‘Nightingale Of Kashmir' No More

SRINAGAR:  Raj Begum, whose captivating voice earned her the title of 'Nightingale of Kashmir', passed away here this morning. Begum, 89, breathed her last at her daughter's residence in Chanapora locality. Besides her daughter, two sons survive her. From a wedding singer, Raj Begum, who was born on March 27, 1927, emerged as one of the most powerful female voices in Kashmir. 

Raj Begum has been one of the most recognized female singers in the Kashmir Valley, having rendered thousands of songs from Radio Kashmir in Srinagar and in live concerts at other places in India and abroad. Born in 1927, the journey to the hearts of Kashmiris was an uphill task for Begum, who was also fondly called the “Asha Bhosle of Kashmir”. Singing, particularly for women, was considered a big taboo in the conservative society those days.

Begum’s talent for singing was always nurtured by her father. She started singing at local weddings before she joined Radio Kashmir in 1954. Her journey as a singer with the Radio station Begum’s made her the reigning melody queen of Kashmir. She retired in 1986.

Until she joined Radio Kashmir in 1954, female singers would sing in a guarded manner. However, Begum's uninhibited, high-pitch and melodious voice changed that. Music lovers say that she used to sing from her heart, unmindful of cultural constraints and it was seen as ushering of a new freedom for women in Kashmir. There is no official record of how many songs Begum has sung, but "vyasiye gulan aavuy bahar, az saal antam baliyar (Dear friend, the flowers have started blooming and I hope that my beloved will come this year)" is still popular after decades.

Begum’s death has been widely condoled. Noted Kashmiri singer, Shameema Azad, said she was stunned to learn about her death. "I am deeply saddened to learn that Raj Begum ji is no more,” she told Kashmir Observer. “Her contribution in Kashmir music is immense. She was a real legend with a charming and melodious voice and she inspired a lot of young girls.”

Shameema Azad’s husband and Leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad described Raj Begum as an ‘institution’ who ruled the hearts of Millions of Kashmiri listeners for more than six decades. “I was a great fan of Raj ji. Her death has caused a vacuum in the arena of Kashmiri Music. I pray for the departed soul's peace and also express my heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family" Azad told Kashmir Observer.

Nighat Hafiz, a retired college professor remembers two noted singers of the bygone era, Raj Begum and Naseema Akhtar. “Two of them were inseparable, one with a typical Afghan-type burqa other with two- piece, the fashionable one,” Nighat said. “They would walk together in the corridors of All India Radio's Srinagar station. At their face value they looked completely different from each other. Raj Begum was too simple, dressed simply with simple mannerism. She would talk less but transform completely in front of a sound system.” “Given a chance, she could have been an international folk singer years before Raishma and others,” Nighat says.

Noted Filmmaker, Social Activist and Chairman “Save Open Spaces”, Ashoke Pandit says that her voice will always echo from the mountains of the valley. “Sad to know about d demise of #Kashmir's nightingale #RajBegum Ji. Ur voice will always echo from d mountains of the valley. #RIP #Respects,” Pandit tweeted. 

Political anthropologist, poet, writer and faculty at the Anthropology and Gender studies program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley, Athar Zia, describes Begum Akhtar’s demise as end to an “elegiac era”. “Today Raj Begum passes into history spelling end to an elegiac era that shaped the radio mornings most of our lives,” she says in her facebook post. “What majestic voice; never heard anything more melancholic and moving.”

Raj Begum was awarded Padma Shri in 2002 and Sangeet Akademi award in 2013. She was also bestowed with State award by Jammu and Kashmir government in 2009. Legendary Bollywood star, Dilip Kumar who heard her at a hotel in Srinagar in the 1970s, famously eulogised her saying, “As long as Kashmir has Raj Begum its mesmerizing voices shall never die.” Indeed she will never die, not for Kashmiris and not for lovers of music who chance upon her songs.

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