Twenty years ago on December 6, 1982, Pakistani classical music in particular and that of the subcontinent in general, was impoverished by the death of vocalist Roshan Ara Begum, who was known as Malika-i-Mauseeqi — the queen of music. Although she hailed from Calcutta, she contributed tremendously to the melodic culture of Pakistan both before and after partition.
Roshan Ara Begum visited Lahore, the music capital in Pakistan then, during her teens to participate in musical soirees held at the residences of affluent citizens and the aastana of Chun Peer in Mohalla Peer Gillaanian inside Mochi Gate. Another reason for her occasional visits to this city was to broadcast her songs from the then All India Radio Station, Lahore, and her name was announced as Bombaywali Roshan Ara Begum. She had acquired the popular nomenclature Bombaywali because she shifted to Bombay (now Mumbai) in the late 1930s from Calcutta, the place of her birth, to be near to Ustad Abdul Karim Khan from whom she took lessons in classical music for many years. I still remember her performance at Chun Peer’s abode in early 1941, when she pleasantly surprised local musical heavyweights and connoisseurs with her expertise in rendering classical compositions.
Possessing a rich, mature and mellifluous voice that could easily lend itself to the expression of a wide range of intricate classical asthai-antras, Roshan Ara employed her natural talent in the promotion of the art which requires a high degree of cultivation and training. Her singing was marked with a full-throated voice, short and delicate passages of sur (tones), lyricism, romantic appeal and swift taans. All these flourishes were combined in her unique style that reached its peak which was from 1947 to 1982. Her vigorous style of singing which was interspersed with bold strokes and perfect laykari, left no doubt that she was the greatest exponent of the Kirana gharana style of khayal singing after the demise of both her mentor Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and his equally talented cousin Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan.
Even before migrating to Pakistan, Roshan Ara Begum was acclaimed the best exponent of Kirana gharana style of khayal singing in the subcontinent. She embodied in her art all the exquisite tonal qualities and attributes of her mentor’s delicate style of classical vocalization. She was equally good at alap (step-by-step progression from one note to another) while delineating ragas, and also in taking breezy taans (flights) again in the strand of her ustad. She was very conscious of her dignity and status and never allowed herself to be emotionally swayed. But when the recording of her ustad’s music was played her eyes filled with tears.
An outstanding personality in the world of music, Roshan Ara Begum has aptly been called a phenomenon as her voice and its timbre, her creative musical intelligence and sensitivity had combined to produce perfect harmony. She had profound knowledge of the theory of classical music and practised this art for over 40 years. Roshan Ara Begum changed the course of Pakistani classical music by her masterly renditions and at the same time raised its status by endowing it with dignity, grace and glory.
Migrating to Pakistan in 1948, Roshan Ara Begum settled in Lalamusa, a small town almost mid-way between Lahore and Rawalpindi, a place to which her husband originally belonged. Although far away from Lahore, the cultural centre of the country, she would shuttle back and forth to participate in music and radio programmes.
Thanks to audio and visual recording devices, the late Malika-i-Mauseeqi will always be remembered for the richness of her music, which often overflowed with tonal modulations, for its sweetness and delicacy of gammaks (trills), and for her slow progression of ragas. It is difficult to adequately describe in words the quality of her music. One can only say that it went straight to the hearts of both knowledgeable listeners and cultivated connoisseurs, in live concerts as well as through radio and television.
The electronic media can play an important role in keeping her music alive. However, PTV seems to have forgotten all about Roshan Ara Begum — a fact which is substantiated by its failure in not telecasting her music even on her death anniversaries. Classical music has long been relegated by PTV to the lowest rung in its priorities. The Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, however, is doing slightly better as once in a while it airs recorded music of Roshan Ara Begum from its second channel.