Malika Pukhraj was only nine when Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu employed her to sing in his court for his taj poshee (crowning ceremony). On a monthly stipend of Rs 500, she was already a ‘jawaan’ star. Youth never left her side, and is the subject of the matchless song that she is best remembered for: Abhi toh main jawaan hoon.
Born in a village in Jammu in 1912, Pukhraj began training very early. When she was five, she was singing nohas (lamentations) and marsiyas (mournings) with such depth that her parents sent her to Delhi to learn music and dance from such famous musicians as Ustaad Momin Khan, Ustaad Mollah Bukhsh Talwandi and Ustaad Ashiq Ali. Pukhraj learnt thumri singing from Ustad Mamman Khan and kathak dance from Lachhu Maharaj in Mumbai.
At the age of 17, she left Jammu for Lahore where she married Syed Shabbir Hussain, a writer of Urdu short stories. Here she began performing for All India Radio and also began singing ghazals, dadras and thumris in private concerts. In the 1930s, along with Begum Akhtar, Pukhraj made a name for herself as an indomitable voice in semi-classical singing. Exposure to literary greats such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Hafeez Jallandhari (who wrote Abhi toh main jawaan hoon besides the national anthem of Pakistan) and her popularity on radio brought maturity to her artistry.
The basis of Pukhraj's fame resists in her renditions of the thumri, where text is suggestive and leaves listeners to derive multiple meanings. She set aside heavyweight poetry and focused on lighter works, such as azaad nazms (free verse). Apart from Abhi toh main jawaan hoon, her other great songs are poet Dehlvi’s Zahid na keh buri, Iqbal’s Tere ishq ki inteha chahta hoon, and Faiz’s Tum mere pass raho.
Pukhraj tried her luck in films, but a few days after shooting for a Wadia Movietone film song, she fled. In this rare video clip you can see her walking listlessly around a drawing room, singing a love elegy. Her powerful vocal chords do not require any accompanying instrument as she towers over the composition with the throw of her voice.
Pukhraj’s daughter Tahira Syed has tried singing Abhi toh main jawaan hoon as a duet with her mother.
Even Lata Mangeshkar sang a version for a film, but it remains Malika Pukhraj’s swan song.
She died in February 2004 at the age of 92, insisting Abhi toh main jawaan hoon, as you can hear in this audio clip, which is an early recording from her youth.