CHAT Parveen Sultana on her musical journey. KULDEEP KUMAR
S ome call her the “ultimate soprano” of the Hindustani classical music while others marvel at her virtuosity in singing. Yet others gasp at the hairline accuracy of her notes and the reach of her voice. After spending nearly five decades on the concert stage, Begum Parveen Sultana continues to enthral her audiences and remains one of the most sought after vocalists in the country.
Not many may know that she is a gift of Assam to the country or that she is the youngest artiste ever to have been honoured with a Padmashri at the age of 26. Born in 1950 in Nowgong, she started training under her father Ikramul Majid — a doting father but an equally strict teacher. “We were zamindars and my ancestors had come from Afghanistan,” Parveen Sultana informed when this writer caught up with her during her recent visit to New Delhi. “My father had learnt from Ustad Gul Muhammad of Patiala gharana for nearly 15 years and was an amateur singer. My grandfather used to play rabab and flute. So, there was music in the family.”
Her riyaz started early in the morning and the first raga she learnt was Bhairav. With breaks in between, she would practice for eight hours a day. “In the evening, the raga changed to Yaman,” Parveen reminisces. She continued to practice hard and the result is before everyone. Her taiyari can be anybody's envy.
When she was barely 12, Parveen appeared before the cognoscenti of Calcutta (now Kolkata) at Sadarang Sangeet Sammelan and instantly became a sensation. “At that music conference,” she recalls, “stalwarts such as Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Pandit Vinayakrao Patwardhan and Pandit Ravi Shankar were present. All of them came up to the stage to offer their blessings to me. It was truly an unforgettable moment.” She experienced a similar thrill when after a few years in Banaras, shehnai wizard Ustad Bismillah Khan came to the stage to shower his blessings on her, proudly declaring to the audience: “ Yah bachchi Hindustani sangeet mein naam roshan karegi (This young girl will make a big name in the field of Hindustani classical music).” However, her musical journey had just begun and she had a long way to go.
One of the biggest problems was her health. “You will be surprised to know that I used to be very frail those days and had to take injections of vitamins to gain strength. As you know, singing demands a lot of energy and my health was a constant worry to my parents,” she says with a big smile. However, her determination to learn music and excel in it helped her overcome all these problems and she started taking guidance from Chinmoy Lahiri, a famed guru of Bengal. “I used to go to Kolkata on weekends to learn from him,” she informs us.
When Lahiri started keeping indifferent health, he suggested that she should learn from Ustad Dilshad Khan of Kirana gharana. Soon they got married but she is still learning from him. Sometimes, they sing jugalbandis together. “I combine the gayaki of Patiala and Kirana in my singing, but I also try to add something of my own,” Parveen says with a twinkle in her eyes.
Every musician is fond of certain ragas more than the others. Does she also have her favourites? “Yes,” replies she, “I do have a few. Among the evening ragas, Puriya Dhanashri is my favourite while I prefer Gujari Todi for the morning. And Ambika Sarang, a combination of Ambika and Sarang, is closer to my heart for singing in the afternoon.”
We were zamindars and my ancestors had come from Afghanistan.