Nazia Hassan

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A brief biography

August 6, 2023: The Times of India

➤ Three decades before Coke Studio, India discovered the voice of a shy, teenaged Karachi-born school girl through Zeenat Aman’s lips. “Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye,” crooned Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan in Feroze Khan’s 1980 film ‘Qurbani’, inviting the two nations to a crazed karaoke under a silver disco ball. Hailed as the first Asian pop song, it went on to smash the conventions of Hindi film music, spending a year as the number one chartbuster.

➤ A story goes that 1965-born Nazia – who grew up in England – met Feroze Khan at an overseas party hosted by a friend. At the time, Khan was planning a song with the musician Biddu. Since he hadn’t finalised a singer, Khan decided to give young Nazia a chance.

➤ On hearing that Khan was keen to get a novice onboard, music composer duo Kalyanji-Anandji had apparently thought it a risk as the rest of the album featured the voices of legends including Asha Bhonsle. But flanked by a band of women in silver headbands when Zeenat Aman grooved to the debutante’s voice, the coy Nazia would find herself under the spotlight.

➤ A year after ‘Qurbani’ came out, she became the youngest recipient of the Filmfare Award for Best Playback Singer Female. In the same year, she – along with her brother Zoheb – released a debut album ‘Disco Deewane’, which became the highestselling Asian record of all time.

➤ “We were all Disco deewane. So what if it was the Zia era and prohibition was heavily enforced?” wrote Pakistani journalist Maheen Sabeeh, in retrospect. “She managed to create an avant garde kind of music for her time,” said Pakistani musicians Zeb and Haniya in a 2009 interview. “If we manage only one-quarter of what she did, we’ll be happy.”

➤ Nazia became to Indipop what Zeenat Aman was to Hindi commercial cinema – a validating force for western influence in urban media. In an interview in 1980, the teenager took a swipe at critics who considered classical music ‘the only real music’. “Whenever I’m attending a classical music recital, I feel like I’m attending a funeral. You have to sit grim and still – no coughing, no talking lest people think you are being impolite.” Later, the purists came around. “The older generation seem to finally understand that pop music is not an outright rejection of the social order but an attempt to create vertical mindspace in the same plot,” a TOI reporter wrote in 2000.

➤ Even as her career blossomed, the singer moved to London where she majored in business administration, economics and law. Well into her stardom, Nazia continued pursuing her profession and worked at the United Nations. As the rainbow ‘80s drew to a close, she – alongside Zoheb – helmed a TV show that not only featured new talents of Pakistani pop but also set the format for televised talent shows.

It spawned local bands such as Vital Signs, Awaz, Junoon apart from solo artists such as Ali Haider, Bunny and Aamir Saleem.

➤ Around the time of her arranged marriage to Ishtiaq Baig, Nazia was detected with stage one ovarian carcinoma. Mother to a year-old son in 1998, she was said to be planning a comeback album when a deposit of the carcinoma was found in her left lung. Initially reluctant to undergo chemotherapy, she gave in when the cancer relapsed.

➤ Nazia was laid to rest in September 2000, 23 anguished days after her demise on August 13. Weeks of legal wrangling with the Baig family – which stated that Nazia was Ishtiaq’s wife at the time of her death as their divorce had not come into effect, the Hassans – who said that Nazia was in no way related to Ishtiaq as the two had been divorced – retrieved her body from a mortuary and brought it to the Muslim quarters of Hendon Cemetery in London for the last rites. 
Curated by Ketaki Desai, with inputs from Sharmila Ganesan Ram

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