December Issue 2013
The heavenly voice of Rajasthan is no more, but she leaves behind a legacy of soulful melodies.
In a cruel twist of fate, Reshma, known for her unconventional, husky voice in a part of the world where higher-pitched female vocals are traditionally sought, was diagnosed with throat cancer in the 1980s. The last three months were particularly painful as her condition took a turn for the worse and, after being in coma for a month, the frail singer passed away on Sunday, November 3, in a Lahore hospital.
Reshma’s life was the stuff of legends. Born in Bikaner, Rajasthan to a Banjara gypsy tribe of camel and horse traders, she moved to the newly-created Pakistan when she was just a month old. Later on in life, when she received success outside of Pakistan — particularly in India, where she was loved and celebrated just as she was in her home country after audiences there first heard Lambi Judai in Subhash Ghai’s 1983 film, Hero — Reshma would refer back to her nomadic roots to show how borders do not contain artistic expression. “Do not think I am just Pakistani, a singer is for the world,” she once said in an interview.
At the age of 12, she was discovered by Salim Gillani, station director of Radio Pakistan in Karachi, who heard her singing at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Having never received any formal training in music, or any kind of an education otherwise, Reshma’s voice was raw and earthy and it instantly caught the nation’s attention, when she sang ‘Lal Meri‘ on Radio Pakistan in 1959.
The world may have changed since then, as have fashion and music trends, but Reshma remained the same; her authenticity was part of her charm. Despite all the success she received, Reshma never forgot her humble roots and continued to sing the folk and Sufi numbers that she was known for. Her fame was such that she received state assistance from successive governments, from General Zia-ul-Haq to Pervez Musharraf, and was awarded the Sitar-e-Imtiaz.
Arshad Mehmood, the well-known actor and music composer, recalls: “In 1999, I was composing a song with various Pakistani artists. Reshma was unwell at the time, but she had agreed to come. She had a small part in the clip, which lasted about 10 seconds, but she did it excellently. She was always very friendly and had a tremendous sense of humour. Recording is a difficult process, but she would always do it happily, with a smile. She really enjoyed music, and she enjoyed singing.”
Asked as to what it was about Reshma that made her so iconic, Mehmood responds, “Her voice, primarily. It was such a unique voice; no one else, not even the girls who tried to emulate her style of singing in later years, was anywhere close to her sound. Many greats such as Madam Noor Jehan and Farida Khanum, and others who really understood music, had a lot of respect for her.”
Meesha Shafi’s version of ‘Ve Main Chori Chori’ in Coke Studio, Qurat-ul-ain Baloch’s rendition of ‘Ankhian Nu Rehn De’ and Atif Aslam’s tribute to her at the Lux Style Awards in 2008, with Reshma making an appearance onstage herself, introduced her music to a new generation.
Photographer Mobeen Ansari, who took one of Reshma’s last photographs in her hospital bed in April, says, “I had wanted to photograph Reshma for many years, but it was not possible as she was constantly travelling. When she was admitted to the hospital earlier this year, I felt I had to meet her and inquire after her health. It was sad to see the state she was in as she had been battling her illness for so many years, and it had obviously taken a toll on her.
My admiration for her had always been strong and became even stronger after I met her. When I entered her room, she put her hands on my head and smiled, and it felt as if I had known her for many years. Luckily, I was just coming from a shoot and had my camera with me. I hesitantly asked her if I could photograph her and, as she could not speak, she nodded her head. That was the first and last time I met and photographed her.”
Ansari elaborates, “Since the time was short, and because I felt a little intimidated in her towering presence, I could not take a half-decent photograph, and I could not even focus on her eyes, which were her most prominent feature. I wanted the portrait to show her for who she was — a legend who had seen a lot in her lifetime. Having travelled through interior Sindh many times, I can still picture her as ‘The Nightingale of Desert’, a title often given to her.”
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.