'A musician’s family struggles a lot' — Sanam Marvi recounts her difficult journey to stardom

With brutal honesty Marvi talks about an impoverished childhood, losing her first husband and her daughter's kidnapping

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Updated May 10, 2017 10:47am

"When I perform, I feel like there is no one in the hall. Every single time, I’m not there. I’m somewhere else. And I don’t know where that place is.”

Sanam Marvi has just performed at the BAM Opera House in Brooklyn, New York. At some point during the performance one of the audience members yelled, ‘Sanam Marvi, you rock!’ prompting her to smile.

The audience is composed of both South Asians and non-South Asians — people who don’t understand what she’s singing but have paid to see her perform anyway. Marvi has come a long way, from a little village near Dadu called Khairpur Nathanshah, Sindh, to where she is now.

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“If you count all of the houses together they’ll add up to maybe 50 or 60 in one village,” Marvi describes her village to me as we meet for a little heart-to-heart. “I started singing from the age of seven. My father taught me [along with Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Majeeb Khan and Ustand Ali Nawaz Khan]. It’s a tradition among big ustads that they don’t teach their skills to [a lot of] students. That’s why I was made to train as well. He was of the opinion that ‘what I have learnt, I must pass on’ and to me he said ‘What you have learnt, you must pass on too’.”

Growing up, life wasn’t easy for Marvi. Her father, Faqeer Ghulam Rasool, was a small-time folk artist from Sindh. “A musician’s family struggles a lot because they have no means. People don’t give them money.” One incident from her childhood sticks out for her.

“20 years ago, my father performed with a very famous artist,” Marvi recalls. “They returned from the show around 6am and she [the artist] immediately went to sleep. But the situation at our home was such that we were starving. There was nothing [to eat]. There was such poverty that we’d eat once a day and then wonder what are we going to do next.

“What would happen is that — I have five siblings — only five rotis would be made. From that the [younger] children would eat and often my father, mother and I would sleep hungry. My mother used to say ‘You’re the eldest, you can take the hunger, let the little ones eat.’”

Sanam Marvi at Coke Studio that earned her one of her first big cheques
Sanam Marvi at Coke Studio that earned her one of her first big cheques

Marvi and her father frequented the artist’s house numerous times to no avail. “My father would take me with him because he wanted me to learn. He said ‘In the future you will have a name, you need to know that you can’t do this to others’,” she says.

“The last time my father went, that woman came out herself. She said ‘What happened Khan Sahib? For this money you’ve ruined my sleep.’ The payment she was supposed to give my father was Rs2,000 but she gave him Rs200 and said ‘Take this and go. I’m never going to hire you again. Itna bhi koi dosray ko parayshan karta hai!’ [Who bothers another so much!].

“We came home. My father then sat in a corner and cried. ‘I learned so much. I taught so many people. This is the kind of treatment I get?’ I saw my father go through so much pain. He worked the hardest on me. He said ‘You have to be somebody in your life.’ This was supposed to be a lesson for me.”

“What would happen is that — I have five siblings — only five rotis would be made. From that the [younger] children would eat and often my father, mother and I would sleep hungry. My mother used to say ‘You’re the eldest, you can take the hunger, let the little ones eat.’”

That wasn’t the only shock Marvi was to get. “The world doesn’t know this. Nobody knows. But I’m telling you because at some point I am going to die and people should know this,” Marvi says her voice cracking with emotion. “When I was four years old, my baba was murdered. My mother remarried afterwards. This [Khan Sahib] is my stepfather. He gave me more time than anyone else because he didn’t want anyone to say ‘because she wasn’t his daughter, he didn’t spend time with her.’ More than his own children, he taught me, educated me and when I was 18-years-old, he got me married off as well. So that people won’t say, ‘Khan Sahib eats off his daughter’s income.’ He said ‘I don’t need this. I am a Khan Sahib. I can earn money and take care of myself. You should go to your own home. Get married. Go live your own life.’”

Tragedy struck. And only a short while after her wedding, Marvi’s husband was murdered in a targeted attack in Karachi. She was pregnant with their first child. “At a very young age, I suffered a major shock,” she recounts, “This happened to my mother. Now, this was happening to me too? I was worried for my child, what’s going to happen to her?

“I came back home. I was sitting on a chair. Abbu just sat down on the floor and cried. He kept crying. He said, ‘What will I do? What will I do now? Will I ever find a man who will love my daughter?’”

What about her second husband? “Hamid is my cousin,” she says with a smile. “He said, ‘I always liked her. But you married her off too young.’ Then my mother suggested that he visit and meet me in person as well. There were sparks. He started liking me more and then phone calls upon phone calls from the next day. And that’s how our story started — our love story,” she laughs as she talks about him.

From a small little village in Sindh, she was transported to a small little village called Qandiwal in Sargodha. “Bilkul paindu dehaat sa mahaul [very rustic environment],” she says adding, “I had to do so much work. I had to sweep the floors, do the laundry, everything. I had to pick up everyone’s shoes. To the point that I even had to place the lota in the toilet.”

One day, her mother-in-law took the TV set out into the verandah. A show called Virsa Heritage was being broadcast on PTV. Ali Abbas and Sara Raza Khan were performing a duet, the sounds of which brought Marvi out of the kitchen and into the hall. She was immediately reprimanded by her mother-in-law but by then, she had decided she was going to broach the subject with her husband at night.

“I told him I wanted to sing,” she says. “He said, ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do. And guess what? Once I’m established, we’ll become rich!’” She bursts out laughing.

From a small little village in Sindh, Marvi's marriage transported her to a small little village called Qandiwal in Sargodha. “Bilkul paindu dehaat sa mahaul [A very rustic environment],” she says adding, “I had to do so much work. I had to sweep the floors, do the laundry, everything. I had to pick up everyone’s shoes.”

But there was a strong reason behind Marvi wanting to go on the show. “When I got married my father kept my daughter. He said, ‘When you get established in life, you can take your daughter. If you don’t, the child will remain here.’”

Marvi happened to have Sameena Peerzada’s number. The next day, she called her while her husband and mother-in-law watched. She was immediately invited to meet her at PTV in Lahore. That meeting turned into a recording. “There was a live performance running in the studio,” Marvi explains. “They took me straight into that. The entire village was watching!” She sang 'Kithay Meher Ali, Kithay Meri Sa’na'.

Immediately after the performance, the studio got a phone call. It was Yousuf Salahuddin. “He lives in the Walled City,” Marvi says. “Near a place called the Diamond Market. It’s very famous. There are some very big [cough] ‘artists’ there. When the PTV crew was taking us there and my husband Hamid saw where we had turned he said, ‘What’s going on here? Wear your purdah! Cover your face!’”

The beauty of Salahuddin’s haveli left Marvi spellbound. In a little while Mian Yousuf Salahuddin also turned up. “He put his hand on my head and said, ‘You’ve come here from Sindh, but you are a daughter of Punjab.’” She performed a few songs for him. He featured her in several seasons of his Virsa Heritage show. And people began to take notice. She started getting asked to perform.

One day, Sanam's mother-in-law took the TV set out into the verandah. A show called Virsa Heritage was being broadcast on PTV, the sounds of which brought Marvi out of the kitchen. Later that night, she decided to have a talk with her husband. “I told him I wanted to sing,” she says. “He said, ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do. And guess what? Once I’m established, we’ll become rich!’” She bursts out laughing.

Salahuddin suggested Sanam and Hamid move to Lahore. “We got a house on rent for 7,000 rupees per month. Every month I used to worry, ‘How are we going to pay 7,000 rupees?’. We needed to buy rations as well. How will we afford all of this?” Six months after her appearance in Virsa Heritage, she was offered her first season of Coke Studio, Season Four. She’s been featured in every season since then.

“I remember I got 200,000 rupees [from Coke Studio] and for the first time, I installed an air-conditioner in our house,” she remembers fondly. Times changed and she started getting regular work. One of the first things she did was that she brought her daughter home.

I remember meeting Marvi briefly when she first came into record for Coke Studio. She came across as quiet and meek and a terrible sadness seemed to have overtaken her. She was expecting her first son, Behlul, at the time, but what no one knew was that there was another tragedy unfolding in the background: her daughter had been kidnapped.

“She was only two or three years old,” Marvi says. “I felt like I had gone insane. I couldn’t sleep at night. I was constantly wondering if she was okay.” After several futile attempts with the help of the police to recover her, she finally managed to get her daughter back after paying a hefty ransom. Her daughter remained with the kidnappers for around six months.

“My daughter was quite disturbed for a while. She was always afraid. Now she tops in school, kathak, swimming, and singing. She’s forgotten what happened before. She wants a father’s love but I give her that.”

Is it easy to balance her duties as a touring artist and as a mother? “It’s easy when a woman hasn’t been married twice,” Marvi says but is quick to add, “I always worry about my daughter.”

“For his sons, I feel Hamid gave birth to them, not me. He picks/drops them from school, feeds them himself, makes sure they are showered and ready. He tends to all of their needs himself. He’s a very good father to his own sons.”

Talking music

Do the other musicians you perform with help you with any of the compositions? I ask. “No, I teach them,” she replies assertively, “I tell them what to do. They listen to me because I am their boss.”

The other musicians seem a little afraid of you, I point out. “Doesn’t that feel good?” she says with a twinkle in her eyes. “I’ve always been afraid of other people. Now, when men are afraid me, I think ‘Maybe I should scare them a little more.’”

After they’ve performed an exceptionally good solo, you only give them a slight nod of appreciation, I stay on the subject. “Yes, even though on the inside, ladoo phoot rahey hotay hain [I am bursting with joy].”

Sanam getting ready for her performance at BAM Opera House
Sanam getting ready for her performance at BAM Opera House

Marvi has collaborated with Sajjad Ali, Arif Lohar, Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Saaien Zahoor and Ali Zafar. How does she feel about that? “The one thing I learned was that I need to show my talent,” she says. “I don’t understand [new] artists nowadays. Allah has given you a soul, your own ideas. When you perform with someone, do what comes naturally. Don’t wait for the other person to tell you what to do.”

Having forayed into Bollywood with 'O Lala' with Ali Zafar and Hadiqa Kiani for London Paris New York, Marvi doesn’t feel like that genre of music is really her cup of tea. She wants to focus on sufiana kalaam.

“Because that’s what I’ve learnt,” she says. “I know over 500 kalaam and I want to bring all of them to people.” They’re not very well-known, I point out to her. “But I know all of them,” she insists. “Take Guru Nanak Sahib, people read him in books. I’ve read him in a kalaam — Lagi Bina Rain Na Jage Koi in Coke Studio [with Saaien Zahoor]. It’s been composed by my father. It was something new.”

Post-performance shenanigans backstage at the BAM Opera House
Post-performance shenanigans backstage at the BAM Opera House

Out of curiosity, I ask, how many concerts does she manage to do in a year? “I do around six or eight shows in a month and around 60 [in a year],” she responds. She pauses for a moment as if something just occurred to her and whispers, “Tax to nahin lagay ga? [I won’t get taxed, will I?]” She bursts out laughing, again.

What’s in store for her now? “I have a concert in the United Kingdom and one in Uzbekistan.” The last time she was in Uzbekistan was in 2013 at the 9th International Music Festival Sharq Taronalari (Melodies of the Orient) in Samarqand. She was awarded the Unesco Award in music at the festival. The only other Pakistani to have received this award was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

“There were artists from 80 different countries,” Marvi expands on her experience. “That’s anywhere between 400-500 people. We were all in one hotel. The rooms were situated around the pool area where musicians would gather in the evenings and jam together. We would open our windows and from there we would participate. All of us, together. Someone would begin Lal Meri from one corner and I would contribute an alaap. And then an artist from another country would sing something. It was wonderful because when artists are together, it feels good to share.”

The US Tour

Marvi has recently returned from a tour to the United States. She went there as a part of a programme called Center Stage that has previously taken artists such as Khumariyaan, Zeb and Haniya and The Poor Rich Boys. For the first time, Marvi was performing for audiences that weren’t predominantly South Asian. Did she have any concerns? “I was afraid no one would understand me there. They didn’t know what I was singing, but with the kind of response I got, I felt they really do understand.”

One of the venues she performed at was the historical Sanders Theatre at Harvard, Cambridge. Before her, the only other Pakistanis to grace that stage were Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen. “I never thought in my life that I would perform at a venue like that,” she says excitedly, “After the show, I had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t a dream. I’ve suffered a lot. And God had plans for me. He has been very kind.”

"I know over 500 kalaam and I want to bring all of them to people. Take Guru Nanak Sahib, people read him in books. I’ve read him in a kalaam — Lagi Bina Rain Na Jage Koi in Coke Studio [with Saaien Zahoor]. It’s been composed by my father. It was something new.”

Although Marvi has been to the United States twice before, this tour was a new experience for her. “Whenever I go anywhere, I have to learn something from there,” she says.

What did she learn from this tour? “The work I did with [tour manager] Stacey [Boggs] and [organiser] Dear [Deirdre Valente]… I understood that women have power, and compared to men, they’re very strong. Like Stacey, she would drive the car, do the work, manage us, and take us to the airport. This is what women are. I became more confident in myself. And I have decided that I will live like a man. I’m done being afraid — of anyone or anything.”


This article originally appeared as THE ICON INTERVIEW in Dawn, ICON, May 7th, 2017