Book Reviews

Siren Song – Understanding Pakistan Through Its Women Singers

Written by Omair Alavi

Synopsis

Some books are worth your time, and then there are those which are not!

On the eve of Women’s Day, reading about the women singers seemed like a good idea; until I opened Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Siren Song – Understanding Pakistan Through Its Women Singers. The book that looked like a perfect read for the occasion ended up as a disappointment, for the writer discussed Pakistan’s history more than the female singers and their contribution. There was more about classical music in these pages than the female singers who carried it forward, and that’s where I felt cheated.

Perhaps my assumption of the book was the issue but when I read about Nazia Hasan’s ‘25-year career’ and nothing about why Runa Laila was forced to leave Pakistan, I simply lost it. The book explores the political and social significance of music and the roles of female singers in Pakistan, but does it do justice to the subject? Not at all. The author goes so deep into the feminist ocean that she forgets that she has to talk about the female singers as well.

She quotes everyone in the world – related to music or not – just to prove her point when in fact she should have been talking about the female singers of the country, and how they helped music become part of the culture. She pens the Malka Pukhraj chapter citing her autobiography and Roshan Ara Begum’s TV interview in the first two chapters without realising that most of the music aficionados might have access to them as well. Madam Noor Jehan and Abida Parveen are mentioned in one chapter alongside a lesser-known Pakistani singer Deeyah settled abroad, when in fact Madam and Abida ji deserved separate chapters, as their contribution is huge and invaluable.

For some odd reason, there is no mention of Bulbul-e-Mehran Rubina Qureshi who recently received Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for her contributions in the field of music. Similarly, leading playback and folk singers including Zubeda Khanum, Naseem Begum, Mehnaz, Naheed Akhtar, Tasawwur Khanum, Humera Channa, and even Shazia Khushk aren’t mentioned as well, as if their contribution meant nothing! Why were lesser-known female singers including some who are part of the current music scene given precedence is something only the author can explain, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth because I was expecting more of the legends, and less of the late entrants.

Yes, you find a lot of lesser-known facts about Reshma but valuable information goes missing when the author switches from writing about female singers to writing about the history of Pakistan. Is she trying to cater to Pakistani audiences or those abroad that kept bothering me for I didn’t know that till the end? How these female singers managed to negotiate with their families and kept them ‘respectable’ is something she keeps talking about, but in order to prove her point, she should have talked to people not related to the subject.

In Roshan Ara Begum’s case, her source was Lutufullah Khan, a friend of her husband who claimed that he never stopped her from singing, when in fact he was the main reason why she stopped singing in the first place! Was it necessary to quote Madam Noor Jehan’s alleged liaison with President Yahya Khan or her ex-husband Shaukat Hussain Rizvi’s book about his ex-wife in another book celebrating the female singers of the country, as it is neither considered authentic nor comes with any proof? Add to that an introduction that is more than 20-page long, and is all set to bore the readers than enlighten them.

Some of the chapters related to Runa Laila, Nazia Hassan, and Coke Studio might attract newer readers, but for older readers, it has no value at all. For a person like me who loves both music and books, it was like throwing my precious time away as the author kept wandering away from the subject, and explained stuff that didn’t need any explanation for local readers. For international readers, it is a book worth their time for they appreciate such ‘philosophical’ stuff.

The interviews of Suraiya Multanekar, Tahira Syed, Tina Sani, Hadiqa Kiani, and Aliya Rasheed (not the sports journalist) that the author took for her documentary are given a separate section and are the saving grace of the book. All these female singers talk about their lives, their accomplishments, and their struggles, which is what both young and the old want to read. How they managed to make it big in a male-dominated world, who were the ones who supported them, and what strengthened their resolve, are some of the answers every reader will take back from these interviews.

It must be mentioned here that Siren Song can be treated as the text version of a documentary made by the author, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been a good book. Had the author not presented it as a thesis, it might have been a good read, but sadly, it had more unrelated stuff than related one. As a reader, I am more interested in the stories of these talented females, which was missing here. Maybe someone else will come up with what my heart desires, but this book doesn’t come close to what I was expecting.

About the author

Omair Alavi