In an exclusive interview with Rafi Hossain, the queen of melody shares stories of her journey of successes, achievements and passions.
Rafi: How did you begin your journey with music?
Runa: The journey began when I started learning classical music at a very early age. I was born in a family of music lovers and my sister Dina Laila was the one who was actually learning classical music and I just used to sit beside her. Dancing was my hobby, but when my sister used to learn music I used to pick up whatever she was taught quite easily so Ustadji told my mother and decided to teach me too. Later at an inter-school singing competition in Karachi, I represented my school Saint Lawrence Convent and won the first prize.
Rafi: Who was Dina Apa's Music Ustad?
Runa: Ustad Abdul Kader Peyarang and Ustad Habibuddin Ahmed, even I was trained by them. When I was 12 years old, a music director and producer from Lahore was looking for a singer in Karachi for a male child artiste in a movie. They approached my father through Karachi radio, the organizer of the interschool competition. He refused them saying the competition was a onetime gig and singing was just a hobby. When my father was sharing this with my mother I overheard them and I always had this dream that people will hear me over the radio. There was this perception during that time that singing professionally will harm the family image, but my cousin Anjumara Begum was already a well established singer. So finally my mother convinced my father by saying, “Let her do it once and let's see where it goes.” The directors heard me and liked my voice; however they mentioned that I need to be trained to become a playback artist for the movie. For a month I went through rigorous training and I was prepared for the movie. After that I was taken to rehearse with the musicians before the final take and the final result was very satisfying. All the hard work paid off. After finishing the project I was handed an envelope which had Taka 300 (laughs); being young I did not understand the concept of getting paid for work so I got upset. I thought I am from a good family then why am I being paid. Anyway this was the beginning and a good memory to cherish.
Rafi: Do you remember the song that you sang for the movie?
Runa: Yes, it was an Urdu song for a Pakistani film called Jugnu. The actors for the movies where Sawkhat Akbar and Shormili Bhabi, I think it was a joint venture. After that many offers started to come and my journey as a singer began.
Rafi: What was your father's reaction on this?
Runa: Well, he could not stop them all so he started to accept the fact but I had to continue my studies side by side. It was very difficult to manage this at a young age but my family supported me a lot.
Rafi: Where is your hometown?
Runa: Rajshahi from my father's side, and Chittagong from mother.
Rafi: Do you have any relatives there?
Runa: Yes. In Rajshahi I have a few, but none in Chittagong; they all shifted to Kolkata after the partition.
Rafi: How many siblings do you have?
Runa: We are 3 siblings, 1 brother and 2 sisters. My sister passed away in 1976. Now I only have one brother, Murad.
Rafi: When did you come to Bangladesh? How did you start your career here?
Runa: We came in 1974. Well, I was already established and recorded over 1000 songs, so I was given a warm welcome into the industry.
Rafi: Do you have all those collection of songs?
Runa: No, not really. It is hard to collect so many songs and due to transitions many of them are not in my collection.
Rafi: What was the song that you did in Bangladesh for the first time?
Runa: O Amar Jibon Shathi for the movie Jibon Shathi composed by Satya Saha. It was a duet track with Khondokar Faruk Ahmed sir.
Rafi: When did you start to feel a uniqueness to your singing style?
Runa: I realized that from the very beginning and I think it happens spontaneously. Many think that I preplan the performance and then sing, but in reality it is something that comes from within according to the mood of the song, For example, in PTV I had a show called Bazm E Laila where I used to perform 5 different songs. I had different attire, makeup and performing style for each of them and during that time something like this was completely new.
Rafi: So was this your idea?
Runa: Yes, I enjoyed it and brought this concept to the Asian subcontinent. I watched a lot of western singers and adapted some ideas. This is how my style evolved. Later in 1974 I was invited by ICCR to perform in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. In Bombay Lata Ji, Salil Chowdhury and many others came to see me perform and gave me a warm welcome with open arms. Lata Ji gave a speech, presented me a garland necklace and stayed for the entire performance which was a very big thing for me! The organizer asked me if I wanted someone to be at the event, I mentioned that I wanted Lata Ji. They told me that it is very hard to manage her because she does not attend many events. So I had very little hope that this would happen. I was rehearsing back stage, when I saw a woman in white sari with a rose at a far distance. I felt it was her but was not being very hopeful, because the organizers would have mentioned to me if she came. Later, when she actually came closer I could not believe my eyes. I ran up to her and greeted her by touching her feet. She held me and gave me a hug and photographers were taking pictures. The next day that picture was on the front page of many newspapers with the title, “One nightingale meets another.” Then we chatted for a long time where she said she heard me in a lot of Pakistani songs. In reply I said that I could not believe that she heard me. It was an honor for me that she came to my show. Since then we share a beautiful bond. Even now, Lata Ji calls me whenever she hears that I am in town. We have become so close now, she gives me gifts on birthdays and I send her sarees on Eid and other occasions. She is a very lovely person. People think that she is a serious person, but she likes sharing jokes and can mimic so good that you will have a good laugh. I was even in the judge panel with Asha Ji in a show called Sur Kshetra.
Rafi: Which year did you do this show with Asha Ji?
Runa: 2 to 4 years back, it was telecasted on Colors, Shahara and Pakistani channel Geo TV. It was a collaborated show where Pakistani contestants were also part of the competition. One judge was from Pakistan, Asha Ji from India and I was the neutral judge to handle the tiffs between them (laughs). But it was a very good experience and it was a good bond. Asha Ji loved to chat, so during breaks she used come up to my van and knocked “Main Aun?” I replied “Ap ko puch ne ki zarurat nehi hein. Ap jab chaye a shakti hein”. Then we used to talk for hours during the breaks, like friends.
Rafi: Which was your first song in Hindi Film?
Runa: The title song of Ek Se Badhkar Ek with Kalyanji-Anandji for Helen. Then many more with various artists like Bappi Lahiri. I did some for movies in Kolkata as well.
Rafi: What qualities should a celebrity possess? When do you think a person becomes a celebrity?
Runa: I do not know what defines a celebrity? Somebody who is different may be, but I was always treated as a normal person in my family. I am just a daughter, sister, mother and wife, so basically it never came to my mind that I should act different or be filled with pride.
Rafi: But you do have a special personality?
Runa: Yes, of course I do, but honestly I think we should be thankful to the Almighty that he has given blessings upon whoever has special talents in life and became famous through it. I also believe humility and humbleness is essential. I never take anything for granted and came this far by the Grace of the Almighty and the immense support from my family. My mother was always beside me like a rock as I started off at a very young age. My family has taught me to stay grounded; if I was not Runa Laila a singer, then I would still be the same person I am today. I am an introvert and straight forward person, if I like someone I can do everything for them and if I dislike someone I make sure they understand it. I hate people who carry double standards and try to flatter me with lies. I am a very simple person and I have never considered myself to be different or special from others. I am Runa Laila because of the people who love my songs, respect me and brought me this honor. I have been singing for 54 years now, a huge accomplishment for me and still I am working and getting loved so it is still like a dream to me. I am very lucky. (Smiles)
Rafi: You discussed earlier about how you formed your own style of singing and performing in various styles. When did you feel that singing with performance is required?
Runa: I enjoy singing and if a person enjoys something then the performance will come from the soul. If I do something mechanically it will be reflected in my performance, and I cannot win the heart of my audience through such a performance because I myself am not enjoying it. My main intention is to reach out to the people who are listening to me, whom I want to enjoy my songs. So I need to enjoy my own performance. I felt that when I am singing for the television there is a certain visual appeal that needs to be created. However, reaching the audience becomes difficult if the first thing they notice is your makeup and wardrobe instead of enjoying the song. I do not want them to focus on my look rather on the song that I am performing; so if you have a certain style of performing then the audience will listen to your songs rather than focus on your makeup and wardrobe. And for that you must sing with emotion and passion.
Rafi: You also do live performances so certainly you need to maintain the same aura. Do you find it difficult?
Runa: Yes. Definitely it is more difficult during a live performance in front of a wide audience because this is done in one take and there is no room for errors. Over time expectations of the audience gradually increase; they want to see a better performance, which eventually puts a lot of stress on the artiste. I do not believe in too much exposure, I choose shows that match my caliber, my stance and I do not need to run after money; I just believe in earning respect. I never do any private shows like weddings or birthdays. I have been offered huge amount of money for doing them but this is something against my principles. I have been called words like proud and snobbish because of this, but I am not a person who compromises with core values.
Rafi: Time has changed many things and evolution of music is also evident. What is your take on this?
Runa: The fact is we lack no talents but I think they are not getting proper platform and exposure. I believe everything now-a-days moves at a tremendously fast pace. During my time we used to rehearse with the musicians all day long. Writing lyrics, composing and rehearsals were done together with the producers and directors to create the appropriate mood for the song. But now we rarely see this; we just go and sing a few lines and wrap it up within a day, which is very mechanical. I think, due to technological advancements we are losing quality and we simply don't have time anymore to focus on creating music with appeal. We have talented artists, but they require proper guidance and direction. Whenever I attend a show or event I see very few Bangla songs being performed, but we have to try to encourage and promote more Bangla songs.
Rafi: How can we address this situation?
Runa: It will revive only if there is devotion, dedication and honesty in creating music. The artistes have to learn and practice and feel the appeal of the songs. If an artiste does not have to practice with instruments, they can just sing high pitched, complex songs to build better voice. The atmosphere must be more congenial to produce good music. People still get connected to many old songs, like Ee gaaner e kathai shorolipi, my first song for a Bangla movie. These songs live over eternity like the songs of Ferdousi Apa, Sabina Apa and Nilfor Apa. Unfortunately, such songs are not produced these days.
Rafi: Do you think the new generation has the ability to bring back the grace?
Runa: Yes, if only they have the commitment, sincerity and humility to create something good.
Rafi: Do you want to say anything else to the new rising singers?
Runa: These days, the singers think that they can become stars overnight, but it is not possible. One has to give a lot of time, make sacrifices to reach stardom. Many artistes these days are lost due to their impatient behavior. If young artists want to succeed they must take one step at a time with perseverance and patience.
Rafi: You have been a judge in many Talent Hunt shows; you bring out the raw talent from thousands of participants. However, the winners are not able to establish themselves in the industry. Why do you think they disappear after a while?
Runa: (Laughs) If one gets cars and houses at the beginning of their career, what else do they need in life? I think the biggest deterrent is if one gets everything at once.
Rafi: How do you think they can establish themselves in the industry?
Runa: These winners are enjoying their short lived fame rather than committing themselves to the depths of music. Such impatient behavior never works and now-a-days people are more focused on the looks. The main problem is that they feel that good looks matter more than talent because that is the 'main attraction' for television media. This is where they go wrong. In Alamgir Shaheb's home production movie I composed most of the songs and I plan to promote new artists and give them a platform to sing. I do not know if I will be successful, I would at least like to try.
Rafi: Did you ever plan on opening an institution?
Runa: No, not really. I think to teach I have to reach another dimension.
Rafi: In your professional and personal life did you ever feel that you could have more?
Runa: No, Almighty has provided me with everything. I have children, grandchild and nieces. I am very happy with my family life.
Rafi: What is their reaction to your stardom?
Runa: They are very proud. Recently they attended one of my shows in London, and they enjoyed it a lot. They call me “Cha-Cha”.
Rafi: Why such a unique name?
Runa: Because when my elder grandchild was younger he used to play a game. He used to come running up to me and used to ask me “Are you baba, mama, cha-cha”. Somehow the name cha-cha remained and now they all call me that. And Alamgir Shaheb is “Ammajan” because he used to sing a lullaby to called “Ammajan”. So we are not nana and nanu but Ammajan and Cha-cha.
Rafi: You have worked with many music directors and artists could you shed some light on your experiences?
Runa: I have worked with so many artists, including artistes of the younger generation. It will be a very long list if I have to mention all of them. But I have enjoyed working with each and every one of them.
Rafi: Any message for our readers?
Runa: I already said so much I think I have nothing more to say. (Laughs)