The life journey of Nadira Begum is one of South Asian music’s more remarkable tales of individual will and gutsy courage. Fans of the ghazal will know Nadira as Munni Begum, a name given to her by her ustad in reference to her diminutive size and young age when she first wowed audiences with her voice.

Born in Dhaka into a lower middle class family that had migrated from India, Nadira’s father, sick with tuberculosis, urged his daughter to become a music teacher so that she could provide for the rest of her siblings after his death. Blessed with a voice characterised by its clarity and strength Nadira sang ghazals, recited a naat and sang a folksong for her teacher who immediately enrolled her in his school. When she was asked her name and replied “Nadira” her ustad replied it was "too heavy" and suggested Munni, a name that stuck and endeared her to millions of fans over the following decades.

Lazzat–e–gham barhaa dijeey

Unusual for Bengalis, members of Munni’s family supported the Muslim League (as opposed to Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League) In the early 70s – with pro-Independence agitation growing in East Pakistan, a male relation was murdered in Chittagong in an act of political violence. Munni’s family was compelled to seek refuge in West Pakistan. Not to a mansion in Lahore or a rural jagir (estate) in Sindh but to a refugee camp on the sandy outskirts of Karachi. There, without running water or electricity, Munni Begum and her family seemed destined to live out a desperate and harsh life.  As the lyric of this popular ghazal in this clip suggests Munni was well acquainted with sadness, struggle and darkness at various periods in her life, and those early years in Karachi must have been some of the most challenging for her.

Laa pilaade saaqiya

In 1976 the family managed to scrape together enough money to make a tape of Munni singing ghazals. In Urdu. At first glance, there is nothing unusual about this.  But when one considers the desperate tenacity with which Bengalis had laid down their lives for the right to speak their mother tongue and how the flipside of such tenacity demanded not just a rejection of but a deep hatred of Urdu, Munni Begum’s cassette of Urdu ghazals stands out as rather special.

However, improbably and unexpectedly, Munni Begum’s voice caught the public’s imagination. Her choice of ghazals rendered in simple language that suited her immature familiarity with Urdu connected with common people.

When she went to pick up her first royalties, she was shocked to receive a cheque from the music company. “Rs. 7000?” she asked unbelievingly.

“No,” came the reply. “Rs 70,000!”

This ghazal is of the sharabi style that extols the secular pleasures of life, especially drink and love. It was a genre that Munni came to define and for which she is so greatly loved.

Idhar zindagi ka jenaazaa uthega

Munni’s rise as a pop star coincided with the advent and rapid growth of a new technology, the cassette tape.  Suddenly new music, new voices and new genres were available at cheap prices to everyone. Munni had a rich voice with many shades. This version of Tabish Dehlvi’s famous ghazal is full of pathos and tenderness that many only familiar with her greatest hits will find uncharacteristic.

In a market when successful cassettes sold 10,000 copies, Munni’s first release sold 60,000!

Jhoom barabar jhoom

While women singers were (and are) not uncommon in Pakistan it took a certain chutzpah or dildaari for a young Bengali refugee woman to choose the sharabi ghazal as her chosen speciality.  Most of her hits were deliberately aimed to sell tapes and were pure entertainment. They evoked places, situations and relationships that while as old as the hills were becoming ever more frowned upon by the conservative cultural warriors supported by General Zia ul Haq. Munni Begum’s insistence to follow her muse and be true to her gifts need to be understood as more than a money-making venture; this woman had considerable courage.

This vigorous rendition of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom exudes everything that makes Munni Begum one of the unique artists of the sub continent. There is not a shred of the demure female but rather is full of a masculine energy and dynamism.  Besides all that Munni loved to sing and have fun. In interviews she was quick witted and bold, and these qualities are fully demonstrated here as well.

Awargi mein had se jaana chahiye

In this 1980s-era clip, Munni shows off another aspect of her art – her lively mastery of the harmonium. In most of her performances Munni’s singing was just one part of the show.  Though Munni Begum now lives in Chicago and does not perform regularly, YouTube and online stores continue to offer her wonderful and unique music for new generations of fans.