Acknowledged as the first woman Qawwal of India, Shakeela Bano Bhopali’s qawwali was widely popular among the class of aristocrats and connoisseurs as well as the common man on the street. A legendary singer hailing from Bhopal, she transformed the face of qawaali with her flamboyant and uninhibited singing style. Born in 1942 in Bhopal, she moved to Bombay in the 1950s to explore a career in films, where she went on to leave her mark in numerous films such as Jungle Princess (1958), Dastak (1970), Shradhanjali (1981), Rocket Tarzan (1963), Badshah (1964) and Raaka (1965). She continued to remain popular as a qawwal, with well-known songs such as Milte hi nazar tumse, hum ho gaye deewane, Peene waale meri ankhon se piya karte hain, Sainyan doli leke aaye tere dwar, Ab yeh chod diya hai tujh pe. So popular were her qawwalis that filmmakers were said to re-release their flops after adding a qawwali by Shakeela, to turn the film’s fortunes.
Born in 1942 in Bhopal, she made her mark at a young age, when as a 9-year-old she sang Duniya ko laath maro…in the palace of the last Nawab of Bhopal. Apparently, while performing, she innocently kicked in the Nawab’s direction enacting the lyrics of the song, even as her father nervously gestured to her to stop. She later joined the Variety Theatre and played lead roles, going on to become a rage in Bhopal. When barely into her teens, she performed a qawwali mehfil for B R Chopra, and the cast of Naya Daur (1957), when they happened to be shooting near Bhopal. It was here that the famed Dilip Kumar became a fan of her singing, and apparently told her to try her fortunes in Bombay; she was too good to be confined to Bhopal.
Moving to Bombay with her family, she succeeded in bagging films. She was signed on by Jagmohan Mattoo for his film Jagir (1957). She acted and rendered popular songs in films such as Ustaadon Ke Ustaad (1963), Gunda (1969), and Humrahi (1963).
A poet in her own right, Shakeela Bano Bhopali has a collection of poetry, Ek Ghazal Aur to her credit. She is also the subject of the book Qawwali Amir Khusru Se Shakila Bano Tak by Akmal Hyderabadi. In 1971, HMV had released her first album of qawwalis, which spread her fame all across India.
Shakila’s charisma endeared her to fans across the spectrum, with the upper classes appreciating her couplets and the hoi polloi enjoying her jokes. Blessed with a sharp memory, she could recite Ghalib’s and Mir’s couplets with ease, her gestures also called ‘adaa amozi’ adding to the impact. Her ‘magnificent voice’ and ‘great sense of repartee’ found special mention by noted broadcaster Ameen Sayani.
Acknowledged as the Mallika-e-Qawwali (queen of qawwali), she held court at mehfils in typical royal fashion. Her excellent command over Urdu, her gift for enacting the lines of the songs, combined with her fluid dancing style established her as one of the most celebrated qawaal singers of her time. Singing solo always and owning the performance space, she transported qawwali from being a simple form of local entertainment to a grand affair with lavish backdrop, musical orchestra, and enthralling action and dance. Incidentally, Shakeeela resolutely refused offers from music companies to record qawwalis, declaring that her talent lay in ‘adaa amozi’ and not just her voice.
With film offers reducing over the years, she concentrated on live performances, becoming famous across the world in countries like England, Africa and Kuwait for her qawwali performances. In Bhopal in 1984 to attend a relative’s wedding, she suffered the effects of the mammoth gas leak tragedy. She suffered from acute respiratory problems thereafter, losing her voice and also developing eye problems and diabetes. Never recovering from the ill effects of the gas tragedy, Shakeela Bano Bhopali passed away at St George Hospital on 16 December, 2002, aged 60.