6th June [?] 1917 - 6th December1982
Belonging to a family totally devoted to music listening, I had heard Roshan Ara Begum's 78 RPM records (Anyone remember those? My daughter asked me if they were old CDs!) … but the first time I heard her in a concert was when I was 13. She sang a Des, Jaunpuri, and Jhinjoti Thumri that day that were absolutely out of this world. And I was floored.
After the concert Farrukh Chacha (2 years older than his brother, playback singer Talat Mahmood) told me that he, with his older brother, Khusro, were listening to her at an early concert some years ago. Ustad Faiyaz Khan Sahab (Agra Gharana) said to them that it was great that she was a girl: Agar voh la∂kaa hoti to shayad koee mard üss kay aagay nah hota (= Had she been a boy, maybe no man would have surpassed her).
A student of Ustad Karim Khansahab (Kirana Gharana), she was an impeccable singer and had the ease that very few singers seem to have. No drastic expressions, no large hand gestures, just pure sur and malhaar, remarkable sargams … and her breezy taans! That was her.
I used to phone Pandit Bhimsen Joshi on his birthdays and one day he said to me that he liked Roshan Ara a lot and wished there'd be some of her students he could hear. I couldn't think of any … and still know of no one who learnt much from her.
When Munawwar Ali Khan (son of Ba∂ay Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab) came to Pakistan he went to Lahore, with me, to ask Roshan Ara Begum to come and be the guest of honour at his father's memorial concert that year. Sadly, her husband was in the Police and she could not go to India without permission - so she refused.
Many years later, while my ship was in Karachi, I attended her last concert with Khusro Chacha, the most serious listener of classical music in my family. When she sang a new raag she had composed, she said it was two raags built into one. Later, Khusro Chacha went up to her and said he was sure he heard a small amount of another raag in the composition. She smiled and said: App kamaal kay aadmi haéñ. Maéñ nay to sirf ayk baar ayk aur raag ka tük∂aa istemaal kiyaa (= You are remarkable! I only used that small piece from another raag just once).
Thirty years ago, today, I was in Bombay on my ship. I got a call from Talat Chacha who was in tears. "Roshan Ara has passed away. Come to the house." I left the ship and reached his house in Bandra. He opened the door, still in tears, telling me "The world of music is ending now …"
Roshan Ara also sang some film songs under Anil Biswas and Feroze Nizami as well, specially for well-known films such as Roopmati Baazbahadur and more. When asked to sing Ghazals, not her usual fare at all, she did a fabulous job that can be seen here, for example, using her classical training.
Several of her recordings were made by Radio Pakistan, PTV, and Pakistan National Council of the Arts, but my constant messages in order to get a whole list of stuff they had recorded has received no responses. Syed Nasir Jehan, the famous Noha and Soz reciter, was once in charge of Radio Pak's Archives. He told me he was 'informed' that many of the Radio Pakistan versions had been lost or recorded over 'because of a lack of new tapes'. How terrible!