x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Munni Begum: a voice that dances through space

One of the premier ghazal singers, Munni Begum, performed in Dubai on Saturday.

As a form of poetry, ghazals date back to 7th-century Arabia and have marked the work of the greatest Persian and Indopak poets since then. These highly emotional poems are best read aloud and are often set to music and sung by the likes of Munni Begum, one of Pakistan's most eminent and beloved ghazal singers.

For almost 40 years, Begum has enthralled connoisseurs all over the world. She sits cross-legged on stage and her voice dances through space. Her right hand plays the keys of her harmonium and her left pumps its bellows and the hearts of her audience.

Begum grew up in Dhaka, the capital of what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Along with her family, she fled Dhaka during the 1971 east/west Pakistan war and came to Karachi, where she began her career. In 1976, she recorded her first album of ghazals, choosing contemporary poetry set to simple music. The accessibility of her work set her apart from her peers and she steadily rose to fame. In 2008, she was awarded Pakistan's Pride of Performance Award. Begum has recorded 42 albums and is currently planning her 43rd.

Her fans can't get enough, which was obvious on Saturday night during a two-hour ghazal evening at Clover Creek Hotel in Dubai's Deira hosted by Ladyz Fuzion and Dream Advertising.

As Begum leafed through her well-thumbed notebook, pondering what ghazal to perform next, the requests kept pouring in. A traditional ghazal evening would see requests handed in on a piece of paper, which would travel from hand to hand until it reaches the stage. This was a more intimate gathering, though, and one had only to call out the name of their favourite ghazal and Begum would look over, smile, and - as she did many a time - oblige.

She worked her way through well-loved favourites, including Awargi Mai Had Se, which talks about the listlessness of experiencing an unrequited love. Ek Baar Muskurado, where the poet is asking his beloved to smile, just once, and Mareez-e-mohobbat, about undying passion. And for the thunderous finale, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom Sharabi extolled the pleasures of intoxication.

Ghazals, by their nature, tackle topics such as the meaning of life, unrequited love and contain references to wine and intoxication. Frequently, these references are metaphorical and add a wry twist to the veiled innuendos that punctuate ghazals.

This was well-noted by Shad Ali, the father of one of the organisers, who had taken the stage to assuage a restless audience before the ghazal evening began. With people trickling in from 8.30pm onwards, many waited more than an hour for certain VIP guests to arrive, without whom the performance could not begin.

Ali noted that Begum picks pieces that push the boundaries of social experience, laughing as he added that he has known her for almost three decades now and she is very well-behaved. Ali organised Begum's first performance in the UAE in the mid-1980s. Almost 30 years later, it is his daughter Saira Shad, the president of Ladyz Fuzion, who brought Begum over.

The VIPs arrived eventually and once the first notes from the harmonium soared across the room, nobody seemed to mind the delay. Guests reclined on the floor, bracing massive sausage-shaped pillows, and floated on the comfortable cloud of Begum's beautiful voice.