It’s funny the things you rediscover when you can’t watch TV. It is while fiddling with the radio during a long spell of load-shedding that I hear those familiar voices, coming not just from the radio speakers but from the distant past.
The musical lilt of the voice, as I sit listening in the dark, is unmistakable. In a flash I realise who it is: it’s Beena from the Benjamin Sisters, those singers of patriotic anthems, the cherished icons of my childhood, role models so exemplary that their very wholesomeness seems to confine them to an era far removed from Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan.
As the voice fades away, I snap back to the present: this is 2011, not 1986, I remind myself. Tweens don’t sway to the tune of “Khayal Rakhna”, they bop to the beat of Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga. And yet, here is Beena Benjamin, hosting a show on FM 107. Does this spell a comeback for the sisters? Immediately, I go about the task of finding a contact for these old-time favourites.
But arranging an interview with them is no mean task. Thrice our meeting is cancelled because of the political unrest in Karachi. Finally, we decide to meet on a seemingly less turbulent Thursday at Chatkharay. As I dig into delectable chaat, I almost expect them to walk in wearing matching outfits. They arrive, giggling amongst themselves, oblivious of the interview. As she devours mirchi pakoras, Beena looks the same as she did years ago. Shabana Kenneth nee Benjamin sips Roof Afza, looking philosophical. Nerissa, meanwhile, does justice to her yummy fruit chaat, and proves to be the most animated of the lot, recounting with gusto numerous anecdotes of their past glory.
“Where have you been all these years?” is the first question.
Nerissa, Beena and Shabana laugh softly.
“Humari shadiaan hogai, hum gum hogaay,”(We all got married and hence we were nowhere to be found) says Nerissa Benjamin, the eldest. Belonging to an era when showbiz did not gel with married life, the sisters disbanded in 1987, at the height of their popularity, when Nerissa got married. In fact, before he was her husband, Nerissa’s husband was her biggest fan, telling his mother that he would only marry her.
“After marriage, life became very busy. Today, we all have different schedules and it’s difficult to coordinate with each other,” adds Beena.
They were introduced to showbiz by Javed Allah Ditta, a notable sitar player and member of the PIA Academy, where stalwarts like Sohail Rana and Zia Mohyuddin performed, and recorded “Khayal Rakhna” with Alamgir in 1983. Signed up for just one episode of Shoaib Mansoor’s programme “Silver Jubilee”, which was conceived as a tribute to artists who had been performing for the past 25 years, Nerissa, Shabana and Beena ended up doing 20 episodes.
The Benjamin Sisters hark back to the PTV of yore, known for discovering fresh talent and producing quality programmes. Even today, television viewers remember the vernal appeal of the three sisters: in their matching shalwar kameez and identically arranged dupattas they bobbed their heads ever so slightly while rendering favourites such as “Laila Laila”. Their bodies held absolutely rigid, their arms modestly crossed, they looked very much a part of the choir from which they had begun their musical journey. It was their father, Victor Benjamin, who first kindled this love for music. A skillful player of the xylophone, he encouraged his daughters to sing and they soon joined the Sunday School choir at The Christ Church. This was the sum total of their musical training. At a time when Zia’s Islamisation campaign was at its peak, these sisters from a minority community extolled nationalism in their beloved millie naghmay, capturing the nation’s heart in the process.
“Things were certainly different then. If there was any strife, it was against one sect or community,” says Nerissa. “The times we are living in are much stranger. People belonging to minority communities like us, feel threatened.”
But Shabana is more hopeful, “I truly believe that things will change for the better. Someone, for sure, will rise and save us all.”
When they first started appearing on TV, Nerissa was 21 years old and Beena and Shabana were 16 and 15 years old, respectively. Their mother encouraged the younger sisters but was a bit hesitant in sending the eldest one on TV. After a couple of episodes, the popularity of the sisters exploded and their fan following made their parents impose limits on their comings and goings. “Going to the bazaar was strictly forbidden,” says Nerissa. “We were simply too famous!”
This was also one of the reasons that Nerissa Benjamin hardly ever did commercial shows, whereas the other two happily went ahead, voices in sync. Their appeal pretty much cut across all age groups. A colleague told me that, as a child, her elder sister (who was then 8 years old) admired the Benjamin sisters so deeply, that when their mother was expecting a third child, she prayed for a little sister. Asked why, she replied, “Because then we’ll be the Benjamin sisters!”
The Benjamin sisters, in fact, are four in all. The youngest, Edna, was not part of the original singing trio but now works as an RJ at a radio station.
The fan mail came in droves and the sisters basked in the admiration. According to Beena, “Shabana’s followers were all teenagers, while kids used to adore me.”
“Senior citizens were left for me!” interrupts Nerissa.
The sisters laugh and Beena continues: “Nerissa had everyone following her,” she says slyly.
PTV was a second home to them, as to many other emerging artists and actors such as Hadiqa Kiyani, who were discovered and groomed by the institution in the ‘80s. “The love, respect and admiration we have received from PTV is one thing we will always be thankful for,” they say.
But times have changed since then, and so has the music industry. Where once Alamgir and Hasan Jehangir ruled the roost, now there are Ali Zafar, Zoe Viccaji and Zeb and Haniya. I wonder how they find the music industry different from when they first started.
“Today, you find everything ready-made,” says Nerissa.
While Beena believes, “No hard work is required now.”
According to Shabana, “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making a lyrical song melodious. Not any more. In our times, one tiny mistake and the entire song would have to be re-recorded!”
The audience too appears to have changed over time, growing more discriminating about the music they listen to — the simple tunes these sisters belted out no longer suffice.
Amidst laughter, Beena Benjamin says, “No, the audience is the same. The ears have changed!”
Though no longer in the limelight, the Benjamin sisters intend to stick to what they know are their strengths, if they ever make that comeback that is bound to bring a smile to a lot of faces. Shabana says, “If we are ever given a choice, we will be singing those same millie naghmay in a new style.” Nerissa adds, “We have been die-hard patriots all our lives.”
Till that happens, Nerissa continues to teach at St. Patrick’s High School, and Beena works as a voiceover artist and a VJ. Shabana Kenneth, meanwhile, is a housewife. Nerissa and Shabana have a daughter and two sons each, whereas Beena has been blessed with a daughter. All three agree: “Our kids remain our greatest critics to date. They are always mocking our hair-dos and make-up from back then.”
But their husbands and in-laws are amongst their biggest fans. “They’re always telling us to sing a new song,” says Beena.
The possibility of that is far off — it is, after all 2011. But when they get together, laughing and joking over small things, their voices mingling for the tiniest second as they interrupt each other, for a while they are the Benjamin Sisters once again. And I remain their biggest fan.
BEHIND THE SCENES
What was it like to work on a Benjamin Sisters’ photoshoot? From those who grew up on a staple diet of their songs to those only heard of them from older siblings, the people behind the scenes recount their experience.
I wasn’t even born when they were at the top of their game, but I had of course heard their music and seen the videos. I was super excited when I was asked to click them. As for the shoot itself, it was as fun (and painful) as any other shoot, but I had to be extra careful as I was dealing with Pakistan’s national treasures! — Zeeshan Haider, Photographer
My first thought was: “No way! The Benjamin Sisters? Where have they been?” I was thrilled when I was approached to design outfits for the shoot and had a bunch of ideas for reinventing them, keeping in mind the classic Benjamin Sisters look. I met them over a cup of tea and witnessed a steamroller go over my all-white, very contemporary ideas. The conversation was about daily life, likes, dislikes, personal styles, colours they love and colours they don’t love: Nerissa and Shabana with their beige-themed traditional dress sense and Beena with her passion for the colour red. I remember how cutely they asked for neck lines not to be too deep as “Mummy would get upset!” It was delightful. — Zaid Hameed, Designer
I said ‘yes’ without even meeting them, even though I wondered how they looked 25 years later. I instinctively knew that the ‘one voice’ sisters needed jewellery that belonged to the same family. Not only did they pave the way for other women to blaze their own trails in the future, they also opened a window into the past for me and other teenagers in the early ‘80s who grew up listening to their renditions of Pakistani classics. Even today when I hum “Jeya gaye tara rara rum” or “Tum zindagi ko ghum ka fasanna bana gaye”, I conjure up their faces. — Kiran Aman, Jewellery designer
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 13th, 2011.