When Saleem Kidwai messaged me “Iqbal Bano is no more”, it felt as if a precious porcelain vase that had been in the family for years had fallen and broken. In 1956 some Pakistani cousins had brought a 78 rpm record from a Pakistani film, Qatil, featuring songs sung by a new rising star, Iqbal Bano.
Even at the age of 12, with hardly an ear for music, the richness of her voice made a deep impression on me. My mother brought back her music tapes from Pakistan: thumris, film songs and ghazals by Ghalib, Daag and Faiz. Her rendering of Faiz’s ‘Na ganwao navak – e – neem kash’ still brings tears to my eyes.
Born in Rohtak in 1935, she migrated to Pakistan after marrying an admirer in 1952, soon becoming a household name for ghazal-lovers both in India and Pakistan. Rooted in the best traditions of the subcontinent’s music, she continued the legacy of Begum Akhtar. Her voice was that of someone who had lived and loved, won and lost. Sandpapered and soaked in whisky and cigarette smoke, it was a voice reminiscent of a certain lifestyle — decadent, romantic and yet hard.
During the 1965 war, I heard her sing at a gathering. It showcased exactly the kind of lifestyle that her voice evoked: powerful men wearing gold Rolex watches sitting on Persian carpets, beautiful women with hennaed, expensively cut hair, the air thick with the fragrance of perfume mingled with cigarette smoke and the aroma of whisky.
Iqbal Bano, dressed in white, with red lipstick and white flowers in her hair, sang into the wee hours. It was magical, but her best was yet to come.
In 1985, on the occasion of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s anniversary, Iqbal Bano sang ‘Hum dekhengey’ in Lahore, despite an unwritten ban on reciting his revolutionary poetry under General Zia’s dictatorship. A crowd of over 50,000 cheered, wept and clapped as she sang.
To me, she represents the finest of Pakistani culture and a glorious tradition in ghazal singing that I hope others will carry forward.
Farhan Mujib is an Aligarh-based artist