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For Begum, music is a religion
By T.M. Anantharaman
BANGALORE, July 19: South Indians, be it singers or listeners, are largely conservative, both bound by tradition and tradition-bound. The year was 1970 or so, and the mostly Tamilian Brahmnical crowd and lovers of music had congregated to attend the music festival organised by the Chembur Fine Arts Society. Stalwarts such as M.S.Subbalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakuamri, D.K. Pattammal and her brother D.K. Jayaraman, K.V.Narayanswamy, Prof. T.R. Subramaniam and Chembai Vaidyanatha Baghavathar were among some of the popular musicians featured regularly. In such a milieu, it was rather odd to find a Begum featured as a concert artiste.

When Begum Parveen Sultana mounted the stage, I wondered why she was called Begum Parveen. She looked every inch an orthodox Hindu woman, draped in a colourful Kanjeevaram silk sari. Her fair face sparkled with a big round “tilak” anointing her forehead. As if to cap the surprise of everybody, she sported “jasmine-decked” flowerful “Veni”, if I may say so. She looked every inch a South Indian Brahmin lady in her early thirties. Why she carried a name Begum Parveen Sultana, I could never understand. She could well have called herself Lakshmi or Sakku Bai, and no one would have noticed any difference.

But Begum she was, and, as Begum, she took centre stage. Even though the crowd had not filled up to its usual strength, the Begum surprised everyone present, mostly conservative Tamilian lovers of music, with her very first “Sa pa sa”. The voice had a beguiling quality to it. It had both sensuousness and startlingly clear clarity. The purity of her notes was in tandem with her effervescent and ebullient moods, which cavorted with amazing peaks and lows simply swamping you and holding you verily spell-bound. The Begum, I was pleasantly astonished to find, knew her muse and musical moods well enough to hold everyone’s rapt attention with her enthralling music.

The haunting quality of the Begum’s music had another astonishing quality to it.

Despite the fact that she could traverse the scales with finesse and effortless ease, it is her ability to stand sharply focused on the “athi-thara shadja” notes in perfect pitch which I found as among the most remarkable and telling quality of her music.

That day she surprised everyone of the Tamilian audience by singing a “bandish” on Devi, the most revered deity of Tamilian Brahmins. The “Mahishasura Mardhini” kriti simply enchanted everyone present, and the Begum became an instant hit with the audience for the song “Bhavani Dayani”, set in the incredibly beautiful raag Bhairavi (what south Indians refer to as Sindhu Bhairavi), ideally suited for bhajans. The Begum’s rendering of Bhavani Dayani was so appealing and so compellingly evocative that decades after having heard the Begum sing this song, it still mesmerizes you every time you hear this.

I have also discovered that music has no religion. Can you ever ordinarily imagine a Muslim Begum singing in praise of Hindu deities such as Devi Bhavani? It can happen only in our own India, nowhere else because of our pluralistic culture. True, there are many glitches to achieving perfect peace and harmony but despite this, we can all be proud of our motherland. Thanks to our history and culture, we have got musicians such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and among many others the incomparable Begum. I will always remember the Begum for the beautiful melodious song “Hamen tumse pyar kitna” for the 1981 film Kudrat music for which was given by none other than Pancham (R.D.Burman) and the bandish “Bhavani dayani” with which she has stamped her trademark as an extraordinarily gifted singer and my son’s friend Sanjeev who gifted me an audio tape of her song and also always recall my cousin Ranganathan’s description of the Begum’s music as “awesome”. So much for the Begum of Bhavani Dhayani music!

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