I admire people whose lives are fueled by passion and are undefeated in the face of obstacles. Pakistani vocalist Riffat Sultana, who received a standing ovation after her performance at the Skirball last week, is one such person. When I began to plan concerts that could be presented in association with Women Hold Up Half the Sky, Riffat instantly came to mind. During her visit to Los Angeles, I got a chance to talk to her and learn much more about her personal journey.
Riffat Sultana did not always have the freedom to sing. Although she is the daughter of esteemed classical Hindustani (North Indian) vocalist Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and raised in a family of musicians that goes back eleven generations, she was forbidden to study classical ragas and perform in public because of her gender. Her brothers were taken under her father’s tutelage, but she and her sisters were denied his vast musical knowledge. For Riffat, the prohibition to sing was a torment.
The status of women in Pakistan varies considerably depending on the woman’s class, whether she lives in a rural or urban area, the state of socio-economic development where she lives, and the impact of tribal, feudal, and social customs on her life. What is generally true is that Pakistani culture considers it inappropriate for a woman—at least one from a “respectable” family—to perform publicly. Ironically, Riffat’s father taught one of the greatest Sufi singers of all times, a female, Abida Parveen! Then again, Abida’s case is rare: her father, legendary singer Ustad Ghulam Haider, decided when she was only five years old that she, a daughter, would inherit the family tradition instead of his sons. Thank goodness even the strictest of gender codes allow for an exception or two!
Although she was not allowed to learn music formally, Riffat’s passion for music only grew. Undeterred, she sought lessons from her mother, also a skilled singer, who could only perform in the private sphere. Riffat also spent hours listening to and learning from cassette tapes.
In 1990–1991, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan took Riffat on tour with him to Europe and the United States. She was not allowed to sing and had to fulfill the domestic needs of her father and brothers. But Riffat was permitted to play the tambura (a stringed drone instrument) on stage. For Riffat this was a prime opportunity to continue absorbing the music of her heritage.
Allowed to remain in the U.S. with one of her brothers, Riffat eventually took a great risk: she began to perform in public as a singer. For years she performed clandestinely, scared if word of one of her shows got back to Pakistan. With one foot in a restricted world of tradition and the other in a promising new realm of possibilities, her life proved awkward and challenging. Over time, though, Riffat’s musical career became an open secret, and her father gave his blessing for her to sing. Riffat told me that towards the end of his life, he even gave her a lesson or two. Since then, Riffat’s musicianship has blossomed, though her public performances are still frowned upon by many of her family members.
Backstage at the Skirball, Riffat told me that the call to perform is larger than herself, for music is in her blood, her soul. As I watched her on stage—the set list contained qawwali pieces, ghazals, folk songs, compositions by her younger brother Shafqat Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, and one Bollywood tune—I thought that perhaps one reason Riffat’s performances have such emotional power for me is that she sings for all the women in her distinguished family who never had that chance before. As the first woman in her family to stand up for her right to self-expression, she is a source of inspiration for her female kin and a new generation of aspiring vocalists. Her dream, she says, is to have her sister and her nieces, all equally gifted singers, in her ensemble. I hope she is able to fulfill that dream. To hear onstage the female lineage of the Ali Khan family would bring so much hope to talented women vocalists who so often go unheard.