Shakeela Bano Bhopali: First Woman Qawwal Of The Sub-Continent

Shakeela Bano Bhopali

The year was 1951, just two years after the sun had set upon the feudal history of the Bhopal riyaasat’s 250 years of uninterrupted existence. But the aura and the trappings of regality remained undiminished. During some festive occasion a musical soiree was organized at the Ahmedabad palace. As was customary, young and budding singers and musicians were introduced at such soirees, under the strict patronage and supervision of their principal teachers―the Ustaads. The audience was members of the aristocratic families of Bhopal, a few remaining Britishers and music connoisseurs; the ambiance was somewhat heavy with the overhanging futile nostalgia of the days gone by! Nawab Bhopal, Hamiddullah Khan was the guest of honour. A young singer, all of nine years old, started singing. The song was the latest popular number originally sung by the noted playback singer Shamshad Begum from the Hindi film Bahar: ‘Dunia ko laat maro, duniyaa salaam kare, mud mud salaam kare, jhuk jhuk salaam kare.…’ Suddenly, there was a flutter in the audience…what was this girl up to? Gesticulating and enacting every word of the song, the little singer had started to kick in the direction of the Nawab sitting in the audience! Even though the Bhopal state had been merged with India, the protocol towards royalty was still, subconsciously, in place, and kicking in the direction of the ex-Nawab was certainly not acceptable.

Suddenly, there was a flutter in the audience…what was this girl up to?

But the little girl got away scot-free, mainly because of her talent and her confident performance that evening. This little girl grew to be Shakeela Bano, who was of Pathan descent and had inherited the nonchalant attitude and great sense of self-worth that the Pathan women of Bhopal typically possessed when it came to pursuing their heart. After Shakeela had garnered much public adulation and popularity in Bhopal, the suffix ’Bhopali’ was added after her name, to make her the inimitable Shakeela Bano Bhopali.

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What Begum Akhtar, the queen of gazal singing was to Awadh, Shakeela Bano was to Bhopal. Shakeela’s sense of her own self-worth was very strong, as mentioned above, and it manifested itself in her demeanor, conduct, and in her political views. This confidence showed in her performances on stage. Though unlike Begum Akhtar, whose popularity was limited to aficionados of the more refined and rather eclectic form of singing―the gazal and later thumri, Shakeela Bano’s qawwali was popular across board―from aristocrats and connoisseurs of music, to the common man on the street. She was the first woman qawwal of the sub-continent. Along with the music she consciously wore the traditional women attire made popular by the Begumat (The women rulers of Bhopal). She kept alive the fashion of the now famous Bhopali Kurta or Turki Kurta with the five-metre length of dupatta which was used not just to cover the whole body but was also to style the dress.

In the 1950s, Shakeela went to Bombay to try her luck in films, and soon became a craze there as well, with films like Jagir, Dastak, Shradhanjali etc doing good business. At the same time, she remained as popular as a qawwal. Some gems in her repertoire of include such hits as ‘Milte hi nazar tumse, hum ho gaye deewane, Peene waale meri ankhon se piya karte hain, Sainyan doli leke aaye tere dwar, Ab yeh chod diya hai tujhpe etc. It is said that that film producers would re-release their films that had flopped earlier, adding a qawwali or two by Shakeela, and this would turn the fortunes of their films, making them successful. Although the first qawwali that was recorded in a female voice was that of the famous Nurjahan “Aahen Na Bharin Shikve Na Kiye ” (Lyricist Naqsh Lyallpuri from the film Zeenat -1945), Shakeela continued to remain the first female qawwal to maintain the musical genre of qawwali. In my assessment her comparison with the famous Egyptian Singer Umm Kulthum who dominated the Middle East music for close to five decades, appears to be more apt than Begum Akhtar for two similarities that catapulted them into the world of music. Like Kulthum, Shakeela also faced very tough competition from the then established female singers, and like her instead of performing for exclusive audience both Kulthum and Shakeela performed for general public. Thus expanding the elitist classical genre of music into the popular form.

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Unfortunately, Bhopal, her birth place also became the death-knell for Shakeela, when she was exposed to the lethal methyl isocyanate gas in the Bhopal gas disaster in December 1984, while visiting a relative. She could never recover from the after effects of the poisonous gas, and after a long period of hospitalization, and neglect by family and fans over the years, died a painful, lonely death in 2002. What a collective disgrace on us….

In the 1950s, Shakeela went to Bombay to try her luck in films, and soon became a craze there as well, with films like Jagir, Dastak, Shradhanjali etc doing good business.

Perhaps the overarching presence of the Five Begum Nawabs spanning over almost 200 years of rule has dwarfed many prominent and illustrious female personalities. Shakeela Bano was one of them. Why do we have such dementia when it comes to taking care of our men and women who have consolidated our cultural heritage and legacy? Shakeela Bano was not an exception in this regard, countless other musicians, writers, singers and painters have had much worse fate.

In her own words …

‘Un ko fursat kahāñ jo ye socheñ

bāno imsāl kis vabāl meiñ hai’

(Where does anyone have the time to think

what calamities have befallen Bano?)

Excerpted with permission from the book BhopalNama: Writing a city by Vertul Singh, Amaryllis.

Vertul Singh is uniformed personnel, first with the Army as a short-service commissioned officer and is now in a senior position with CISF. His other published work include a novel Ek Goona Bekhudi, short stories Bafliaz Ki Kaneez and Sitaaron Pe Daalti Hoon Main Kamand among others. The views expressed are the author’s own.