In the 1980s, when such ghazal singers as Mehdi Hassan, Jagjit Singh, Talat Aziz, Pankaj Udhas and Ghulam Ali were at their peak, a gaunt, curly-haired Parsi woman with a dimpled smile entered the scene. She could have been mistaken for a westernised pop singer in the mould of Nazia Hassan. But when she sang, it became instantly clear that she was going to make a name for herself in ghazal singing. Her name is Penaz Masani, and she has created a niche for herself from the very things that didn’t seem to work in her favour.
Singing wasn’t a difficult choice for Masani to make. “I did not really have to choose because singing was in my family and in my genes,” she said. “My father Doli Masani was a disciple of Aftab-e-Mausiqui Ustad Faiyaz Khansahab of the Agra gharana. He performed as a classical singer in the court of Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda in the 1930s, and later guided me to take my first lessons in Indian classical music under Ustad Amanat Hussein Khan.”
Masani trained from a very young age. While in college, she participated in a music competition, where she won the first prize. One of the judges was music composer Jaidev, who took her to meet ghazal exponent Madhurani. Ever since, Masani devoted herself to ghazal singing – learning Urdu and training with her ustani (lady expert).
Masani cut her first album, Aap Ki Bazm Mein, in 1981. The album features her first ghazal, Dil mein rakh lo, which is also one of her own favourites. Her light voice breezes through the track, and she focuses her style on smooth rendition over enunciation and chooses to match the tempo of the accompanying musical instruments.
Masani also sang in a limited way for Hindi films for such composers as Bappi Lahiri and OP Nayyar too. She recollects the experience of performing a duet with Alka Yagnik for Hamari Bahu Alka in 1982. “Both Alka Yagnik and me were aghast by the lyrics that went like Pucca jamun todo nahi (Don't pluck ripe blackberries)” .
Masani has made over a dozen albums in her career. One of her most popular ghazals is Tu agar mujhse khafa hai from the album Dil Mein Aankhon Mein (1994).
Poet Shakeel Badayuni’s ghazal, Meri zindagi hai zaalim, also sung by the velvet-voiced Talat Mahmood, has been covered by Masani in raag darbari.
Tanha tanha dukh jhelenge, written by poet Nida Fazli, has been sung with equal melancholy by Ghulam Ali as well as by Masani.
Masani sings popular ghazals that have previously been sung by male singers in her signature style – it is her polite way of conveying that if they can, so can she.