India Still Sings This Pak Singer’s Songs: Remembering Iqbal Bano

Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ — which has become a rallying cry in India too — was most popularly sung by Iqbal Bano.

6 min read

The creative arts affect human beings in multifarious ways. But music, amongst them, has the most intimate connect with the individual and society. The ‘song’ in particular rests on top of the musical pyramid. While the combination of lyrics, composition, and singing play a vital role in weaving the wizardry, it is the singer who delivers the final product to the listeners.

The product, however top-drawer, will remain unheralded in the hands of an unexceptional singer. Among other things, the song can entertain, it can edify, it can move nations, and it can transport one to perfect peace and happiness, a state of bliss and ecstasy. Some singers in India have ticked these boxes.

Across the border, there have been such singers too. In particular, their music has been bestowed by ‘good fortune’ and ‘prosperity’ (meaning ‘Iqbal’ in Urdu) by the presence of one singer who has redefined the meaning of excellence in her chosen craft — Iqbal Bano.

Iqbal Bano’s Early Life

Born in Delhi in 1935, with her childhood spent in Rohtak, she is, like some others from Pakistani music industry, a shared legacy of both countries. Though her oeuvre is considerable, just a few of her songs are enough to anoint her as the supreme practitioner of ghazals, nazms and thumris.

From a young age, she developed love for music and was coached in classical music by Ustad Chaand Khan, a maestro of the Delhi gharana. During her teens, he recommended her to the All India Radio, Delhi, where she started singing her first songs.

Bano’s family migrated to Pakistan in 1952. That same year, at age 17, she married a zamindar. Farsightedly, though unusually for a man of his background, he facilitated her passion for music; most women artists of the day didn’t enjoy that kind of freedom, which is why this is worth mentioning.

Iqbal Bano and her husband settled in Multan. She soon attained star status as a playback singer for many popular films such as such as ‘Gumnaam’ (1954), ‘Qatil’ (1955), ‘Inteqam’ (1955), ‘Sarfarosh’ (1956), ‘Ishq-i-Laila’ (1957) and ‘Nagin’ (1959). She also appeared regularly on Radio Pakistan for classical performances and, in 1957, her debut public concert at Lahore Arts Council (a city she would later return to) was a massive success, and her live concerts started attracting large crowds.

How Iqbal Bano Made a Song Iconic

Her stellar nazm needs to be mentioned at this stage — “Ulfat ki nayi manzil ko chala, tu bahein daal ke bahon mein” from the film ‘Qatil’ (1955). The song was composed by Master Inayat Husain and written by Qateel Shifai. The song was about betrayal, and the composition needed to be simple. A complex melody line would have detracted from the issues being addressed in the song. And so, it was.

The film song, even though top class, reached its iconic status many decades later when Bano had reached middle age and was performing live concerts.

Like some of her peers, such as Noor Jahan, she had a thin, reedy, shrill voice in the initial years of playback singing. Decades later, this voice, like Noor Jahan’s, would become full-bodied, rich, luxuriant, with thaharav, brimming with self-assurance and experience.

That is when this song realised its destiny. Bano took charge and invested the song with pathos, indignation, accusation and hurt.

The embellishments that she introduced imbued the song with these emotions. When she sang, one could sense her heart furrowed with perfidy, and feel the blood that oozed out of her pained voice. Bano took the song to another level!


Iqbal Bano’s Urdu & Farsi Repertoire Won Her Praise In Iran & Afghanistan Too

Another Inayat Husain beauty also deserves a mention – “Payal mein geet hain chham chham ke” from ‘Gumnaam’ (1954), written by Saifuddin Saif. In this case too, Bano, enriched it beyond all limits in her later years.

Another song which deserves heaps of accolades is “Daagh e dil humko yaad aane lage” (1975), written by Baqi Siddiqui, and composed by Master Manzoor, which she sang for Pakistan Television.

By now, her voice, like aged wine, had acquired depth and sweetness. Both the creators did an outstanding job, but Bano, as was her wont, took this song of despair and heartbreak much further. She used the echo effect with such finesse and facility that her melancholia came cutting through the cold winter night of desolation like a knife.

Other than Urdu, her repertoire of ghazals in Farsi was impressive and she was highly regarded in both Iran and Afghanistan.

Before 1979 she was often invited to the Jashn-e-Kabul, the annual cultural festival of Kabul. She was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (Pride of Performance) in 1974.

It was sheer bliss to watch her live performances. With the brilliance of her voice and total command over musical movements, emphasising a word or executing a taan with her graceful hand movements, making the songs come alive, made the experience mesmerising.


How Iqbal Bano Brought Faiz’s Poems To Life

In due course she generated more and more public appeal and, from 1981, began singing the poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. (he died on 20 November 1984). Bano greatly admired the poet, who after winning the Lenin Prize, had to seek refuge abroad. She imbued his revolutionary poetry with fervour and immediacy. Faiz's poetry was banned by the military government of General Zia ul-Haq who had seized power in 1977.

Undeterred, Bano, brought his poetry to the illiterate but poetry-loving masses and made them politically and socially aware.

But Faiz also wrote romantic poetry. Iqbal Bano’s rendering of Faiz’s “dasht-e-tanhai mein, aye jaan-e-jahan, larzan hai” needs to be highlighted. Never was a romantic nazm so touchingly written — and in the hands of Bano, it became something else.

So deep and lasting the bond between the singer and Faiz’s poetry became that Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi reportedly stated that Bano would always have a special place in the hearts and minds of her family and was like a member of their family.


‘Hum Dekhenge’ Will Always Be Remembered For Its Connection With Iqbal Bano, Who Sang It Defiantly

Which brings us to the song — ‘Hum Dekhenge’ — which will forever be linked to her. A song of protest, a song of revolution, a song of change; a song of the people, by the people, for the people; a song of democracy, of freedom, justice, and equality. A song sung at every protest in the sub-continent. A call for action, the gripping anthem became the battle cry of the downtrodden. Bano had a huge role in it.

In 1978, a year after the oppressive martial law was imposed, Faiz wrote the poem “Hum dekhen ge, lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhen ge”, critical of the authoritarian ruler, which Bano boldly and defiantly sang, in her powerful and passionate voice, before a crowd of 50,000 at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council on 13 February 1986, rousing them.

She wore a black sari. Both the sari and Faiz were banned at the time.

The poem used innuendo and traditional Islamic imagery to attack Zia’s dictatorship and expressing a conviction that one day the oppressed will become the rulers of their own destiny.

While there is no video of Bano’s performance, audio recordings give an idea of the power of her rendition and the effect it had on the assembled crowd.


As ‘punishment’, she was barred from all officially sponsored concerts and was not permitted to appear on television. Her songs were banished from the airwaves. This drastic action on the part of the authorities served only to increase her popularity. Bano attracted a cult following, and her message and voice are still heard to this day as a symbol for revolution. Bano, by popularising the poem by her impassioned rendition and singing it at every opportunity, became the face of the song.

In India too, the poem has become a symbol of protest – be it Jantar Mantar, India Gate, against Dow Chemicals in Bhopal, anti-nuclear stir at Jaitapur, at women’s marches. It was also sung in the anti-CAA-NRC protests.

Bano performed in India a few times – including as part of the Indo-Pakistan cultural exchange program in 1989. The enthusiastic reception she got here underlined her immense popularity here as well.

Iqbal Bano died on 21 April 2009. On her 12th death anniversary, Urdu poet Mahmood Rampuri’s couplet seems very apt – “Maut uski hai kare jiska zamana afsos, yun toh duniya mein sabhi aaye hain marne ke liye”.

Iqbal Bano will continue to enthral her listeners through her outstanding music and musicianship.

(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS officer presently working in a media company. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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