KARACHI: When Abida Parveen says she does not associate with any gender, no one dares quiz her over this line of thought. So to say that we are not welcoming of anything that does not fit our conventional binaries will not entirely be true. However, one can also not deny that we are yet to overcome our obsession with what qualifies as manly and what qualifies as womanly. Ask the men who like wearing pink and you will know.
When Javed Bashir and Masuma Anwar’s Jhalliya came out, there were many who engaged in our favourite national sport, also called mockery. Instead of appreciating Anwar for her unbelievable vocal prowess, we were laughing at how manly her voice really is.
Anwar has been taking these comments in her stride for years and years. “I am proud of this voice of mine that’s called manly,” she tells The Express Tribune rather gleefully.
For someone who has no dreams of becoming a star in the proverbial sense, the response to Jhalliya has been phenomenal. “I have a sense of humour. One should be aware of one’s own potential and I am proud of what I have achieved,” she says.
While still in med school, Anwar got her first call from Coke Studio. This was the show’s fourth season and at that time, she wasn’t even sure if she was going to pursue music or not. However, in the subsequent years, things changed quite rapidly. Anwar completed her specialisation and is a practicing pediatrician today. In this time, she was also able to put together as many as four studio albums, make her Bollywood singing debut and make her mind about simultaneously juggling between the stethoscope and the microphone.
“We have at least 30, 35 doctors in the family so I never had any doubts about doing medicine,” she says, having just returned from the hospital to look after her own baby boy. “9am to 3pm is my hospital time. Then it’s just me and my son.”
When she finally okayed her Coke Studio debut to Faakhir Mehmood, Anwar was expecting. “I actually did not have a single rehearsal. Faakhir asked me to sing any song in a high-pitched voice and send it to him,” she says. Progress was made via Whatsapp voice notes and she was finally sent a rough version of Jhalliya for her to lace with her vocals. “I was asked to practice the chorus on loop and then send a recording of my vocals. I did that and soon I was on stage singing with Javed Bashir.”
Having worked with Bashir and Strings earlier on several ad film jingles, Anwar was not nervous one bit. “Bashir is a living legend and he does not okay collaborations that easily. He was so happy with the response our song received,” she said. For Anwar who has zero formal training in classical music, this is quite a big deal.
When she arrived on the sets for the final recording, she sang a kafi just to prepare her throat. “When they heard me sing live, they were so impressed. Normally it takes as many as 32 takes to record one song. We were done in two takes. Within two hours, Jhalliya was final and locked.”
While it does take a while for newcomers to establish themselves and gain some recognition in the eyes of their peers, for Anwar this has not been the case. “Usually new singers are given shorter portions in order to let the more famous artist take charge. But with Jhalliya, I had as many lines as Bashir did.”
As a young girl attending Beaconhouse School System, Anwar adopted the style of her initial inspirations, renowned naat khawans Manzoorul Konain, Khursheed Ahmed and Fasihuddin Soharwardy. Known as incredible vocal powerhouses, all three have inspired a generation of naat and manqabat reciters. “In fourth grade, I once recited a Punjabi naat in the morning assembly. Our principal Mrs Ali came out of her office see who was on the microphone. She couldn’t believe I could recite like that,” Anwar recalls.
Once the odd compliments got regular, Anwar’s mother decided to train her daughter and get her to listen to the likes of Roshan Ara Begum, Zahida Parveen, Abida Parveen, Reshma, Salamat Ali Khan and Hamid Ali Bela. “At that time, I could not even understand their names. I would ask my mom if she would take me to this chinese restaurant if I memorise one of their songs and sing correctly. This is how I was trained,” she laughs.
Having sung Allama Iqbal’s works for National Sufi Council and then released two more arifana kalam and naat albums, Dhola and Nigah-e-Karam with the now-defunct Fire Records, Anwar went on to record another album for Yousuf Salahuddin’s brainchild, Virsa Heritage.
“These days, Sufi is the new cool. People know little about these things but they all want to associate with the school of thought. And it’s not all that bad. People have begun to realise that the works of Bulleh Shah and Khawaja Ghulam Farid have stood the test of times and will continue to do so for years to come,” she maintains.
Having been in the industry for a good 10 years now, Anwar has the likes of Abida Parveen, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Mahesh Bhatt as her fans. “The late Aadesh Shrivastava once called and said he can hear God in my voice. I will never be able to forget that compliment,” she says.
Her mom may still not consider her good enough, Anwar says a lot has changed at home. “It does not make a difference to me what anyone says but if Ammi criticises, it is very different. She has supported me throughout and made me what I am today.”
Hailing from a rather conservative family, she saw support flow in only from her parents initially. “My extended family did not approve of my singing but today they are all like, ‘Oh you see that girl Masuma? She is our daughter,’” she says.
Currently working on her fifth album, Anwar will also appear in the next season of Coke Studio. The show has definitely changed a lot for her. “Now the world knows who Masuma Anwar is. Next year I will try to show what I am really capable of,” she says.
By the time Coke Studio 10 comes out, a number of her other projects will have seen the light of the day. “I have a few Bollywood songs with Bhansali and Bhatt and I am also singing for a few Pakistani films this year. They want me to permanently settle in India but that cannot happen.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2016.