Bilquis Khanum, A Melodious Voice, Is No More

Bilquis Khanum, A Melodious Voice, Is No More
Mehnaz Begum, Shahida Parveen, Iqbal Bano, Shaukat Ali, A. Nayyar, Nayyara Noor and now Bilquis Khanam – all those made our music history are gone but to live forever in our hearts and minds.

What a great lady Khanam was – wise like her name ‘Bilquis’ and yet humble like a saint. She hit the Pakistan Television (PTV) screen in the early 70’s with an ephemeral bang by singing Ustad Nazar Hussain’s complex composition on madh kauns – kuch din tau baso meri aankho mein, phir khuwab agar ho jao tau kia [Stay in my sight for a few days. You may become a distant dream then! Courtesy my guru Usman Qazi]

When she visited my place in the early 90’s along with her husband Ustad Rais Khan (the Indian sitar maestro) and kids she said she did not sing that song. It was Ustad Nazar who had made her sing it. Only a saint can make such acknowledgments.

Pandits and Ustads say women should avoid singing darbari for it requires muscular strength. But Bilquis sang it with power and beauty though in a lighter form in anokha ladla. Her greatest achievement was making Rais enamoured with her charm. He left India and accepted Pakistani nationality for Bilquis for Bombay’s air did not suit her. So here we have an anti-Bade Ghulam Ali Khan case. The latter left Pakistan to become an Indian citizen for an ignorant bureaucrat like Z. A. Bukhari would demand that Khan saheb should become his gandaband shagird (formal disciple). Khan saheb should have either killed himself or become Bukhari’s disciple! He found an out of the box solution i.e. migration to India where everybody worshiped him as a god of music.

Rais sacrificed his sitar career for Bilquis. Nobody valued his art and knowledge. He became a pariah in Karachi. He himself told me that for months he would not touch sitar. But the sweetness in his notes never decreased. He made his living by touring India, Europe and the US as Pakistani sitarist. I am sure PTV and other state-run cultural institutions might not have offered him more than 12 concerts in 40 years.

When the entire family was with us in 1992, my late mother asked Bilquis that how did she feel after becoming famous via PTV. You know what did she say? She said no woman can appear on TV without sleeping with a producer. One needs tremendous courage to make such a statement. Due to this reason, she gave up singing after marrying Rais.

Our friend and TV producer Nazir Amir told me that he had to work hard to convince Rais Khan to let Bilquis sing again. So, in 1992 she appeared on TV and sang her old songs. Women in Khan Saheb’s gharana were not allowed to pursue music.

Only Dr. Ashfaq Ahmad, the homeopath, would treat Bilquis' allergy. So, Rais had no option but to fly to Islamabad from Karachi every quarter. Dr saheb was also the official homeopath of Benazir Bhutto. He knew how to play sitar. Rais would stay in Pindi. Once he reached Dr saheb’s house without sitar. He said first bring sitar and then I will prepare medicines. Somebody was sent to Pindi. Sitar came. It was afternoon. Khan saheb played raga barindabani sarang. It was a wonderful afternoon! The favour of music was returned in the form of medicines.

Rais really loved Khanam like I love Sadia (my wife). He won’t call her by ‘Bilquis’ but Khanam. Rais disliked his uncle Ustad Vilayat Khan and won’t stop demonizing him. Bilquis would try to stop him for Vilayat Khan had a huge following in Pakistan. But Khan saheb is ‘Rais Khan’! He won’t listen to anyone.

Now every day when I get up, I read or hear that this or that friend has gone. Two days ago, Dr Tabish Hazir now Bilquis! Why I am still alive? Just to see them departing?

Mohammad Shehzad is based in Islamabad. He has been writing for national and foreign publications since 1992. He is the author of The State of Islamic Radicalism in Pakistan (Routledge Taylor & Francis) and Love and Fear: Poems Beyond Time ( He learns tabla and classical vocal music. He is a passionate cook and shares his recipes at Email: