Bacha Zarin Jan: A melody queen forgotten
By: Sher Alam Shinwari
PESHAWAR: After the tragic death of Pashto singer Ghazala Javed in June, music lovers of the region lost another velvety voice with the death of Bacha Zarin Jan – the melody queen of Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa – who passed away last week at the age of 70 due to a prolonged illness.
Jan may have lived in a dingy two-room mud house, but she ruled over the hearts of millions of listeners for over six decades. It is unfortunate that only a handful of people showed up at her funeral procession, despite the singer having sung in six languages and having a large audience.
“Jan was a versatile singer but her later years were too miserable,” popular folk singer Zarsanga tells The Express Tribune. “Us artists have no place in this hostile society. Unless an artist cries out for help like a baby, the government does not listen. Even if it does come to help, it only throws some money on an artist’s face to simply shut his mouth. We are destined to suffer. So did Jan.”
In her later years, Jan was most often seen around Sufi Abdul Sattar Bacha’s Mehfil-e-Samaa, where she sang Sufi numbers as the late Sufi singer and noted composer Rafiq Shinwari had adopted her as his spiritual daughter.
The life of a legend
Born in 1942 to a family of musicians in Mardan, Jan had a flair for singing. In a land that fell prey to militancy and extremism, it is no surprise that a singer of her stature had such a miserable fall. In her heyday, however, Jan earned great fame. Her father Ustad Abdur Rahim Khan was a tabla nawaz who groomed his daughter and brought her to the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) Peshawar as a young child. After she passed the auditions, Shad Amritsari introduced her into the music scene, where she soon carved a niche for herself.
From the early 50s to the late 70s, she was the only Pashtun artist who could do live performances in Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Potohari, Seraiki and Hindko besides Pashto. Although she could sing classical ghazals, folk songs were her forte and the reason why many Pashtuns remember her today.
At times, Jan would write her lyrics under the pen-name Bibi Gul, under which she has left behind an unpublished volume of Urdu and Pashto verses – a good legacy in addition to 200 memorable songs. Unfortunately, PBC Peshawar could preserve only about 60 of these songs in its grimy music library.
During Pakistan’s war with India in 1965 and 1971, Jan sang inspirational songs in Urdu and Pashto to boost the morale of the Pakistani soldiers, for which she was gifted a sword and pistol from President Ayub Khan.
Left to die
“Jan did not get the respect and recognition she deserved, especially from the K-P government,” says the sitting Station Director at PBC, Peshawar Layaq Zada. “When I visited her last, she seemed quite disturbed and unhappy and even told me that the K-P government had been boasting of the charity they had given to her. She was in dire need of money but her cries fell on deaf ears.”
“For many, Jan was dead a long time ago,” says prominent folk singer Mashooq Sultana. “She was not a woman to cry out for financial assistance. She lived the life of a reclusive Sufi. She gave a distinct course to a female singing a folk song. Her numerous Pashto folk songs have been remixed without knowing that it was Jan who had sung them first. Pashto music lovers really lost a melody queen.”
She may have been the recipient of a Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and numerous other local awards for her folk songs, but Jan died and lived in poverty. While the singer is now buried in the graveyard of her spiritual guide, her melodies are still on the lips of every Pashtun.