Malka Pukhraj passed away in early February 2004, at the age of 93. She stopped singing many years ago, but she composed a long piece - her autobiography - when she was in her 80s. 'Song Sung True' was written in fluent Urdu, with a smattering of Punjabi, Dogri, English and even French words. Kali for Women published its English translation in 2003.
Pukhraj's memoirs are of a remarkable life. At the age of nine, she became star singer and dancer at the court of the Maharaja of Jammu. Young Pukhraj's earnings supported her natal family for years on end.
When born in Jammu and Kashmir's Hamirpur Sidhdhar village, local saint Baba Roti Ram declared, "...she is malka-e-muazamma - 'the great empress'. She will reign one day." And so, she was named Malka.
At the age of three, her mother took Pukhraj to Jammu. She was ambitious for the child, determined to educate her in all the arts and skills the world had to offer. Malka's maternal grandparents and aunt moved too. Malka's father lived with his first wife and children in Jammu. He was a professional gambler, who visited this family only occasionally.
Malka's mother entrusted her to Ali Baksh, father of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, for musical training. Ali Baksh, an exponent of Sindhi khayal (a classical style of singing), was penniless. He agreed to teach in exchange for two meals a day. Ali Baksh would say, "Listen child, no matter what you sing, even if it is a jugni, sing in tune, for only then will it reach the heart. You can stretch a tuneless phrase till the earth shatters, but that will not matter a jot to the ears." This early guidance encouraged Pukhraj to 'sing true' all her life.
When she was eight, the family moved to Delhi. Here, Pukhraj learned singing and dance from Mamman Khan, who had been employed all his life by various princely estates. She began to sing thumris (a light classical genre of Hindustani music), complete with gestures and facial expression. At that time, "...dances were not vulgar. People appreciated a dancer who looked as if he or she were walking on water."
Back in Jammu, Pukhraj was invited to perform at court. She gave her first performance - a bhajan (religious hymn)-like thumri 'Are Ram kaise paar utariye', then a ghazal (Indian lyric poem) and a pahari (classical form of singing). That day on, she became a regular performer at the court. Maharaja Hari Singh indulged her, showering her with jewellery and clothes. At that time even small principalities employed singers. In Jammu however, only one singer was employed, and that was Malka Pukhraj. She enchanted listeners, especially at celebrations for Basant, Holi and Dussehra (traditional Indian festivals). And was exposed to rich cultural fare including many other singers - hijras (eunuchs) dancing for the Alwar Maharaja, and Labhu Ram's theatrical company performing the classic love tale 'Shirin Farhad'.
The court was full of intrigues. Pukhraj lived with her family, and went to perform whenever required. Sometimes she accompanied the royal retinue to Kashmir, or on a hunting trip. Rumblings of discord came when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Jammu. "There was no peace in the kingdom as in earlier times," she recalls. "There were times when I wanted to laugh. I had nothing to do with politics and with the Hindu-Muslim riots. Nor did I understand any of these things. Yet, the Hindus had become my enemies. Leave alone those living outside the kingdom, even those living in the kingdom had started to believe stories of my wanting to kill the Maharaja."
In this vitiated atmosphere, Pukhraj's family considered moving to Lahore. She informed the Maharaja. Moving to Lahore meant leaving his employment. She sensed his anger at this betrayal. She felt wretched, and sang her last song in the court "with emotions that I was unaware were within me.... I wept within my heart and my singing sounded like the wail of a been (musical instrument). His Highness left the moment I stopped singing and I did not even get the chance to wish him a final farewell."
Once in Lahore, Pukhraj was invited to sing at private soirees. She had strict principles - she would not sing after 11 at night, nor would she sing where alcohol was being imbibed. Several people were offended, and complained that they had come to hear her sing, not to pray at a mosque! At musical gatherings, singers were typically at the mercy of their hosts for the whole night. But Pukhraj maintained her dignity and her boundaries.
When she went to sing at an event organized by the Maharaja of Patiala, he ordered her to lie down next to his son-in-law. Her refusal infuriated him. "If I want to, I can have you dumped in a well. I can have you burnt alive. I can send you to a place where no one would find you for the rest of your life," he screamed. Pukhraj and her mother draped sheets over themselves and ran on a dirt track all the way from Bahadurgarh to Patiala. Patrols
were searching for them, but they reached the station before daybreak, and escaped.
Pukhraj's fame as a singer grew day by day. She loved singing the thumri 'Sab din howat nahin samaan' - all days are not the same. It depicts changing human fortunes - different seasons, the birth of a child, youth, decadent old age, poverty and death.
She had many admirers, including several who fell in love with her. Pukhraj grew fond of Shabbir, who courted her loyally for years on end. When her mother forbade her from meeting him, she began to question her family's
attitude. Although she had supported grandparents and mother, aunts, uncles and cousins for years, she felt she was treated like a slave. Miserable and disturbed, she decided to give up singing altogether.
She eloped with Shabbir, moving into his government house in Jhang. For the first time in her life she felt she could shed responsibilities. Nobody imposed restrictions and she had nothing to fear. She was free to laugh and
enjoy herself. Gradually, her mother relented.
And then Pukhraj sang occasionally; she also tried a stint with the Bombay film world. During the Partition her family was in Lahore. They made a series of unwise investments, and their fortunes declined. But gradually they pulled themselves up, and set up an even lifestyle again. Pukhraj and Shabbir had six children. However, Shabbir died suddenly; and Pukhraj fought her depression with creative pursuits like gardening. Once she called Reshma, the singer, to stay with her for a week, and listened countless times to the song, 'Hai yo rabba naiyun lagda dil mera' - 'O Lord, there is no ease in my heart!'
Late in life, Pukhraj, forever the artist, began embroidering on canvas. Those who saw her pictures said they had never seen such beauty created on canvas with a needle and thread.