The last time Roshan Ara Begum performed was at Lahore’s Alhamra. She was as usual very composed, her un-ageing self. For more than an hour she sang her favourite raag Shudh Kalyan, followed by a thumri in jhinjhoti. As usual, her performance was flawless, the note was just as forceful and the delivery clear. Her performance maintained a certain level — at times she was brilliant and truly excelled, inspired by the moment; otherwise she was professionally competent and hardly ever faltered.
Hearing and seeing her that evening, it could not have been imagined that this was going to be her last performance.
She died a few weeks later on December 6, 1982.
Both Noor Jehan and Roshan Ara Begum were at the prime of their music careers when they both migrated to Pakistan. It was a bit of a surprise as many other Muslim artistes from the area that became Pakistan did not even consider migrating to Pakistan in 1947, because they were well-settled and considered the prospects of the arts and artistes more sanguine there than here. But both did.
While Noor Jehan was able to continue, despite odds, as she was a practitioner of a popular form, film music, Roshan Ara Begum was confined to the four walls of her house in Lala Musa. Though she had sung for the films and a few ghazals in the earlier part of her life, she gave all up for the sake of kheyal and thumri, where she was truly remarkable with few to emulate her.
She occasionally made a trip to Lahore or other cities when invited for a classical music concert, either on radio or stage. She would come out of her exile, so to say, and perform as if there had been no break or dislocation.
And then she would go back to the rural hinterland to her husband and his extended family.
In other words, she was hardly kept busy as classical music concerts were few and far between. She was rarely seen in public. Her loss was great and loss of music far greater — as she whiled away the most precious years of her performing years in the backwaters of Punjab. There she had no admirers and fans, except for her husband, who had married her for her music.
Hayat Ahmed Khan used to say that the All Pakistan Music Conference was formed when Roshan Ara Begum gave a statement in the press that she had not performed for years and was rusting away in a village. To compensate for a public stage, the Conference was formed, and she was made its patron.
Besides radio this then became a platform from where she could perform live at least once a year.
The Music Conference was set up in the 1960, which means that for a good 10 years there was hardly a platform where live music could be performed. Khursheed Shahid, who became her shagird, and is seen in some of the photographs, sitting strumming the tanpura behind her, was a witness to the two facets of her life — as a housewife in a village and as a star on stage in the city.
Khursheed Shahid often went and stayed with her for months, desirous of wanting to know more about the woman and her art. She hardly ever found her touching the tanpura or doing her riyaz. It was all about managing the house and looking after her husband’s children. But when she descended to the cities, as she performed, people wanted to kiss her hands and raise her to the status of divinity.
Due to her stature as a vocalist she would perform at the very end and the other vocalists too preferred so because it was difficult to sing after her.
The real forte of Roshan Ara Begum was not the lighter forms of singing, not even the semi-classical numbers that she sang often on popular demand by those who had heard her Ustads’ thumris. It was to remember and recall the genius of Abdul Karim Khan and a way of paying tribute to him that she sang these thumris, as she knew that she was not the greatest of thumri singers — certainly no patch on her great Ustad.
She excelled in kheyal with its elaboration of notes in a definite pattern that follows the tonal structure of raag.
Roshan Ara Begum’s expansion of the raag, the command over taans and very subtle division of the rhythmic cycle “laikari” was exemplary. These aspects were not focused as isolated instances of virtuosity rather seen in the perspective of a gradual musical build-up that a vocalist or an instrumentalist aspires to. And, she did weave the extreme virtuosity into the total aesthetic impact of the raag. It was difficult to tell content from form — a hallmark of good art.
Roshan Ara Begum spent the formative years in Calcutta and in that centre of music where both musicians and audiences were discerning — the bar of critical evaluation was set very high. All the classical musicians flocked to Calcutta, for it was said, the best audiences were in that city.
In the midst of great musicians, Roshan Ara Begum was recognised as a formidable talent getting ready to take on the world. Instead, she chose to migrate, and despite being valued highly by the musicians and a small coterie of initiated listeners, she was only a name that was treated as an emblem to be brandished all over. She was isolated and lonely, her appeal limited — and she may have started to get weary of the conditions here.
Being a contented person she, as if, resigned herself to fate. A woman living in a village, occasionally bursting on the urban horizon to remind the world that she was alive and still mattered.