Shabnam Begum Merali - An Unforgettable Queen of Sufi and Ghazals

Sufi and Qawaal artist, Shabnam Begum Merali is not a standard woman. An accomplished musician, she has skillfully mastered the world of classical Raags, Ghazal, Sufi-Qawaali, Thumri and Ginans (Ismaili Devotional poetry). She continues to enthrall her audience by singing Sufi Kalaam (Poetry). Hailing from Karachi, Pakistan, Shabnam Begum is a distinguished torchbearer of Ghazal and Qawaali, the astounding and passionate music that instantly captures the hearts and minds, as Shabnam Begum traverses her audience into a transcendental world by her panache in singing amorously.

In live performance, Shabnam Begum Merali's oscillates between Ghazal and Qawaali, from scintillating opening to a climax of cadence intensity. The renowned performing artist has a striking talent in engaging her audience and each performance is unparalleled, for this captivating artist has a enchanting way of presenting her performances.

Naya Adab Literary Association' s Senior Editors Taha Mirza and Shehzad Ali Darwish were fortunate to meet Shabnam Begum Merali over a cup of tea to discuss what makes this personality so captivating. In the interview, Shabnam Begum shares details of her life, musical career, experiences with us as we get a better understanding of this beautiful soul, who is constantly enriching many lives with her affable personality. Elegantly-simple, here is a woman you cannot help loving.

Taha Mirza: I consider my good fortune to have a meeting with you at the moment. Haven't gotten over last night's concert you gave in Sindh, Pakistan! Tell us, how do you manage to exude so much positive energy?

Shabnam Begum Merali: (laughs) Yes, the energy was quite immense. Honestly, it derives from the audience, and when I am performing, it is my soul that is in a perfect equilibrium and I just release the inner world.

Shehzad Ali Darwish: Shabnam, you are originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now residing in Edmonton, Alberta. Did you always aspire to be a musician?

Shabnam Merali: Yes, I am from Karachi. Music has been present throughout my life, first as a child, I was fascinated by the great Ustads and felt a deep desire to seek that path. However, this was not the case when my family and I moved to Canada. I studied accounting and practiced it for numerous years. Then, one fine day, I abandoned the world of numbers and with the support of my husband and children, I pursued music.

SAD: Was it difficult? I mean'to make it as a career.

SBM: It was alarming! ( laughs). The difficult part was in discovering musical instrument accompanists to work with. There were few at that time. Not like the hub nowadays, where the creative world is thriving. With perseverance and having the deep love to sing, I had to remain cerebral and not give up! Luckily, as the years progressed, I found mutual musicians and got my feet right into it.

SAD: Shabnam, you have brilliantly performed over hundreds of concerts world-wide. How do you manage to keep such a hectic schedule and still find time to pursue other endeavors.

SBM: Yes, I am still alive after all that !! (laughs). My schedule is tumultuous, no doubt. The family's support is a great encouragement to keep up. I regularly perform in Pakistan, Europe, Africa, USA and Canada, thus, I am out of the country quite frequently. I manage by keeping up with my riyaazat (singing practice), and by meditation. It certainly helps keep away the clutter that does build up by travelling so much. Remember, these travels are not leisure, but often days of real hard work, be it rehearsing, delivering performances, recordings and interviews.

TM: Are you disciplined at following a riyaazat schedule?

SBM: Absolutely. Else, it becomes difficult to keep the vocals open. So, I start with an assortment of raagas first thing in the morning.

TM: What are these raagas that you use? And from listening to your music, you are very skillful. Please share.

SBM: Taha, I am trained in Bhairav, Kafi, Bhupali and Malhar. These particular raagas are not limiting, for they float quite freely and enables me to reach a specific demand within my art. In my concerts, I encapsulate according to my audience and this is what works well for me. Bhairavi is a morning raaga and is a serious, sensual and peaceful rasa.

TM: Why have you chosen the genre of Qawaali & Ghazal as the medium? Also your thumris are very inspiring. How did your love for thumri's come about?

SBM: My love for Sufism and Urdu poetry. Both dwell in the deep core of my heart. When I am performing Qawaali, I literally transcend into an enigma' some spirit lifting me and I am one with the Almighty. Sort of surreal to dissect the emotions. Very cathartic. As for Thumri, it is my adoration for the Indian Classical music, and I have a cassette of Gauhar Jan's 1910 performance of her singing Thumri, thus, I fell in love with this style. Of course, in the courtyard of the Nawaab Wajid Ali Shah (19th century) in Lucknow, the Thumri rendering were popularly sung by courtesans, known as "bandish ki thumri , however, present day thumri is known as bol banao (meaning slow tempo). A friend once shared the famous poem by medieval poet Lalan which is a thumri celebrating Krishna's flute -- how the the flute tune compelling Radha to a point of high emotions.

TM: Which is that poem?


ab naa baajaao shyaam
ba.nsuriyaa naa baajaao shyaam
(e rii) vyaakul bhaayii brajabaalaa
ba.nsuriyaa naa baajaao shyaam
nit merii galii.n me.n aayo naa

enough! now stop
playing on your flute, dark lover
this braja girl's heart is aflutter,
i ask you, please stop playing
don't come to my lane all the time

SAD: In fact, in December 2007, the show 'Riyaazat' held in Toronto, you got a standing ovation for your performance. I know, because I was there and quite charmed by your performing ability. How does that make you feel? Being able to 'lift' the audience. Then there have been "Zeest", and "Lamhe", so many more.

SBM: Thanks for being there. I feel very humbled and blessed to be able to transcend people's hearts with music. It is a silent communication between the aches, happiness and spiritual upliftment that we human beings can share. I recall the crowd in Karachi, Pakistan in 2007 for a concert, 'Nazraana -e- Mohabbat ' the audience were in thousands and my energy exude from theirs. Similarly, I experienced the same thrill when I performed, 'Taarif -e- Mowla (for the Golden Jubilee of Aga Khan) in Calgary, Alberta Dec 2007. So, it is not always necessary that the artist is the 'queen' for the night, it is the audience that ignites that in me.

TM: I really relish your Ghazal CD's - 'Lamhe' and 'Chaahat' -respectively. Your mellifluous voice is rather soothing in those albums. Tell us about the recpetion you got for these albums?

SBM: (smiles) Both the CD's are very close to my heart. They are a m'lange of Ghazals and Geets. I am humbled by the reception it received worldwide, and many (still) inquire to acquire it. At the moment all the CD's are sold-out and a new order to produce is on the way. So, yes, I am pleasantly surprised at how quickly they got sold out!

SAD: Thankfully, I got the CD's before they got sold out! (laughs). Heard you dabble with visual art - painting?

SBM: (smiling). Who is giving out my secrets?? Yes, I have dabbled. Mostly figurative and it is relaxing!

SAD: After all the concerts and rehearsing, family commitments, being a radio host, social gatherings, and attaining many awards, what does Shabnam Merali do for relaxation?

SBM: I enjoy opera. Also, the free time gives me an opportunity to spend quality time with my family and friends. I take walks. Reading and attending my lawn !! Plus, I enjoy reading.

TM: What does Shabnam read? Who does she read?

SBM: I enjoy literature, islamic studies, history and poetry. Works of M.G.Vassanji, Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant Singh, Farhad Daftray, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Farid Atthar, Rumi, Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Parveen Shakir, Pablo Neruda are some of my favorite reading pleasures. Each of their works attributes an extension of 'human conditions', by which, various themes are explored in the books. Very Effective. I have now commenced to collect African authors who seem to be marginalized in the global map'.but are emerging slowly.

SAD: Who are your favorite musicians whom you have admired?

SBM: There are few: Noorjehan for her versatility. Mehdi Hasan for his rendering of fine ghazals. Hemnant Kumar, Mukesh and Saigal for their euphonious voices. Begum Akhtar, Geeta Dutt and Lata ji also have won my heart. Iqbal Bano for her stylization. There are some instrumentalists I adore - Sitar, Sarangi and Santoor. Ashwini Deshpande a good raaga vocalist. In the Western music, it is Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. I also enjoy jazz, so I would also say the music of Abdullah Ibrahim a South African musician. There are some lovely Arab voices of Sabah Fakhri, Umm Kulthum and Wadi es-Safi who are tender and yet powerful.

SAD: Historically, the art of Ghazals was practiced in the courtyards of the Mughal Emperors and has been dominated by male performers. The trend (thankfully) has been changing, and more women ghazal singers have taken pursuit. Was it ever a challenge for you as being a powerful ghazal singer? You are not a disciple of any ustads, so how did you break into the world of so-called male dominated field?

SBM: Actually, Shehzad, the first ever classical Thumri singer as I previously mentioned was a woman named, Gauhar Jan in the early 1900's who was a courtyard singer and proved to be quite an extraordinary performer. women have always been active in classical music and ghazals. A fine singer, Begum Akhtar was perhaps one of the most daring women singers to delve into the art. Yes, no doubt, the male dominance has been witnessed, personally, I was fortunate to never experience such behavior. If at any time, at some external Canadian cities, I may have witnessed the patriarchal conduct of men in the studio. I always held my ground. As for 'art of Ghazal', the poets would gather around as in a Mehfil and share their prose and lyrics. In Bahadur Shah Zafar's (the last moghul emperor /poet) courtyard, some poets like Mirza Ghalib, Zauq and Momin Khan Khan would recite their ghazals. Of course, the period of 'political poetry' as I call it, was articulated through Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Kaifi Azmi was of great meaning to me, for I was residing in Karachi and their ghazals influenced me. I wanted to sing them. Secondly politically during Zia's regime, artistically we were robbed, and we were not encouraged to fully explore the arts. I guess, the rebel within me did not give up.

TM: Did you parents encourage you to pursue music? Do / did they sing?

SBM: My parents always knew I had some talent as I used to participate in community functions and in theatre arts. Yes, I did a little stage acting! My Late father appreciated my talent, but it was not till I migrated to Canada in the 80's that I became a full time musical artist. I do miss my father's absence each time I perform. My mother is a strong supporter of my music and has a lovely voice. She plays the harmonium!

TM: Classical music and Ghazal singing is semi becoming obscure with today's' generation, as most young folks follow popular charts in pop music. Any comment.

SBM: Yes, the pop and classical / Ghazal music are two different genres. It is what one feels they can identify their emotions with. Look, in Western classical music, there are also set people who desire one over the other. I do not necessarily think it is becoming obscure, but with the boom of globalization in technology has gotten the younger crowd to identify with this pace. But, if it "runs" in one's inner system, than they shall pursue classical and ghazal music. Furthermore, it also has a little to do with understanding classical history in music to extend a musical side in a person. I am a firm believer, that, classical music should be taught at schools and give the pupil the knowledge to commence higher learning if she /he should aspire to progress further into a career.

TM: Let's talk about what Sufism means to you? And, do you identify yourself as a Sufi?

SBM: It is a way of life. Actually, I fancy not to be called Sufi, because any labelling attaches a massive responsibility and expectation. When such burdens are imposed, one loses the essence of 'what' they aspire to be. I am a lover of God, does that make me a Sufi, or just a human? The word 'Sufi' has become a marketing product by those who find it necessary to associate the word. Sufism is beautiful and some of the Pirs and Baba's poetry is stunning. There is also poetry of Sufi Baba Farid, who I adore and shall visit the dargah in near future. There is the teachings of Guru Nanak which are so lovely as well. In a historical context, I see myself singing the works of such Sufi Masters like Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi, Aamir Khusraw and Kabir. Now, by singing their poetry, one does not transform automatically in an aesthetic lifestyle, at least in my case, I am singing and finding solace in their poetry. I write Urdu poetry, and some of my poetry is spiritual. I gravitate towards Sufism, and also find the Zikr quite enriching, but cannot label myself as a 'Sufi' in all its prescribed definition.

SAD: You have been referred to as the 'Abida Parveen of the West'. What is your view?

SBM: Abida Parveen is a wonderful Sufi Singer ! I have most of her collection and enjoy her music thoroughly. But, our musical stylization differs. I tend to blend Qawaali and Ghazal' No artist should be compared, for we would not need diversity. However, it is great to compliment each other as fellow artists.

TM: Where in the world have you performed?

SBM: I have performed in Canada, USA, UK, Dubai, Kenya, Tanzania, and Pakistan.

TM: Not India?

SBM: That is my next performance. I love India -- and have been invited to perform, we are in the finalization stage. I am so very excited. Iran is also in the agenda somewhere.

TM: Are you selective of having an Indian or Muslim audience?

SBM: Oh my -- I can never segregate between the two. There is no politics in music, and we are all human and there is no such thing as Muslim or Indian preference in my life. I have friends who are Hindus and my very close friends. Music heals many wounds.

SAD: What would you recommend to young generation aspiring to study music? You studied Accounting, so you could always fall back on should the music not have worked.

SBM: Initially, in Karachi I obtained my BA in Islamic Studies and Economics. After settling in Canada, I delved into the Accounting field and completed my Accounting degree, but the heart craved for music, thus I left the accounting career. No regrets. One should study what one has passion for. Simple. By nurturing an ability, one can flourish at an endless level. Having a strong academical background is a very important part in achievement. Personally, I am still learning and upgrading myself when there is the need for it. Same applies in the musical world. There is always room for development!

SAD: Last words to your music connoisseurs? Your audience is a diversified one ' from external audience of the Ghazal and Qawaali concerts and private functions you have rendered your talent. Your presence is also appreciated by our Western friends, for you have also performed at the University of Alberta and at a South Asian Heritage festival held in Toronto, Canada. Your insight?

TM: Do you see yourself retiring soon? Any future projects?

SBM: Taha, not old yet! (laughs). I feel I have just started, although been singing for 30+ years. No, music can never be "retired", it would be like stopping meditation. I sing to live. Yes, there are some projects I may proceed with; have had an offer to do music for a feature film. The film directors and screen writers are in the midst of sending me the treatment for review.

TM: Not at all, you are quite lovely. Please never retire! A film, can you tell us more. Bollywood?

SBM: Let's wait a while for details. No, not Bollywood. It is an artsy genre, an independent film that shall be quite a feature. I cannot say more. Stop me! (laughs).

SAD: It is a pleasure to have met you Shabnam Begum. You are an inspiration to us. We wish to hear you live in a concert again. Best wishes. Thank you for sharing your life.

SBM: Thank you for emitting so much love and support, throughout the years. Without my audience, the music would feel barren. When I witness my admirers so full of life and energy at the shows, I derive much happiness.

TM: One last request, please, can we have a photograph with you? It is an honor to be meeting a remarkable kalaakaar (musician).

SBM: My pleasure! (smiles).

(Definitions - Ghazal (couplet, sonnet), Qawaali (Sufi Devotional poetry), Thumri ( Semi- Classical Indian music), Ginan (Sanskrit -devotional lyrics from 16th Century)


More by :  Taha Mirza

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