Iqbal Bano: Singer who transformed the genre of the ghazal

Tuesday 05 May 2009 00:00 BST

Iqbal Bano took Indo-Pakistani vocal artistry to new heights by combining traditionalism and modernism in one of the most venerated and complex of vocal poetry forms. Her chosen medium was ghazal, an Arab poetic form richly hued, veiled and hallmarked by allegory and consequently open to symbolic and multi-levelled interpretation. What is written and what is sung in ghazal is not necessarily as it appears or sounds. Iqbal Bano caught the cusp of change by presenting and delivering ghazals that took the once largely if not wholly devotional on to the political path. Whether singing the religious or the new, in the case of the ghazals of the new-wave poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, she brought a new and personal dynamism to what she sang.

Born in Delhi in 1935 – no more specific date seemingly ever emerged – she learned classical music – it was commonplace to learn classical music and dance in polite society – and her family encouraged her to take music into a realm beyond that of a mere marriageable skill. She studied formally, going so far as to undergo a ganda bandan ceremony – the thread-tying that symbolically links master and pupil. Far-sightedly, her husband encouraged her artistry.

That bedrock in Hindustani art music immeasurably coloured her later artistry. Though for much of her recording, broadcasting and film soundtrack career, she sang ghazal, a so-called light classical form, she was grounded in other Hindustani art music forms. In ghazal – whether sung in Arabic, Persian, Urdu or whatever – much is left to the listener's imaginative powers. What sounds like a tale of love is open to interpretation. Love may be construed as sacred or profane. "The Beloved", for example, may well stand for the supreme entity or it may be a lower-case beloved. Some nuances are beyond intonation. The explicit is seldom desirable.

Therein lay Iqbal Bano's skill. She created new ambiguities and possibilities from the age-old poetics of couplets that might be connected or self-standing or not, but which nudge on the theme or narrative. Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his kind wrote new angles; she sang them. She proved that the art of performed ghazal lies in delivering what seem like discontinuities in order to deliver what turns out to be a seamless whole when the final line comes.

Over a career that began in 1957, she recorded, broadcast and sang in Pakistani Urdu-language film. She was an all-rounder in the field of light classical singing – whether forms such as ghazal, thumri or dadra – as well as being one of the most dazzling singers to emerge out of the subcontinent in her time. Once upon a time ghazal was a tête-a-tête between lovers. Iqbal Bano, like Farida Khanum, was one of the artists who transformed the genre forever. One such recording appeared in Music Today's "Gulistan" (Rose Garden) series alongside, for example, Farida Khanum, but her feistiness can be heard in the singing of next generation artists such as Britain's Najma Akhtar, who dare to be different.

Ken Hunt

Iqbal Bano, classical singer: born Delhi, India 1935; married; died Lahore, Pakistan 21 April 2009.

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