The queens of yesteryear were crowned long before the current pop-cultural references to ‘qweens’. These were vibrant and prominent personalities who were honoured with the title of ‘queen’ (or mallika) for reaching the pinnacle as a performing artist, and included personalities such as Begum Akhtar from India (known as Mallika-e-Ghazal; Queen of Ghazal) and Noor Jehan from Pakistan (known as Mallika-e-Tarannum; Queen of Melody). While these two are still more widely known, there has been little effort in documenting the social lives and histories of many other female performers, including those that belonged to traditional performance communities in music and dance.
Although there have been some attempts to archive the legacy of courtesan performers in India, these efforts have been almost negligible in Pakistan. This is partly a result of limited state patronage for the performing arts and has to do with negative social perceptions associated with female performers from this tradition, a remnant of the country’s colonial past. Moreover, the creation of an Islamic Republic demanded very specific ideas of ‘honour’ and ‘Muslim womanhood’, whereby many of these stories may have either been deliberately erased or forgotten, perhaps even by the women performers themselves. This could especially be the case for those that got married, perhaps in an effort to reintegrate back into a patriarchal society as ‘honourable’ women. However, no version of Pakistani music history can be complete without remembering the contributions of these remarkable women, many of whom were custodians of the musical heritage of the country.
Courtesans of Mughal India
Female performers have existed throughout the history of the Subcontinent, tracing back to the dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro, thousands of years before the creation of Pakistan itself. These include the courtesans of Mughal India, which broadly refer to singers, dancers, and musicians associated with the court. The term tawaif rose to prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries of the Mughal rule and became synonymous with all courtesans. However, it is important to note that the current understanding of the term tawaif does not encompass the different categories and roles of female performers that existed in earlier times. For instance, alongside the categories of tawaifs included bais, lolee, patur, gunikers, kancanis etc. Further, there were the domnis and dhadhinis, which was in fact a distinct category of female singers. According to Mekhala Sengupta’s paper, ‘Courtesan culture in India: The transition from the Devdasi to the Tawaif or Boijee’, courtesans were “front-runners of the first professional female entertainers” proficient in singing, dancing, poetry and social etiquette under the patronage of the royal courts and kings that ruled over the Subcontinent.
The creation of an Islamic Republic demanded very specific ideas of ‘honour’ and ‘Muslim womanhood’, whereby many of these stories may have either been deliberately erased or forgotten.
While some were employed at the courts, many others were like modern-day businesswomen who ran their salons, known as kothas or havelis, where younger men from royal families were often sent for training in the art of conversation and literary discourse, as well the appreciation of music, arts and culture. The courtesans would be invited to the royal households to sing and dance at weddings and other popular occasions, and would perform for both men and women in specific segregated spaces, as per the norm. They belonged to musician households from both Muslim and Hindu faiths and were accepted by both. They sang and contributed to compositions through their repertoire of language, poetry and lived experiences, thus giving a new life to semi-classical genres such as the thumri, kajri, dadra, hori, chaiti, ghazal etc, which are some of the distinct art forms they are known for. In fact, well-known poets often depended on courtesans to sing their poetry because that was one way of memorialising their work, giving them both credibility and visibility.
Impact of colonial rule and Partition
Eventually, it was the arrival of colonial rule which led to the demise of this cultural institution. The British soon realised the considerable social influence and power many of the courtesans had over the royal elite and thus began a targeted campaign against all-female performers. Towards the end of the 19th century, the “Anti-Nautch” movement (derived from the Urdu/Hindi word nach meaning dance) took root, classifying all courtesans as prostitutes, a legacy that survives in popular culture even today. This coincided with a rise of Christian missionaries who were successful in spreading Victorian notions of morality whereby the local Indians including their manners, customs and traditions were deemed both immoral and less civilised.
The British soon realised the considerable social influence and power many of the courtesans had over the royal elite and thus began a targeted campaign against all-female performers.
After the 1947 Partition of the Subcontinent, both newly created nation states of India and Pakistan were forced to create new versions of their cultural identity – those that were separate and distinct from each other. This most significantly affected the status and conditions of female performers, including courtesans, as their stories continued to get buried under both nationalist and colonial ideas of cultural production. For instance, in India, attempts were made to sanitise the Hindu culture from Muslim female performers – one example was the renaming of bais to devis. Many were disallowed from singing for All India Radio unless they provided marriage certificates – perhaps a reason why so many artists were unrecorded.
In Pakistan, the once renowned cultural district called Heera Mandi in Lahore rapidly declined into an infamous red-light area known today for poverty and prostitution. Similarly, the term mujra has become pejorative, changing from much of its original craft and meaning across both countries. Originally referred to as a highly skilled traditional dance form combining kathak with semi-classical music during the late Mughal period, it is now popularly known as an erotic/vulgar dance form in its current form.
Even as social and public spaces were often confined to men, women performers continued to challenge traditional boundaries of the public versus private sphere, even in the days of strict segregation.
The shift from the court patronage system to modern systems of governance also meant a radically different socio-political environment for these artists. Many courtesan performers began to re-establish their profession in the newly formed film industries across Lahore, Bombay, and Calcutta. Since many of them were already skilled in singing, acting and dancing, they became best suited for roles on screen. Unfortunately, even then, the portrayal of the courtesan tradition in mainstream cinema and popular culture, including in films, continued to reinforce stereotypes of the unmarried, unhappy and immodest female with little or no agency. During former president Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship, many public restrictions were further imposed on women, particularly for those in the media. For instance, women on Pakistan television had to cover their heads and could only appear in commercials to advertise domestic products such as sewing machines and detergents. These specific views on public morality continued to marginalise the female performing communities.
Pakistan’s earliest music queens
One of the earliest and most renowned classically-trained voices includes the legendary Mukhtar Begum. Mukhtar Begum was born in Amritsar in 1901 and trained in Hindustani vocal music since the age of seven, first by Mian Meherbaan Khan, who was the teacher of Ustad Aashiq Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana (school). As a vocalist, her skill and training led her to perform in some of the last of the princely states, as did her contemporaries such as Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai, Jehanara Kajjan and Gauhar Jaan. Legend has it that when Mukhtar Begum sang at the court of Hyderabad, the nawab was so moved by her singing that he wanted to crown her. In fact, in one of her last interviews with Lutfullah Khan, she narrates that the nawab’s uncle complained because she was seated alongside the princesses of Hyderabad. The nawab had responded by stating that if he is considered to be the ruler of his region, then she is similarly a true heiress of her art. There would also be occasions when the nawab himself would accompany her on the tabla. She also played a prominent role in the early-stage theatre in Calcutta, and it is during that time she met her husband, the famous Urdu playwright and poet Agha Hashar Kashmiri (known as the Shakespeare of Urdu literature) who scripted many of her plays. She was known for her work in films like Matwali Meera (1947), Majnu (1935) and Indrasabha (1932). Her husband passed away in 1935, and she decided to settle in Lahore, Pakistan, after Partition.
When Mallika Phukraj was asked about her biggest joy, she graciously responded that it was to be able to do something of social value for which one is remembered in history.
Indeed, the most lasting contribution of Mukhtar Begum was the role she played in inspiring and training many younger Pakistani women actors and singers that followed in her footsteps. This list includes renowned singers like her younger sister, Farida Khanum, known for her exquisite expression and rendering of the ghazal. She also greatly encouraged the legendary Noor Jehan and her sisters to continue singing by recommending them to various film producers of the industry. In fact, she was the one to give Noor Jehan her stage name (from Allah Wasai) and it was the former’s style of performing in a sari that inspired Noor Jehan to adopt the same. She is also known to have trained Naseem Begum, who was considered to be Noor Jehan’s singing rival in playback singing in the 1960s and was also responsible for the upbringing of the Pakistani film star Rani.
Mukhtar Begum singing a thumri in Raag Bhairvi called “Ja mein to se naahin boloon”
Bestowed with the title of queen as part of her first name by a spiritual guide is the legendary Mallika Phukraj, who was also recently documented in Fawzia Afzal Khan’s Siren Song, a 2020 book on Pakistan’s women singers. Born in 1912 in Hamirpur, she belonged to a family of hereditary musicians and was employed in the courts of Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir since the age of nine. She was trained by Ustad Ali Bukhsh Qusuri, the father of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and had strong command of the genres of thumri, ghazal, bhajan, Pahari geet and Dogri folk songs. She migrated to Lahore after Partition and started performing publicly with Radio Pakistan. In 1977, when All India Radio, for which she sang until Partition, celebrated its golden jubilee, she was invited to India and awarded with the Legend of Voice award. In a rare, recorded interview, when Mallika Phukraj was asked about her biggest joy, she graciously responded that it was to be able to do something of social value for which one is remembered in history. Her famous rendition of Hafeez Jallandhari’s ‘Abhi to main jawaan hoon’; (But I am still young) is a testament to her timeless quality. Her daughter, Tahera Syed, too, is another acclaimed singer in Pakistan.
Mallika Phukraj singing a Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal for a pre-recorded studio performance.
Though very little is known about her, one forgotten name that silently floats in the internet archives is Zeenat Begum. Born as Shamim Akhtar, Zeenat Begum received recognition for her debut acting and playback singing for Lahore’s first golden-jubilee film Mangti, produced in 1942. The film’s composer was Pandit Gobind Ram and Zeenat Begum had sung all the songs from the film. Pandit Gobind, recognised for popularising folk music in films, was also known for introducing the first female qawwali in Punjabi film, sung by both Zeenat Begum and Rehmat Bai. Zeenat Begum sang for other notable films, including Panchhi (1944), Shalimar (1946), Shehar se Door (1946) and Daasi (1944). The iconic Indian playback singer Mohammad Rafi made his debut with Zeenat Begum with ‘Sohniye Nee, Heeriye Nee’ for the Punjabi film Gul Baloch (1944). Unfortunately, not much is known or recorded of her life except that she moved back to Lahore from Bombay after Partition, where she continued singing for the film industry and Radio Pakistan, albeit for a short time.
Recording of an Urdu naat by Zeenat Begum and the legendary Shamshad Begum.
Many women actors of the Pakistani film industry came from female performance communities, including the yesteryear superstar Shamim Ara. Born as Putli Bai, her mother was a popular dancer in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and had trained her daughter in acting and dancing. Shamim Ara has also been credited as the first female director of the Pakistani film industry for Jeeo aur Jeeno Do (1976).
At the same time, not all women performers were actively associated with cinema. For instance, there are the likes of classically trained forgotten voices like the late Kajjan Begum, who was hailed for her recital of nohas, soz and wedding songs and also happens to be the mother of the famous Pakistani singer, Mahnaz. Kajjan Begum (not to be confused with courtesan Jehanara Kajjan, a popular singer and actor of the earliest talkie films of Indian cinema) hailed from Lucknow, and her real name was Imam Baandi. Not many details are known about her life except that she came from a family of musicians. Her mother, Husain Baandi, was a well-known classically trained singer of the time and her father was also considered a reputable singer and soz khwan. (a reciter of an elegiac poem that commemorates the martyrdom of the Holy Prophet’s family in the Battle of Karbala). Kajjan Begum or her family may not have been directly associated with the courts but what is important to note is that many women like herself were accomplished and respected public performers, despite not always conforming to the stricter rules of gender segregation.
A rare recording of Kajjan Begum singing a ghazal by Iqbal Safi Puri, a respected poet from UP, India.
An evolving tradition
While there are countless histories of female performance in need of further documentation and research, the fact that much of the courtesan tradition catered to the male gaze perhaps raises some complex questions for many women today. There is no doubt that women have operated from conditions of institutionalised patriarchy throughout history, and the world of entertainment in itself is no exception. However, the ideals of piety, shame and honour associated with women and their bodies have never been fixed categories in themselves and have continued to evolve, often used by the state and society to suit its objectives. To reduce them to mere objects of male desire is to invalidate their power and agency, further pushing them to the margins of history.
Legend has it that when Mukhtar Begum sang at the court of Hyderabad, the nawab was so moved by her singing that he wanted to crown her.
Even as social and public spaces were often confined to men, women performers continued to challenge traditional boundaries of the public versus private sphere, even in the days of strict segregation. Perhaps what is most interesting (and ironic) is that it was this performance in public that elevated their status and craft, giving them recognition for their artistic excellence rather than anything else. In fact, their training in classical music and dance traditions was itself considered a matter of immense cultural prestige, respect, and social value. Most importantly, it was this skill and passion for the art itself that not only subverted existing social boundaries and spaces of gender interaction but continued to inspire the following generations of women performers, paving the way for many Pakistani music queens of today.