Monday, April 16, 2012

The Curious Case of Nadira: Munni Begum

A.R. Chugtai

Deprive a people of their right to communicate in their own tongue and you can bank on a revolutionary backlash.  When Pakistan was a country divided in two halves (West and East) the issue of language was one of the major hinderances to national unity.  Pakistan was a country run by a Punjabi dominated military and the people of the Western half spoke mainly Urdu and Punjabi.  For most East Pakistanis, Bengali was the mother tongue.  Efforts, pleas and political negotiations to have Bengali given equal status with Urdu as the national language were repeatedly rebuffed by the Generals.  And is always the case, linguistic nationalism became the banner for a much grander sense of national humiliation.  West Pakistan was also hated for its economic policies which allowed the arid West to exploit the riches of the fertile East and the denial of political representation, especially when Mujibur Rehman, a Bengali political figure, and his party won the right to form government.

War broke out between the two parts of Pakistan and in 1971, with India acting as midwife, the new country of Bangladesh was created leaving Pakistan humiliated and truncated. Throughout this period the right to speak Bengali was the spark that kept the revolutionary flames alive and the issue that more than any other that connected with common people.   Almost more than any other community in India, Bengalis love and revere their language, its poets, its literature and the culture that is contained within and passed on through it.

Which brings us to the curious case of Munni Begum.  A Bengali, she was born in Dhaka, East Pakistan, before the nationalist movement began but just as the new country was born, her family made the decision to flee to West Pakistan.  Not to a mansion in Lahore or a rural jagir (estate) in Sindh but to a refugee camp on the sandy outskirts of Karachi. There, without running water or electricity, Munni Begum and her family seemed destined to live a desperate and harsh life.

In 1976 the family managed to scrape together enough money to make a tape of Nadira (Munni Begum’s birth name) singing ghazals. In Urdu. At first glance, there is nothing unusual about this.  But when one considers the desperate tenacity with which Bengalis had laid down their lives for the right to speak their mother tongue and how the flipside of such tenacity demanded not just a rejection of but a deep hatred of Urdu, Munni Begum’s cassette of Urdu ghazals takes on a different color.  Intriguing (perhaps, troubling) questions arise when one begins to imagine what drove a Bengali family to flee their homeland for a refugee camp in the land of the Oppressor and turn their back (at least in public) against their own.

However, improbably and unexpectedly, Munni Begum’s voice caught the public’s imagination. Her choice of ghazals with simple language that suited her immature familiarity with Urdu connected with common people. Indeed, when I was first learning Urdu I listened regularly to Munni Begum exactly for this reason: I could understand her lyrics.

When Munni Begum went to pick up her first royalties she was shocked to receive a check from the music company. “Rs 7000?” she asked unbelievingly.

“No,” came the reply. “Rs 70,000!”

With the money she moved her family out of the refugee camp into a new house.  She hasn’t looked back since. Munni Begum now lives in Chicago and has a huge fan base in India and Pakistan.

The Washerman’s Dog tonight presents a collection of her ghazals, including one of her biggest hits, Lazzat-e-gham bardha dijiye.  She plays harmonium as she sings and is accompanied by some very nice sarangi  and tabla playing.

            Track Listing:
01 Dard-E-Dil Ka Ab Naya
02 Nafas Nafas Ko Mere
03 Be Wafa Se Bhi Pyar
04 Lazzat-E-Gham
05 Zindagi Ki Rahon Mein
06 Ishq Mein Kya Kya Bataen
07 Marize Mohabbat Unhi
08 Uski Gali Mein Mujhe
09 Barsaat Ki Bahar Hai
10 Main Khayal Hoon

Listen here.

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