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She was the love song

Amirbai’s tale is one of inspiration

Amirbai’s tale is one of inspiration  

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Amirbai Karnataki is one of the earliest Kannada singer-actress who made it big in Hindi cinema. She went to Bombay when women artistes were labelled ‘fallen’, but with grit and passion Amirbai became a star and sang 380 songs in 150 Kannada and Hindi films

For someone who didn’t belong to the gramophone generation but the golden period of radio, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Mukesh, and Rafi ruled our hearts and constituted our imagination of a film song. The same AIR, during a light music programme, had played “Ninnane Neneyuta Ratriya Kalede”. This, was a carbon copy of Lata’s memorable “Saari Saari Raat Teri Yaad Sataye”, but the voice was starkly different. It had a heavy nasal tone, and the flawless rendition had a simplicity to it. The charming song left an indelible mark and I felt I had to recover her voice from pages that were unknown to me. Amirbai Karnataki was an unheard voice for the Seventies: she was long gone, and had faded into the archives of black and white era of early films. She was someone who lived on in personal memories of people who had known and heard her.

Amirbai Karnataki (1912-65), who sang 380 songs in 150 films, was an early singer and actress of Hindi cinema. This singer who sang the unforgettable “Main to pavan chali hoon bole papiha” and “Bairan Nindiya Kyon Nahi Aaye”, was born in Bijapur in Karnataka. During the 1930s Amirbai was a prominent name along with stars like Suraiyya, Shamshad Begum, Noor Jahan and Zohrabai Ambalewali.

When Lata Mangeshkar came on to the scene, many of these singers moved into the background and for the later generations they remained unknown.

Born into a family of artistes, Amirbai’s parents Ameenabi and Husensaab worked for a theatre company and even ran one for many years. Growing up years for Amirbai and her five siblings was filled with music and theatre, what with many of her uncles and aunts being top musicians and actors in theatre. She lost her father early and her uncle, Hatel Saheb took care of all the children.

During those years, Bijapur was part of Mumbai Presidency and the sangeet natak tradition in these parts was flourishing. The famous Balagandharva’s company and several other theatre companies camped at Bijapur; Amirbai and her sister Goharbai, trained as they were in classical music, impressed these companies with their singing and they began to not only sing for several of them, but also act.

As Rahmat Tarikere writes in his biography of Amirbai Karnataki, Amirbai moved from Bijapur to Mumbai, from theatre to films. But the exact date and nature of these movements and transitions are hard to tell. The story of Amirbai is a sum total of several happenings in a historical period as there are few definitive documents to lead us to any accurate picture. Painstakingly put together by the biographer, Tarikere says that when Amirbai reached Mumbai (it was perhaps the year of Alam Ara’s release, 1931), women who worked in films, theatre and music were still seen as “fallen”.

Women artistes were often ridiculed as “free women” and among the several women performers, Amirbai and her sister Goharbai too, tried to free women of this stigma. In fact, families not only disowned such women, but there were instances of women being killed for choosing the arts.

In fact, Rahmat Tarikere says that the kind of fight these women put up with the social circumstances of those days is no less significant than the freedom struggle itself. If women artistes, in the later years, earned fame and reputation, it was because of the sacrifices these women made. Ironically, two very popular films “Basant” and “Kismet” in which Amirbai acted deals with the plight of actresses.

Amirbai became a very reputed singer and actress of her times. She was highly paid, and even built a theatre Amir Talkies in Bijapur. She travelled the length and breadth of North Karnataka giving programmes related to theatre and cinema.

A singer who sang some of the finest love songs, had a very unhappy love life though. Tarikere writes how her husband, a Parsi actor who played villain in those days, Himalayavala, abused her physically and emotionally. She had to suffer several assaults from him and even separation became a painful affair. Unable to recover from the trauma, she went into oblivion for several years, and later Badri Kanchawala, with his love and care brought back peace into her life.

At the age of 55, Amirbai passed away; Karnataka had been unified by then and the rest of Karnataka hardly knew of her. Even the newspapers reported her death four days later. It was only later that people have slowly learnt of Amirbai’s greatness and how Gandhiji was immensely fond of her rendition of “Vaishnava Janato”.

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Printable version | Nov 13, 2018 5:35:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/she-was-the-love-song/article6941336.ece

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