Nagore E.M. Hanifa’s distinctive voice took him from a humble background to the centre stage in no time, but it is his son who narrates the 95-year-old’s back story

The elderly gentleman takes a minute to arrange his lambswool cap on the silver locks lovingly combed by his son. His white full-sleeved shirt and veshti are crisp and starched. He looks at his son for approval and smiles when he sees the two thumbs-up sign. Nagore E.M. Hanifa is ready for his Kodak moment.

At 95, ‘Isai Murasu’ Esmail Mohamed Hanifa is a shadow of the man that followers of Tamil Muslim devotional music and political anthems know. The prolonged exposure to stage noise has affected his hearing permanently, and he rarely speaks to visitors these days. But as his eldest son and chief care-giver Naushad Ali points out, “sometimes a word is enough to trigger a memory.”

Much is known about Hanifa’s rise to fame as the ‘voice’ of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and his proximity to leaders such as Periyar, C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi. Many Tamil commentators have tried to theorise on why Hanifa was not as successful a politician as a singer, despite a fan base of millions in his heyday.

As Nagore Hanifa spends his twilight years at home in Kotturpuram, Chennai, the story of the man whose voice used to hit the high and base notes with equal ease, gets retold by his son.

“My paternal grandfather and my father’s elder brother were both good singers, but they didn’t take it up as a profession. My grandfather was based in Malaysia, working in the railways, but was unable to provide for his family in Nagore. So, to support the family income, my father became a singer. He held his first concert at Tiruvaluntur, Thanjavur district, at the age of 13, on a bullock cart which was both stage and band transport,” says Ali.

Full-throated singing

The early concerts were held at homes, during weddings and prayer ceremonies, and slowly shifted to the dargahs, shrines built around the tombs of Muslim saints, which follow secular rituals.

Scholar Abidin at the Ghousia Bait-us-Sabha at Nagore would write the lyrics for Hanifa, that would be sung during wedding processions. The completely self-taught maestro picked up tips on Carnatic music from S.M.A. Qadir at the Nagore dargah (formally known as Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah).

Singing during wedding processions taught him an important skill: how to throw his voice without a microphone. “Unfortunately most of those songs were not preserved in any form; people would write them on bits of paper which would be set to the tune of the most popular Hindi film hits of the day, and performed,” recalls Ali. “Recording music was not as common then as now; besides, copyright was not a problem.”

As his fame grew, Hanifa sang at as many as 45 concerts in a month. “The free copyright and the absence of a serious rival meant that my father was always on the road,” says Ali. “He’d take time only to rehearse the new songs – the rest he’d do from memory. My father kept everything simple – managing his own concert appointments, keeping only around four to five musicians, and using lyrics that were easy to remember. He’d be the sole singer on stage for up to four hours, which is quite unthinkable these days.”

Hanifa, who spent his early childhood in his mother’s hometown of Ramanathapuram, later went to work for his paternal uncle Abu Bakr Rowther in Tiruvarur. It was during this period, in his early teenage years, that he struck up a friendship with Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who was gaining a reputation for oratory even as a schoolboy.

“My father used to sing before the lecture meetings organised by Karunanidhi, without any musical accompaniment or payment, to attract the crowds on the dry riverbed of the Odampokki river in Tiruvarur,” says Ali. The two nonagenarians are said to share warm vibes till today, and the tenth state-level DMK conference held in Tiruchi in February was the first one that Hanifa missed since the party was launched in 1949.

Politics and films

Hanifa’s rousing anthems boosted the fortunes of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam from the 1930s. His Oadi varugiran Udhayasooriyan, Kallakkudi konda Karunanidhi vaazhgave, Nee engae senrai Anna and Azhaikkinrar Anna are still used by the DMK to raise party morale.

Even so, fans of his voice, at once stentorian and artistic, cut across party lines, says Ali.

It was not long before the cinema industry came calling. “But my father was not open to suggestions from film composers to adopt a more secular name like ‘Kumar’ – ‘it’s more satisfying to sing four songs as Hanifa than a crore songs as Kumar,’ he’d say – and moreover, the timbre of his voice was too strong for the image of the heroes who were in vogue then,” says Ali.

He sang in Tamil films such as Gulebakavali (1955) and Paava Manippu (1965), before returning full-time to political anthems and devotional music. In the 1970s, says Ali, a young composer called Rasaiyya was assigned by recording company His Master’s Voice (HMV), to work with Nagore Hanifa on the song Thendral Kaatre Konjam Nillu. The tune, composed on Hanifa’s own harmonium, was a big hit for the duo. Later, the same composer, now more famous as Ilayaraja, persuaded him to render the haunting Kadalulile Thanimaiyile number for the 1992 film Chembaruthi.

“Most of my father’s songs were universally accepted in an age when the public relations industry did not exist,” says Ali. “Iraivan Idam Kai Yenthungal was being sung everywhere – by beggars on trains, and in the grandest of stage shows, simply because the tune and lyrics were so apt yet catchy.”

Man of principles

Nagore Hanifa married late (by Tamil Muslim standards), past the age of 30. His wife, A.R.Roshan Begum, looked after the couple’s six children in Nagore while Hanifa continued building up his career. “To us children, Nagore E.M. Hanifa was just a singer who was away a lot, and when at home, a very strict father,” recalls Ali. “But it is only now, when we see the reception that he gets in public, and when we are parents ourselves, that we realise what a great person he is. And maybe he was strict (forbidding the children from taking up music lessons, for instance), because he wanted us to focus on our studies,” says Ali, who went on to earn a Masters degree in English Literature. “No matter how busy he was, my father made sure we were all looked after.”

Today the roles have reversed as Ali, who is slowly making his name as a singer, has taken over the care of his ageing father. “I have cut down my own public engagements so that I can stay close by,” Ali reveals, adding that he still hasn’t picked up the courage to perform in front of his father or reveal that he had stealthily learned how to play keyboard and guitar in his youth despite his father’s disapproval.

“We had been estranged for years when the onus of looking after my father fell on me,” says Ali. “My mother had died, and I shifted to Chennai from Madurai, quitting my job as a marketing executive, so that I could make him as comfortable as possible in his old age. Luckily my wife and children supported my decision. It’s an honour for me to be able take care of him.”

As to why Nagore Hanifa never made it in politics, despite contesting elections as a DMK candidate twice (in 1958 and 2002) and becoming chairman of the state Waqf Board (2007), Ali has a simple answer: “He refused many posts because he felt he was not educated enough for the job. And moreover, Nagore Hanifa was not a man who believed in back-scratching and favouritism, so he knew his growth in politics would entail compromise.”

Hanifa’s fame came with its own pitfalls – especially a large number of imitators, some of whom even tried to pass themselves off as his sons. “There may be many copycats, but there’s only one Nagore Hanifa,” asserts Ali.