“I find gossip about me mildly amusing”

Tahira Syed talks to Ally Adnan about her exacting mother, indulgent father and the joys of being single

“I find gossip about me mildly amusing”
The youngest child of celebrated songstress Malika Pukhraj, the lovely Tahira Syed started her career in music when her mother forced her into a rigorous two year training in classical music with Ustad Akhtar Hussain Khan. The reluctant young singer was trained in the art of singing geet and ghazal by her mother. Ustad Nazar Hussain completed Tahira’s musical training by helping her find and develop her own unique voice. Influenced by both classical and folk music, Tahira sings in a distinctive style that has enjoyed popularity for more than four decades. Known both for her good looks and mellifluous voice, Syed is a person of immense intelligence, with a remarkable facility in making conversation. In a comprehensive interview with the Friday Times, she talks to Ally Adnan about music, life, family and friends.

It has been ten years since your mother, the celebrated vocalist, Malika Pukhraj, passed away. How do you remember your mother?

I remember Mommy as a very exacting person and a perfectionist. She wanted everyone in her family to do their very best and set high standards for herself and for those she loved. One had to live up to her high standards to earn her respect. Singing, writing, cooking, embroidery and everything else that she undertook had to be done to the best of her abilities; anything less than that was unacceptable. She demanded perfection from everyone in her family and from people she cared for.

It was my mother who forced me to take up singing. And even though learning to sing and studying simultaneously was very difficult for me, I did it to please my mother. She wanted me to do everything that she had done in her life and more. As I struggled to accommodate both studies and music into my schedule, she added painting to the list of things she wanted me to do by asking Ustad Allah Bux to be my teacher. Mommy’s ambitions for her children were boundless.

Ally Adnan & Tahira Syed
Ally Adnan & Tahira Syed

I wanted warmth and affection. Mommy seemed unwilling, and possibly unable, to give either

That must have made your childhood very difficult.

Of course it did. Living up to Mommy’s expectations was not easy. She demanded a lot from all her children, particularly from me. I was both her daughter and her student. I had to work hard to meet her expectations in both capacities. Mommy did not believe in dishing out praise easily. Encouragement came in the form of increased attention and expectations. The lack of appreciation and praise used to bother me a great deal. I wanted warmth and affection. Mommy seemed unwilling, and possibly unable, to give either.

Malika was not a warm person. She maintained a distance and a studied aloofness with even those whom she cared for….

Yes, she did. She was always a little aloof and distant. She did not believe in demonstrations of love and affection. She had an air of mystery about her. As children, we never knew her real feelings. Happiness, sadness, concerns, anxieties, and contentment – she kept it all hidden. There were a few people with whom she shared her feelings but she never opened up to her family. We were not privy to her secrets.

Tahira Syed on Pakistan Television in the Eighties
Tahira Syed on Pakistan Television in the Eighties

Malika Pukhraj was known for controlling her temper and rarely, if ever, lost her cool. Yet, people in show business, and in social circles, used to be afraid of her. Why?

Mommy was a very reserved person. One could never tell what was going on in her mind. I think that people were scared because they could never be sure of what she was thinking and were unable to predict her reactions to what they did. They were afraid of ruffling her feathers and provoking what seemed to be great anger simmering beneath a cool surface. As a child, I was scared of my mother. In fact, I was petrified of her even though she never lost her temper with me.

Your father, Syed Shabbir Hussain Shah, was an eminent scholar and the author of Jhok Sayal, a major literary work of the Urdu language. You often talk about your mother but rarely about your father. What was Shah Ji like?

My father was a very warm, emotional and caring person; compassionate and truly soft-hearted. I remember him as an indulgent, warm and loving father. He used to ask Mommy favors on our behalf and tried to shield us from Mommy’s disapproval and anger. A truly gentle soul. I did not get to know him very well as a person because he passed away when I was around fourteen years old. I was too young to have fully understood him and his personality at that age.

Malika Pukhraj
Malika Pukhraj

As a child, did you know that he was a major literary figure?

To some extent, yes. Writers and poets used to visit our home frequently. I knew that he was respected in literary circles. I was also aware that he was writing a novel, and not nearly fast enough to make my mother happy. She used to task him with writing a certain number of pages each day, and made sure that he complied. When he passed away, Mommy decided to collect his published works. This became a frantic exercise for her but she managed to get a hold of a lot of what had been published. He had written mostly for the Urdu language journal Romaan. Mommy was able to locate a number of copies of Romaan’s past issues, a lot of which featured Shah Ji’s short stories. I got to know him as a writer by reading these works.

When did you first read Jhok Sayal?

The novel was published posthumously. I read it as soon as it came out. It is a great book but has been out of print for a long time. One of my brothers is very keen on getting it republished. Once we locate a copy, we will get it printed again.

Your mother came from a background that is not necessarily considered respectable in Pakistan. People may be in awe of her past but disapprove of it nonetheless. Did this bother you as a child?

I did not know much about my mother and her background as a child. She was a very secretive person. I knew that she was employed in the court of Jammu and that she had an inordinate amount of love for music. That was about it. Very few magazines used to write about musicians and social media did not exist at the time; so a lot of information about my mother was out of reach for me. It was much later, when I started going to radio and television stations with her, that I started seeing the respect she was accorded in the world of music. And I realized the full extent of her stature and standing only after visiting India with her. She was treated like royalty in the country. I only saw people respect Mommy. That, certainly, did not bother me.

Tahira Syed on Pakistan Television in the Seventies
Tahira Syed on Pakistan Television in the Seventies

The stigma associated with dance and music was amplified after partition

People love to socialize with singers and musicians, and count them amongst their friends, but fail to give them genuine respect. Why?

This, unfortunately, is the sad truth about our society. We are afraid to embrace what we believe is right due to long-held but archaic views and our prejudices.

Respectable Muslim women were not ‘supposed’ to dance and sing. This was something for the Hindus to do. The stigma associated with dance and music was amplified after partition. Women who practiced these arts came to be regarded as nautch girls and, often, worse.

Even in my own home, my brothers disapproved of me singing professionally. They had trouble coming to terms with their sister, the daughter of a Syed (direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad – Peace be Upon Him) family, performing in public. They must have had a very hard time living down my mother’s reputation; adding a singing sister to the picture was horrific for them. With me singing publicly, they were likely to become the subject of much talk and scorn and possibly lose some friends. We had been raised in a conservative household. The sisters were expected to vanish when friends of their brothers were over. When Mommy started talking about me performing on radio and television, there was a lot of resistance from my brothers who did not understand how their sister – one who had never been allowed to meet their friends – could appear on television to be seen by all. Mommy’s resolve, however, was strong and everyone gave in to her decision to have me perform professionally.

Mommy, as always, got her way but became increasingly protective; she was afraid that she would have to carry the entire blame if anything inappropriate, or untoward, happened on radio and television. As a result, she watched me like a hawk and always accompanied me to recordings. It was only after I got married, that I was able to go to the television station alone.
Naeem and I ceased to care for each other

You were happily married in the eighties, with a handsome husband and two lovely children. It was a picture perfect family. How did the marriage fall apart?

Marriages are complicated. It is difficult to determine how and why people drift apart. I am not sure how it happened but Naeem and I ceased to care for each other after living together happily for over a decade. Every relationship has its life; ours was destined to be short. Over time, we lost interest in each other. I felt that Naeem became indifferent to my presence. I think he felt the same way. We just ceased to be in love.

Was the divorce acrimonious?

No. Kiran was twelve at the time and Hasnain was four years old. The whole thing took about two months. Both of us were determined to remain civil and courteous. The kids would have suffered a lot had we not behaved ourselves. We did not want that.

Tahira Syed on the cover of National Geographic April 1982 Issue
Tahira Syed on the cover of National Geographic April 1982 Issue

Do you and Naeem still see each other?

Very seldom. Every now and then, we see each other at weddings and social events. We don’t meet otherwise.

Did your mother support your divorce?

No. She was fond of Naeem and wanted us to stay together.

And the children?

Kiran and Hasnain were very young at the time. They probably suffered a lot through the process but did not have a say in the matter.
Marrying again has never seemed attractive

How come you never married again?

I have never really felt the need to marry again. I enjoy being single. I have wonderful friends that I spend time with. I travel. I perform when I feel like singing. I have freedom and I have independence. I come and go as I please. I enjoy spending time with my children. I am very happy. I have met a few interesting men but nothing has come out of those relationships. Marrying again has never seemed attractive.

In the thirty years that I have known you, I have always noticed how confident you are and how you always seem to be at ease with yourself. Is your composure studied or are you truly comfortable with who you are?

I developed confidence as I grew older. As I got to know more about myself, I became comfortable with myself as a person. I think it was in my forties that I came to be fully at ease with myself. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and am not afraid to admit my shortcomings and flaws. This makes me less vulnerable to criticism. I do not have many secrets and talk openly and honestly about my life. By doing so, I take away from the pleasure of people gossiping about me. I am a secure person and do not need to be treated as a celebrity at parties. I really don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. My composure is real. It came with age, awareness and introspection.

Tahira Syed with best friend Zareen Khalid, daughter Kiran Bukhari & son in law Asis Habibullah
Tahira Syed with best friend Zareen Khalid, daughter Kiran Bukhari &
son in law Asif Habibullah

Why do your siblings refer to you as General Saab?

They call me General Saab because they always let me have my way and agree to whatever I ask them to do. I am blessed with truly wonderful siblings. They adore me. They are extremely nice to me. And they spoil me.

I have four brothers and one sister. My eldest brother, Tariq, is a good eighteen years senior to me. He is a mature and understanding person. He has always been there for me and supported my career as a singer when others did not. His daughters are like my sisters. I am very close to them. Saifi Baji is both a sister and a mother to me. She is an incredibly warm person and has been there for me throughout my life. My brother, Tauqeer lives near me. We interact with each other on a daily basis. His wife is a very dear friend of mine. Tanveer used to be in the army and was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurrat (Star of Courage) during his service. He is full of fire and energy, and a constant source of entertainment for all of us. Tasweer is the closest to me in age and more of a friend than a brother. We are an interesting family. To be honest, we are all a little crazy. No one in my family is your average ‘normal’ person. Each one has his own idiosyncrasies and quirks. This makes for a fun family. I love my family’s eccentricities and am glad that no one is boring.

Friendships seem to be very important to you.

Yes, they are. I am blessed with a large number of very warm, loving and interesting friends. I relish my friendships. They tend to last very long. Some of my friends have been in my life for decades. I am good at maintaining contact and cannot bear the thought of losing a friend. Friendships are valuable. People generally stop making friends as they grow older but it has been different for me. I continue to meet people who are interesting and fascinating and, even at this point, I am able to foster good friendships with them. I think that I have always been lucky with friendships. I tend to attract people who are smarter, wiser and more talented than I am. Their company brings me a lot of happiness, and adds to my knowledge and experience.

Tahira Syed with daughter Kiran Bukhari & son-in-law Asif Habibullah
Tahira Syed with daughter Kiran Bukhari & son-in-law Asif Habibullah

I do not like to be bored and am attracted to people who are full of life and happiness

What do you look for in your friends?

I like people who respond to my love and affection, and who reciprocate my warmth in kind. The entertainment value of a friendship is important to me. I like people who have a good sense of humor. I do not like to be bored and am attracted to people who are full of life and happiness. I value friends who stimulate me intellectually. I have a very diverse set of friends, different socially, culturally, intellectually and financially, but all have one thing in common: they are warm and genuine people, and they accept me for who I am.

What kind of people do you stay away from?

I tend to stay from people who are insincere and two-faced. I dislike people whose lives revolve around the accumulation of wealth. People who have an inordinate amount of love for material things turn me off. I do not enjoy their company.

You lost your best friend, Zareen Khalid, to cancer. How did you deal with the loss?

Zareen’s friendship was the most valuable one I have ever had. It started when I was fifteen and lasted for as long as Zareen was alive. She was the best friend anyone could possibly have. She was honest, sincere and devoted. She had a terrific sense of humor and loved to entertain people. She was an intelligent and talented person. When she set up her own business, she became a pioneer in the field of event management. Strong, supportive and wise, Zareen was always there for me, in good times and in bad. Even when in the throes of cancer, she continued to be there. She was very unwell during Kiran’s wedding but participated in the preparations with the energy of a teenager. All arrangements for the wedding were done with her help and advice. Zareen passed away while I was in the United States. I have not been able to get over the loss. I do not think I will ever come to terms with not having her in my life any more.

You have had your fair share of scandal during your career but you have never come out to confirm or deny the rumors. Why do you not feel the need to set the record straight?

I have heard a lot of rumors and gossip about me. I feel this comes with the territory. I am a celebrity and people will talk about me. To be honest, I find gossip about me mildly amusing and largely flattering. That people talk about me is a testimonial of my status as a celebrity. It feels good, strangely. There really is no need for me to set the record straight.  People who are close to me, those who matter in my life, know the truth. They do not need any clarifications or explanations. And I do not care much about the rest.

You had three teachers of music. Ustad Akhtar Hussain, your mother, Malika Pukhraj, and Ustad Nazar Hussain. What did each one of you teach you?

Ustad Akhtar Hussain taught me classical music. He worked on pitch, tone and voice culture. I learnt the basics of raag (musical scale) and taal (rhythmic cycle) from him for a period of two years. Once the foundation of singing had been laid, Mommy started teaching me geet and ghazal, using her own repertoire as the source of singing material. She also helped me develop a regimen for riyaaz (practice). Nazar Saab helped me with voice modulation and refinement. He taught me raggi (singing using the throat) techniques and helped add a softness and more feeling to my voice. He also composed some wonderful geets and ghazals for me.

Virtually all major music directors of Pakistan have composed songs for you. Who was it that you enjoyed working with the most?

Nisar Bazmi. He was very talented and a wonderful human being. I love every single composition he did for me. He had a very gentle manner and afforded me a very safe and secure environment to learn his compositions. I enjoyed working with Bazmi Saab.

Khalil Ahmed composed a number of very good songs for me. Yeh Alam Shauq Ka, Baadbaan Khulne Se Pehle, Awal Shab Wo Bazm Ki Raunaq, and Jaanaan Jaanaan were all composed by Khalil Ahmed. Unfortunately, Khalil Saab was surrounded by a number of senior music directors. As a result, his work was always eclipsed. I do not think he ever received due respect. I love his compositions. Some of my best songs were composed by Khalil Ahmed.

Tahira Syed with son Hasnain Bukhari, & sister Tasneem Zafar
Tahira Syed with son Hasnain Bukhari, & sister Tasneem Zafar

You tend to select very good poetry for your songs.

Yes, I prefer to sing the works of masters. Mommy understood poetry and did not approve of singing mediocre verse. She was actively involved in the selection of poetry for my songs, and deserves credit for the quality of poetry that I have sung. I was always on very good terms with music directors like Arshad Mahmood, Nisar Bazmi, Khalil Ahmed and television producers like Farrukh Bashir and Khawaja Najam Ul Hassan. These people were my friends and indulged my desire to sing good poetry.

The few songs that you sang for films – Mere Dil Ki Har Tammana, Yeh Mehfil Jo Aaj Saji Hai and Raat Nasheeli Hai – were huge hits, but you stopped singing for films very early in your career. Why did you do so?

In those days, the word “film” had negative connotations and was considered shady compared to radio and television. Girls from respectable families were not supposed to move in the film world. I remember that Mommy scheduled the recording of my first film song for midnight to avoid being seen in the studio. My family agreed to me singing on radio and television with great fear and apprehension. Film was too scandalous for them to handle. I, therefore, decided not to sing for films.

Was the film world really that scandalous?

No, not at all. It was as respectable as radio and television. The perception that people in the film industry were less honorable than others was unfair and unwarranted.

Did your parents have a lot of friends in the world of music?

Mommy commanded a lot of respect in the world of music. Ustads Amanat Ali Khan and Fateh Ali Khan used to visit our home regularly. Shah Ji was very fond of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan who used to some and perform at our home regularly. He used to burst into tears each time Salamat Ali Khan sang a kafi. Mommy was on very good terms with Fareeda [Khanum] Aunty and very close to Madam Noor Jehan. I was friends with Zille Huma. Mommy and Noor Jehan Aunty used to visit each other frequently. They were close to each other.

And Madam Ji wanted you to marry her son, Asghar Rizvi, at one point in time?

Yes, she did. It obviously did not happen.

You managed to anger Madam Noor Jehan very famously in the eighties. What was the altercation about?

It was a very unpleasant and, in my opinion, totally unnecessary fracas.  A journalist from an Urdu periodical interviewed me and asked me a few questions about Madam. Once he had the answers he decided to play mischief and published a headline stating that I had talked ill of Madam and said that I did not enjoy her music and could not bear to listen to more than a couple of her songs at a time. That was patently false. He had quoted me incorrectly and out of context. The headline set Madam off. She reacted with tremendous fury and called a press conference to denounce me both as a singer and as a person.  The truth is that I have always admired Madam’s singing. She was a friend of the family and there would have been no reason at all for me to speak ill of her. I just wish that Madam had asked me, or Mommy, for clarification before getting fired up.

Malika Pukhraj wrote a very candid autobiography that was translated into English and published in India. I remember her telling me that there were passages in the original draft that her daughter, Tasneem Zehra, did not want published. What were those passages?

Mommy wrote very candidly and with great honesty. Baji and I did not want her to use real names in a few passages because that would have caused unnecessary hurt and left her exposed to a defamation suit for libel. We asked her to remove the names. Other than that, pretty much everything Mommy wrote was translated and published as she had written it.

The songs that you sing are not the most popular ones today but you always manage to draw large crowds to your concerts, especially outside of Pakistan. Why do you think people flock to attend your shows?

I think it is nostalgia. People who come to my shows are typically middle-aged and enjoy listening to songs they heard in their youth. I also tend to attract well-educated people because of the quality of poetry I sing. I have my own following of intelligent, well-read and knowledgeable people but this will not last for very long. Sadly, this is the last generation of people who will listen to and enjoy my songs. Younger generations do not know Tahira Syed or her songs.

Do you think that programs like Coke Studio help introduce traditional Pakistani music to our youth?

Yes, I do.

Have you been asked to perform in Coke Studio?

No, I have not. I am surprised that they have not approached me.

Why do you sing?

I sing because I have a desire to be heard. When I was younger, singing did not afford me a lot of pleasure. Now it does. I get a feeling of euphoria when a learned audience appreciates my singing. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes with having performed well.

You are one of the very few Pakistani singers who are able to perform live. Do you do riyaz on a regular basis?

No. I practice for about two weeks before each performance. I use tapes of practice music that I made a few years ago to get in shape for my performances. In addition to riyaz, the hard work I put into singing as a young girl, especially with Ustad Akhtar Hussain, helps me sing live. I had a proper and formal training in music. It continues to pay dividends. I do not find it difficult to sing live.
Indians are true lovers of music and musicians

Where is it that you find the best audience?

In India and in the United States.

Indians are true lovers of music and musicians. They know how to value and respect artists. I love performing in the country. Indian audiences do not care if you are a Pakistani or an Indian. Their respect is based solely on merit. I am flattered by the familiarity the Indians have with my songs and love it when they ask me to sing their favorite songs in concerts. I enjoy the love and the adulation I receive there.

Audiences in the United States tend to be well-educated, knowledgeable and older. As I had said earlier, they are drawn to my music because of nostalgia and the quality of poetry I sing. American audiences include Pakistanis, Indian Muslims, Sikhs, and a lot of other groups, all of whom seem to come together in my concerts. They listen with a lot of love and attention and are very liberal with praise. I like that.  My shows in American tend to sell out very quickly.
I find people who become legends in their own mind offensive and delusional

I have always noticed that you do not put on any airs and graces, and are always willing to sing informally at parties and at weddings.  Why?

I do not take myself or my singing too seriously. I loathe people who do. Having talent, no matter how immense, does not grant one the license to act superior to others. I like being friendly and approachable. I find people who become legends in their own mind offensive and delusional. I think I sing well but cannot be proud of my accomplishments. A lot went into making me a singer and very little of it was my own doing. I was born to mother who was a great vocalist. My family allowed me to learn music. I had three good teachers. I found the right opportunities to perform on radio and television. Music directors composed very good songs for me. I had access to some of best Urdu poetry of all times. I cannot take credit for all of this alone. It was just happenstance. My only contribution to my success as a singer is the hard work that I put into singing begrudgingly. It would be wrong for me to take all credit and start putting on airs.

For almost four decades, you have managed to remain fashionable and chic in the very fickle world of show business. How is it that you have managed to define style and enjoy celebrity for such a long time?

I think that I have stayed popular for such a long time because there has always been more to me than just music. I have a sound education. I come from a respectable family. I believe I am reasonably intelligent. I am told that I have good looks and good taste. I like to wear good clothes. I am well-traveled and well-read. And, I believe, I have good manners. I think these factors, more than my credentials as a singer, are behind my protracted tenure as a celebrity.
I am surprised that Coke Studio never approached me

What do you think are your best qualities as a person?

I am a loyal person. I am sincere and I don’t pretend to be someone I am not.

What are your vices?

I am not a patient person. I get bored easily. I have a short temper.

What role do Kiran and Hasnain play in your life?

My children mean the world to me. Nothing is more important. I was a single parent and paid a lot of attention both of them when they were growing up. The three of us used to spend a lot of time together and enjoyed each other’s company. I made sure that the children had fun with me. This helped develop an extraordinary level of closeness between us.

Kiran loves me a great deal and is always looking for ways to take care of me. She values my opinion and likes to seek my guidance and advice when making important decisions. She is proud of me and would never let anyone say anything disparaging about me. She respects me not just as a mother but also a person. This makes me very happy. When I am with her, I feel needed and cherished.

Hasnain and I have a different relationship. I find it very easy to confide in him. He is wise beyond his years and completely non-judgmental. He has unconditional love for me and will always stand up for me.

God has given me two of the most wonderful children in the world. That is my greatest blessing.

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas where he works in the field of telecommunications. He can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com