On December 3 – which coincidentally happened to be Dev Annand’s sixth death anniversary – I made an interesting discovery related to a song in the film Kala Pani (1958). The song is the ghazal used for a mujra that Nalini Jaywant performs in front of Dev Anand,”Nazar Lagi Raja Tore Bangle Par.” The song was sung for Nalini Jaywant by Asha Bhosle, and it is one of many people’s favorite songs for both of them. I’ve featured this song in this blog before, but here is a refresher (which I may use to replace at least one other video of this song that I used before that, unfortunately, disappeared over the years).
The discovery that I made for myself that is related to this song is named Zarina Begum. Zarina was a protege of Begum Akhtar, and both famously sung a version of “Nazar Lagi Raja Tore Bangle Par” that predated the one in Kala Pani.
While looking at videos by Begum Akhtar on YouTube, I discovered a performance by Zarina of this song that was taken from a documentary about tawaifs called The Other Song, made by Saba Dewan. At the time this film was made, Zarina was 82 years old, and she was living in obscurity and poverty. But I thought her performance here was excellent, and I played the clip repeatedly. If Zarina could be so charming and compelling in this performance, what might she have been like to see and hear in her heyday? Unfortunately, I could not find any much older videos or recordings of her on YouTube, but I am very glad that I was able to find this one.
I could not find a full uploaded copy of The Other Song (although YouTube does have an interview with Saba Dewan about it, uploaded in two parts). I did, however, find a very informative short documentary from 2015, Zareena [sic] Begum – The last living courtesan of Awadh, which was made as a student project by Shweta Sharma. The film contains some nice excerpts of an interview with Zarina as well as performance footage from a couple of places (including a snippet of the above performance from Saba Dewan’s film). It also contains a few good vintage pics of Begum Akthar along with good musical excerpts from her, too.
It seems that in 2015 and 2016, there were quite a few documentaries and articles about Zarina Begum. There is a good article in Scroll.in that also includes the performance above under the title, Watch a performance from the last surviving court singer of Awadh who now lives in poverty. If you do a search, you’ll also find at least several more articles stressing that Zarina had become impoverished as well as becoming old and ill.
There is one incredibly sad article from October 2015 in The Times of India entitled, What is Awadh’s last court singer’s final wish? And the answer to that question is: “A job for her daughter or son-in-law, or an e-rickshaw for her physically challenged son, so that she could be taken care of in her last days.”
There were some arts organizations that came to her aid and she did get some government help, so it could be that her situation ceased to be quite so dire. Now that a couple of years have passed since all this information came out, I hope that she is still alive. (Since I can find no news of Zarina’s death, I assume that that is the case. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any updates about her in general.)
This sort of tale is not uncommon with regard to once-revered performers in India (and there are quite a few such stories to be found in the rest of the world, too). More than once, I have seen the fate of some of our favorite singers or actors from the Golden Age or Vintage era referred to as “riches to rags.” But regardless of the ill fate that the artists meet, often their art, itself, gets revived, and it is a very rewarding feeling to stumble upon such revivals.
Now that I have seen Zarina Begum sing this song and have learned all about her, I will never again think about “Nazar Lagi Raja Tore Bangle Par” exclusively as a song that Asha Bhosle sang for Nalini Jaywant.
P.S. If we look further back into the origins of the song, that can take us into another direction entirely. According to at least a couple of sources that I have seen, this was originally a thumri composed by Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor of India. In Kala Pani, the song is credited to composer S.D. Burman and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, but I guess that they were more like the song’s embellishers than its creators. (That is probably true of quite a few famous Hindi and Urdu film songs.)
I cannot find definite information regarding whether Zarina, herself, sang the song before Kala Pani came out. For a moment, I thought this impossible since Shweta Sharma said in her documentary that Zarina was born in 1947, but a little later, I realized that if she had been born in 1947, she would not have been 82 when the Saba Dewan documentary was made or 87 to 88 at the time of Shweta’s documentary and the numerous articles that appeared. So, she was probably born in 1927, which makes it more likely that she and Begum Akhtar both sang “Naar Lagi Bangle Tore Par” well before Asha Bhosle sang it in Kala Pani. In any event, in the interview footage in Shweta Sharma’s documentary, Zarina, herself, refers to singing it as a version of an old poem by Bahadur Shah Zafar without even mentioning Kala Pani.
P.P.S. I have noticed that there is also a contemporary version of this song that was used in the 2016 film Saat Uchakkey, but since I didn’t care much for it, I’m not inclined to discuss it further here.