought an explanation but when I told him that I did not begin singing till the drinking stopped, he cooled off”.

The years have helped Zila. In the initial years she was unable to hold her audience’s attention for too long. Today she can be rated as being “sometimes good”. Even her abba (father) fixation has waned.

She describes herself as a “brinjal-coloured” kid with dark spots on her “nothing-to-look-at-face”. Packed off to the famous Peshwa hospital for treatment in Dehradun, a cardiac surgeon declared that they are “calcium marks” (read calcium deficiency). They fed her bananas and milk till she concluded that the food for the dogs was better. So she took it upon herself to feed her father’s pets. His dogs, of course, went hungry while Zila savoured their meat and roti meal.

Apart from when she accompanied her father, Zila dressed like a tomboy: shorts and tee-shirts. Her hairstyle often misled people to believe she was the ustad’s son. It is, therefore, not without reason that her husband Khalid complains about her not “being feminine”.

Fond of a back massage, Vilayat Khan often summoned his kids to do the job. They hated it but were terrified of refusing his command. Zila got the worse of it given that she would doze off before her father could. She often feigned illness, but there was no getting away from the back rub. A slip-up could mean getting caned. Other forms of punishment included being locked up for the night on the terrace. They squared up by being vicious to the “maulana sahib”, hired to teach the Quran. Zila’s challenge to her siblings: he won’t last 24 hours. True to her word, she stuck pins and needles on the cushioned chair on which he sat and served him tea with chilli powder.

One of them got the better of her and took charge. Pranks did not work. He was in control. A desperate Zila spent a sleepless night. She had a brainwave: if Abba got upset with him, the new maulana would lose his job. She marched up to her father and told him that the maulana was a movie buff. He was fired.

Zila makes it a point to revisit her childhood once a week. In other words: shut the door and sing hits of Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley.