By :Khantha Mahadevan
… An ethereal face and a urkidarniquely seductive voice that could mesmerize the animals on land or the Rain Gods in the sky with equal felicity.
Flashback to a yesteryear film available on youtube: As the credits roll by, the director seated in the studio explains his intention of making the historical musical film where the central character’s personal and historical life is depicted. At the end of this brief clip, a harmonious blend of sitars, flute and violins welcome the hero on horseback as he rides along a mud path in the lush countryside. He hears a sweet voice emanating from behind the bushes at a distance. A melodious jalatarang and a lone violin capture the scenery and the mood. The viewers are treated to a pretty village damsel with a hint of mischief in her eyes and a long stick dangling in her hand beckoning the clouds to bring her beloved. Her voice is sweet but not thin. It has a mere hint of a nasal tone but has depth and a distinct flavor that lingers in the heart. The beautiful instrumental interludes lead the hero on horseback to the beckoning voice as she emerges from the bushes:
HE: Yeh ladki, kya gaa rahi ho? Raag Gao raag..
SHE: Kya kaha? Kya kaha tumne?
HE: Raag vidya na jaano toh mat gao..magar gao toh raag gao..
She gives her name and explains how she is in great demand to sing at all the wedding ceremonies in the village. The hero then remarks ‘ganwaar log raag-vidya kya jaane?’ which makes the heroine angry. She demands proof that he knows something about music. The hero asks her if she knows the raga of the song that she just sang. She replies nonchalantly that the information is useless to her and her musical knowledge is derived from observing the village women singing while doing chores like filling water pots, etc.
The hero laments, ‘Denewaale ne itna achha gala diya hai, lekin afsos yeh ki raag daari kii samajh nahi dee’. He then sings the song according to its raga which provokes peals of laughter in her. The hero now reveals his identity as the greatest singer of the land. Surprised that she is face-to-face with this legend and a tad hurt by his attitude even when he says he likes her voice and is willing to give her lessons, she remarks that she would like him to round up her cattle as the evening is disappearing fast.
HE: Main unhe kahan se laaoun?
SHE: Idhar udhar charte honge..awaaz lagao toh chale aayenge..
HE: Awaaz lagane se woh jaanwar aa jaayen toh woh jaanwar kaise?
SHE: Awaaz mein itna bhi asar na ho toh voh awaaz kaisi? ..
As they walk to the meadow, she begins slowly ‘Aa Ao Gori, aa ao Shyama..saanjh bhayee ghar aao’ in raag Maand stealing a glance at the legend standing next to her with a hint of disdain while he looks on intently to observe the effect of her voice. The acting is SUPERB capturing the free uninhibited spirit of the village lass. As the actor/singer sings the melody, her eyes search the distant meadows for a sight of her beloved animals while also gazing at the legend with a hint of contempt. When Khursheed sings ‘rum jhum rum jhum ghanti..’, the herds of cows start their homeward march, the baby goats turn around and sprint across the meadow…as the tempo increases, the animals take rapid strides to reach their loving shepherdess leaving the legend hero stunned and dazed. She walks away contemptuously.
In the next scene, we see the dejected legend sitting forlorn in the village elder’s house who is inquiring about his welfare. He says: ‘Barson kee mehnat ke baad guru se sur kee daulat mili, lekin huzoor,..’
HE: hum gaaye toh anadi hamari hansi udaye aur anadi gaaye toh janwar bhi seedhe chale aayen..
This heartfelt lament by the legend (Kundan Lal Saigal) in the movie Tansen (1943) summarizes the extraordinary and magical hold of this great actor/singer (Khursheed Bano) that has lasted more than seven decades. Many other legend singer/actors have made their mark over much longer careers than what Khursheed had in the industry. But the admiration and love for this graceful talent continues unabated and grows stronger and fonder across many generations as more of her songs and film clips make their way to youtube due to the generosity of collectors all over the world. One wonders what explains the charisma of this actor with a gifted voice even when her songs or movie clips from the first nine years of her career are unavailable in the public domain except for a lone song or two. The short answer is she was a precious gift to the industry possessing great talent in acting and singing both of which came naturally to her.
An ethereal beauty gifted with a celestial voice, Khursheed Bano, entered the film world just as its silent era was ending and made an effortless transition to the talkies. Khurshid was born on 14 April 1914 in Choonian tehsil, Kasur district, south of Lahore. Her childhood was spent in the Bhatti Gate area of Lahore where her family was a neighbor of Allama Iqbal. From published accounts, she had no formal training in music and her entry into films was by chance. She started her film career taking the name of Sheela in the silent film ‘An eye for an eye’ in 1931. Her seamless transition into talkie films started with her work in the Madan Production House, based in Calcutta, where she acted in a number of films directed by J J Madan, the third son of J F Madan, the founder of the famed Madan Theatres. These included ‘Laila Majnu’ and ‘Shakuntala’ in 1931 and 4 films in 1932, ‘Chatra Bakavli’, ‘Hatili Dulhan’, ‘Radheshyam’ (directed by Roop Kumar Shorey and Anand Prasad Kapoor) and ‘Muflis Aashique’ where she acted with the talented Mukhtar Begum. It appears she adopted the name Khursheed Bano in a few of these films. In the 1933 film ‘Naklee Doctor’ she acted with Patience Cooper, another renowned star of the thirties but under the name of Sheela.
In the first seven or eight years Khursheed acted in movies produced in both Calcutta and Lahore. The famous film ‘Swarg kee Seerhi’ with music by Ghulam Haider also starred Khursheed in addition to Umrao Zia Begum. One of her songs from ‘Kimiagar’ with music by Mir Sahib (1936) is available on youtube. Hearing this early song confirms that she had a unique voice, neither sweet nor nasal but seductive with good control and range. Her filmography shows that she acted on average in three or more movies each year until she moved to Bombay. This impressive record suggests that she was a good actor, constantly in demand (even if the role was a secondary one), and favored by producers. She was paired with many well-known artists of that era and these films had music given by veteran composers.
Khursheed entered the Bombay film industry via the famed production house Ranjit Movietone which at one time boasted that it had more stars on its payroll than all the stars in heaven. Being on Ranjit’s payroll enabled Khursheed to be cast with some of the best actors of the industry such as Motilal, Jairaj and Ishwarilal. Her skills in acting were recognized and appreciated along with her famous male actors. Her natural mannerisms, especially her eye movements were believed to be copied by the then young Meena Kumari.
Two of the finest music composers associated with Ranjit were Gyan Dutt (joined in 1937) and Khemchand Prakash (joined in 1939). Every composer of merit needs at least one talented singer to reproduce the fine nuances envisaged in a film composition of three minutes in a perfect and pleasing manner. Khursheed Bano has the distinction of making both these composers earn wonderful recognition in the industry. In her last interview, published in Cineplot, Khursheed regards herself as an actor first and then a singer, due to the fact that singing was expected of the actors in that era. She has also mentioned that fine composers went to great lengths to teach and extract a masterly rendition from singers such as herself, who had the gift of an attractive voice but no formal training to hone its skills. Gyan Dutt and Khemchand Prakash helped mould her voice to develop remarkable control while singing complex tunes. They also trained her voice to render a vibrato effect when needed in soul-stirring slow alaaps or maintain the high notes with steady ease.
Her stint at Ranjit gave rise to beautiful hit films, such as, ‘Holi’, ‘Musafir’, ‘Pardesi’, ‘Beti’, ‘Shaadi’ under the baton of these two composers. Some of her most well-known songs composed by Gyan Dutt include ‘Bhanwara rasiya re man basiya’ from ‘Aap ki Marzi’ (1939), ‘Nainon se naina mila ke’ from ‘Beti’ (1941) while with Khemchand Prakash, Khursheed gave many other gems such as ‘Ae dil kahaan le jaaoun’ from ‘Shadi’ (1939), the ghazal, ‘Pehle jo mohabbat se inkaar kiya hota’ from ‘Pardesi’ (1941), ‘Ritu basant ki aayi’ from ‘Musafir’, etc.
1942 was a landmark year for Ranjit Movietone. Prodded by his dear friends Prithviraj Kapoor, Kidar Sharma and K N Singh who had made an exodus to Bombay from New Theatres in the late thirties, Kundan Lal Saigal decided to move to Bombay and joined Ranjit production house. The solid hits Khursheed had given Ranjit Movietone earned her the honor of acting with Saigal for his first film in Bombay, ‘Bhakt Surdas’, with music by Gyan Dutt. A blockbuster hit with eleven songs of Saigal and six of Khursheed, it gave this singer/actor pair the cult status of superstars. The melodious and soul-soothing ‘panchhi bawra’, along with ‘madhur madhur ga re manwa’ and the charming duet ‘Chandni raat aur taare khilen ho’ rank among Khursheed’s best songs. In all, Khursheed sang 33 of Gyan Dutt’s compositions.
If the success of ‘Bhakt Surdas’ stunned the land, the same pair made even bigger history in 1943 by acting the life of the music prodigy, ‘Tansen’, in another Ranjit Movietone production with direction by Jayant Desai. An outstanding production, it immortalized Saigal and gave Khursheed Bano the unprecedented honor of having exceptional solos (‘ghata ghanghor ghor’, ‘barso re’) and a melodious duet (‘more balapan ke saathi’) that rank head-to-head with the best solos and duets of Saigal from his entire repertoire. These two musicals established this duo as the foremost pair of actor/singers with exceptional appeal and talent.
Khursheed continued this successful phase with some more hits including her classic songs with Mukesh in “Moorthi” (1945) which had music by Bulo C Rani, the newest member of Ranjit production house. She also sang a duet with Mohammad Rafi in “Aage Badho” which was the second film of Dev Anand and its music was by Sudhir Phadke. Her last film before partition took her away to the land of her birth was ‘Papiha re’. In Pakistan, she had a brief career and acted in only two movies (Fankaar and Mandi), neither of which became a hit. Khursheed married her manager Lala Yakub in 1946. Due to differences with her husband, Khursheed obtained a divorce after a decade and then married one of her admirers, Yusuf Bhaimiyan, who was a successful entrepreneur. She retired from films with a total of sixty films and seldom gave interviews to the press. She engaged in philanthropy and was content to lead a life away from the limelight.
She appeared occasionally on PTV shows and maintained her dignity and grace in private and in public. A memorable salute to her life was held by PTV a few years before her death and this one hour show was available on youtube but not anymore. She attended this program (in a wheel chair) and it was heart-warming to see how gracious, simple and sweet she appeared even in her sunset years. One of the singers who was greatly influenced by Khursheed and who continues to render her songs in public and on television is Nayyara Noor (a clip of her with Khursheed will be posted). Khursheed’s niece, Shamim Bano, was also an actor in the forties and starred with Dilip Kumar in his first film Jwar Bhata (1944). Khursheed died peacefully four days after her birthday on April 18, 2001.
No write-up on Khursheed Bano can be completed without a discussion of her extraordinary career-best song ‘Barso re’ from ‘Tansen’. Saigal presented the fiery Raag Deepak in Akbar’s court (‘diya jalao jagmag jag mag’) and his powerful rendition lit up the durbar. While the emperor was mighty pleased, singing the raag made Saigal’s body and mind behave as if he was being burnt from inside, reducing him to a pathetic state of health. No hakim in Akbar’s court or from nearby lands knew how to cure his ailment. Finally, the emperor was told that the only way to reduce the fire raging inside Tansen was for someone to sing Raag Megh Malhar and invoke the propitious rain gods to shower their liquid gold on Saigal and the land. As Saigal is taken around the kingdom in a palanquin, Tani (Khursheed) finds him begging the village women to pour water over his head. Upon learning the cure for his ailment, Tani proceeds to invoke the mercy of the rain Gods. Khemchand Prakash started the tune with a rhythmless section ( similar to the start of ‘aayega aanewaala’ in Mahal with the lines ‘khamosh hai zamana’) where Khursheed lets out a lament and then the most richly orchestrated song of Khemchand Prakash begins..
‘Bina jal… pii… mera…pii jaley….
Jaley… jiya…neer aa…
Birhan kii…kiii….duniya jaley
Kaun bajaa vey pyaas..’
Let the rain of Khursheed songs begin… ‘Barso re…Barso re…Barso re…
Ghumad ghumad kar barso..jor jor ghanghor shor barso..barso re’
(References: Articles on Khursheed by Gajendra Khanna at anmolfankaar.com which includes the complete audio of sixty of her songs, last interview of Khursheed by Navaid Rashid in 1992 published in cineplot.com, article by Fareeduddin Alavi in members.tripod.com, articles on Gyan Dutt and Khemchand Prakash on the web, articles in the Friday Times, Lahore, and wikipedia.)