“I taught as a lead teacher in Los Angeles for 30 years. I have retired now and live peacefully seeking Inner Peace with Ashok Khilnani. We both believe in Pure Happiness & Inner Peace”
Conversation with Nasir Aijaz
Born as Nirmala Sapru in Karachi on December 3, 1938, and later known as Renu Khilnani after her marriage to Ashok Khilnani, is settled in USA with her spouse for about six decades. She started her journey of life as a singer, earned fame in Indian film industry at a very young age, and then switched over the teaching profession after migration to USA. Ashok Khilnani is the youngest son of Manohar Das Kauromal Chandanmal Khilnani. The Khilnani is a legendary dynasty of Bhiria city of Sindh province of Pakistan, who gave birth to a number of eminent educationists, scholars, social reformers, businessmen and the philanthropists. Manohar Das Khilnani, son of Rai Bahadur Dewan Kauromal Chandanmal Khilnani, was a scholar like his father and had migrated to India at the time of partition of Indian subcontinent. His son Ashok, born on March 28, 1931, worked as a Professional Engineer in Defense and received an award by NASA. Four years back, Renu and Ashok Khilnani lived in Granada Hills California but later shifted to Delray Beach Florida close to their sons Keith and Mark, as told a couple of days back by their nephew Mr. Vijay Khilnani, son of Naranjan Manohar Das Khilnani, who is settled in New Delhi India.
I had the opportunity to interview Renu Khilnani in August 2019 for a local Sindhi daily.
It was August 16, 2019 that Mr. Prakash Khilnani, member of same dynasty, also settled in USA, shared the contact number of Madam Renu Khilnani, and very next day I left a detailed message on her WhatsApp number introducing myself.
“Namaskar Madam Renu Khilnani. I am Naseer Aijaz from Bhiria, Sindh the home town of Rai Bahadur Dewan Koromal Chandanmal Khilnani. I am journalist by profession and author of several books including one on history of Sahiti area in general and Bhiria city in particular. Now, I am writing on the Khilnanis of Bhiria. Mr. Prakash gave me your contact number. I am also in touch with Mr. Vijay, son of Naranjan Khilnani. Your husband Ashok had visited Bhiria in 1980s accompanied by my cousin Nisar Hafiz. I want to record your memoirs.”
To my great delight, Madam Renu Khilnani responded instantly despite such an old age and health issues. The conversation continued for some days on daily basis with one or two question answers a day.
Renu Khilnani wrote:
Namaskar Mr. Naseer, I am Renu Khilnani, Ashok’s wife. I was born in Karachi, my father’s name is Issardas Shamdas Sapru, son of a great Mukhi of his community called Bhagnaries. We had all come to Bombay during partition. Before I had left Karachi I was may be 9 years old.
Ashok was born in Sukkur, Sindh on March 28th, 1931 and I was born in Karachi on December 3, 1938.
Where did you live in Karachi before partition?
Renu Khilnani: I think, it was near Saddar. Bhagnarri community lived nearby. They owned many liquor shops around in Karachi. It is basically a very rich community with business attitude and aptitude. Also a very good looking people of community.
What about your education?
Renu Khilnani: Yes! I started school in Convents; my English was quite dominant. Then I went to Sindh Model High School with Dharamdas as my Principal. I used to give my Services at school for background singing for all the Dramas Functions every year.
Can you read and write Sindhi? Perso Arabic alphabet?
Renu Khilnani: I can read, write and sing very well in Sindhi. I can read, write and sing in Hindi. I can read some Urdu, and sing all the Gazals. Gulam Ali is my most favorite. He uses all the available Ragaas in his Gazals.
At what age and where did you start singing?
Renu Khilnani: I sang from Pakistan Radio (they called it). I was 9 years old. After that we came to Bombay. I sang in Bombay for good 13 years. All my training, achievements, popularity came during those years. Then my next phase of life is with Great Ashok in USA. I love it….
Do you remember location of Karachi radio at your time here? This radio station later called Radio Pakistan was established in Karachi Local Board building at Bandar Road. Was it the same building where you had sung the songs?
Renu Khilnani: Mr. Naseer, sorry I do not remember. My dad is not alive, otherwise he could refresh the whole events clearly. You could check both. Thanks.
According to Wikipedia, the Karachi had no radio station till 1948. If it is correct, it means you lived in Karachi even after creation of Pakistan and used to sing for Radio Pakistan and migrated to Bombay at some later stage. Radio Pakistan website also confirms that there was no radio station in Karachi before partition. According to report published by English Daily Dawn, initially a Sindh government broadcasting station was established from where Jinnah’s oath taking ceremony was aired in August 1947 but this radio station was shut by Pakistan government after ten days as provincial government was not allowed under the law to run a radio station. It was 14th Aug 1948 that Radio Pakistan was launched from Local Board building at Bandar road which is close to Saddar area. If it was called Radio Pakistan, then you must have migrated after partition?
Renu Khilnani: I do remember Bandar Road. I remember lots of stores of dry fruits, Supariwalas dukans (shops). They were all near my home and radio station was nearby. We migrated to Bombay in 1948.
I actually saw the violence from my balcony. Very scary. I also know, we were kept safe in this good looking building with 3/4 floors.
You are right. They may have called it Karachi Radio, after that we migrated to India. Then I sang from All India Radio (Aakashvanni) for 13 years. every month. (She said recalling the old days)
Did you ever visit Karachi or any other part of Sindh after partition?
Renu Khilnani: I did not visit Karachi again after partition.
Something about start of singing in Karachi?
Renu Khilnani: In Karachi, I went to fancy private school. My dad sheltered me a lot. He was always with me. Also, on stages, studios radio station. He played great harmonium with me. He was my Guru.
I sang Noorjahan’s songs from the Pakistan Radio.
Which song of Noor Jahan you used to sing at Radio in Karachi? And also please write some lines from the songs you sung in Bombay?
Renu Khilnani: Noorjahan songs – my favorites that made me famous. Lo chall deay wo hamko tassalie deay bagair; Bachpan ke yaad ghaaro, main tumko dhoondhti hoon, tum bhee mujhe pukaro.
Would you share your life story in Bombay as a singer?
Renu Khilnani: In Bombay I became very popular. My basic training was from my father, who was a musician (Sitar & Harmonium). He also hooked me with some Pandit for classical training. I was singing everywhere in Bombay – also, with Dada Ram Panjwani. I used to sing real gazals, classic Sindhi songs – Heer Ranjha, Moomal Raano (that no one could sing). I was asked to sing with Talat Mahmood in Sindhi movies -like Sassui Punnu. I did two duets with Talat Mahmood.
Also, Lolli Lall (movie Insaaf Kithe Aahe). This was all in 1959. I got contract to sing in Sindhi movies in summer of 1959. Lolli lall was playing on radio all the time. I had also sung on All India Radio Jantar Mantar (children program) for 12 years once a month. My official name on Radio and recording was Nirmala Sapru. In my child years I was known as Baby Nirmala – In Bombay Dada Panjwani adopted this name.
And what happened after that?
Renu Khilnani: I came to USA to get married to Ashok in Feb. 1960. He was an Engineer from VJTI University in Bombay. He came to USA for his further education at the University of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. I was about 22 years old. Very popular in Bombay, but my destiny card was with Ashok.
At Sindhi Station in Bombay, C.H Atma’s sister used to host a program. She invited me to sing when I visited Bombay in 1988. I sang Rano and Nangra Nimarrida with all the dhohiriyas.
Did you perform as actress in movies?
Renu Khilnani: I did not perform as an actress in any movie. I wanted to learn classical dancing also. I was refused by all the teachers. They all recommended not to as it would affect my Voice.
[During the conversation she also talked about confiscation of their property in Bombay after the demise of her grandfather]
Who confiscated the property of your parents?
Renu Khilnani: I have no memories of confiscation. Recently I heard, some of the wealth was legally taken by Municipality of Bombay, after my Buaa died.
Something about family life?
Renu Khilnani: We have two sons. Older one lives in Miami FL. He is a teacher & his wife is a Psychologist (They have two kids, boy & girl). Our younger one is in Atlanta, GA. He is an Emergency Physician with his wife as a PA. (They have two kids, boy & a girl). I perused my Education in USA University. I have two Masters Degrees in Education, and Four Teaching Credentials. I taught as a lead teacher in Los Angeles for 30 years. I have retired now and live peacefully seeking Inner Peace with Ashok. We both believe in Pure Happiness & Inner Peace.
The glorious history is behind me now. I am only seeking higher levels of thinking. I am writing a Book. Purpose of Life.
[During our conversation I also shared PDF copy of my book on history of Bhiria that contained detailed chapters on Khilnani dynasty and the photos including that of Ashok Khilnani]
Renu Khilnani: Ashok & I viewed the PDF. Your whole Book, looks great. Anytime, you visit USA, please come to L.A. & stay with us. Love to have you.
When I told her that during the search on YouTube I found her two songs – duet with Talat Mahmood, Renu Khilnani said: Wow!!! You are truly a workaholic. You are a legend in your community. Please visit USA.
Later after a few days, I also shared the copy of the interview published in a Sindhi daily.
Renu Khilnani: Mr. Naseer Aiiaz, I have viewed the article and I have also shared it with few of my close friends. They are quite pleased to know that my Fan Club continues to grow. I am very humbled by this extra attention. I have come to a point in life that Real Happiness is achieved by Inner Peace. I thank you for your efforts & applied Interest.
I thanked Madam Renu for appreciation and informed her that I had also shared this article with Vijay Khilnani in Delhi and several other Sindhis of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Baroda.
I delayed for a few days the release of the English version of conversation with Madam Renu and waited for a response to my two messages regarding her book, but perhaps because of the age factor she couldn’t reply. Madam Renu is now 85 and Sir Ashok Khilnani is 92. Sir Ashok had some hearing impairment even in 2019.I pray for their health.
Nasir Aijaz is a Karachi-based senior journalist and author of nine books on literature, language and history besides scores of articles on various topics. He can be reached at email@example.com
Mr. Vijay Khilnani from New Delhi was kind enough to provide photos of Madam Renu Khilnani. Photos of her two sons were taken from Facebook