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I remember the first time when I heard her voice. I was in my teens, the ghazal: Ai mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya used to play at our home often. I used to wait for my dad to look away and change the player to Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak hotel, ABBA or Connie Frances. Dad would return and switch the player to: Woh jo hum me tum me quarar tha I would soon walk out in a huff because although her voice was soulful, I did not understand the nuances associated with Urdu poetry or how the delicate tingling of notes between classical raga Darbari and raga Jonpuri conjured up a different feeling.  Looking back, even though the King of Rock’s dreamy blue eyes and high cheek bones were cool and it was an eternal mystery as to how the lipstick got onto that white collar, I am happy that the music entered my being subconsciously at a young age. Now I often raise a toast to my dear father and admire the beautifully crafted verses of poets like Ghalib, Momin and Faiz rendered in the haunting voice of Akhtari Bai. (Read my article on Ghalib here.)

Begum Akhtar – Google Doodle

Begum Akhtar or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, (7 October 1914 – 30 October 1974) was a well-known singer of ghazal, dadra, and thumri genres of Hindustani classical music. A living legend, she rose to fame at a young age and entertained millions of listeners of many generations.  Exponents like Mehdi Hasan, Pt. Jasraj, Bismillah Khan and Pt. Ravi Shankar were her avid admirers as was my father. She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for vocal music, a  Padma Shri and later went on to win the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Indian government.  She is phenomenal for her contribution to pieces sung in a light classical music style, which were deeply anchored in pure classical Hindustani music. 

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Begum Akhtar’s ancestral home is in the historic city of Faizabad on the banks of river Sarayu in Uttar Pradesh. Her father, Asghar Hussain was a civil judge in Lucknow, who fell in love with her mother Mushtari, a courtesan and made her his second wife. Mushtari Bai’s singing was not accepted by her husband’s family, and soon after the birth of twin daughters, the marriage fell apart. Akhtari’s twin sister Zohra died of eating tainted sweets. With the severance of her relationship with her father and the death of her twin sister, she developed deep separation anxiety and was glued to her mother. 

 

Her life mirrors the personal tragedies in Ghalib’s life (an 18th century poet) which he depicted in his ghazals.  (which Begum Akhtar sang a lot) like: 

Hazaro khaaishein aisi

Yeh Na Thi Hamari Kismet.

Koi umeed bhar nahi aati.

Phir Mujhe Deeda-E-Tar Yaad Aaya

Rahiye Ab Aisi Jagah Chalkar Jahan Koi Na Ho

Mushtari did not want her daughter to go through the same hardships in life, and wanted her to enjoy a proper education and a respectable married life. But Bibbi Akhtari was adamant – singing constantly and she disliked the confines of school. Her maternal uncle convinced Mushtari Bai to train her as a classical singer, seeing her talent in memorizing songs so quickly. Her training started under various gurus who tried to mold her naturally gifted voice. After early training under Ustad Imdad Khan of Patna, a famous sarangi player who chose to initiate her with raga Kamod, Bibbi found the raga difficult to cope with, as she was attracted to folk tunes. So she discontinued her lessons and they went to Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Khan of Gaya.  

The family came back to Faizabad in 1923. She trained for four years under Ustad Atta Mohammad Khan of Patiala. The Ustad made her practice in the lower octave (Kharaj Bharan). Initially Bibbi was again on the verge of giving up her lessons, until one day she heard her Ustad elaborate the nostalgic Raga Gunkali and this experience transformed her completely, and she started to take her musical education earnestly. She practiced for hours on end, and her Ustad urged her to sing more soulfully. In 1927, the mother-daughter duo and the guru came to Calcutta, the music capital of India in those days. Despite her rigorous training in music; a tumultuous childhood cloaked the soul of the young singer in pathos. She flung open the window and stood transfixed and legend has it that from that day Bibbi literally opened her soul! She let her song soar through the abandoned corridors of memory. Her voice acquired a piercing ache that penetrated every lonely heart. 

Her rendition of Mere hamnafas mere humnawaan 

mere dost banke dagaa na de by Shakeel Badayuni was on many lips. 

Aap kehte hain rone se na badlenge naseeb… 

Rone wallon se kaho ke unka bhi rona ro lein

Jinko majbooriye haalaat ne  rone na diyabrought her listeners to tears.

In the big city most of their possessions were sold and the few public performances she gave were not enough to make ends meet. She was coaxed to record her voice but the innocent spirit that she was, she said that If the recording machine sucked her life into the box along with her voice, her poor mother would be left alone, so she declined.

But her hard work and devotion bore fruit when her music was revealed to a wider audience by serendipity at a concert for the victims of the 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake. The famous poet Sarojini Naidu heard her sing there and appreciated her talent.  After this she cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company, at that time. Akhtar’s first recording was a combination of ghazals and dadras for the HMV( His Master’s Voice) label and the ghazal : Woh Asire-Daam-e-Bala became popular.

Her mother Mushtari took her to a faith healer or Pirji in Bareilly and he opened her song book and put his hand: on Behzad Lakhanavi’s ghazal: Dīvāna banānā hai to dīvāna banā de 

varna kahīñ taqdīr tamāsha na banā de 

ai dekhne vaalo mujhe hañs hañs ke na dekho 

tum ko bhī mohabbat kahīñ mujh sā na banā de 

maiñ Dhūñdh rahā huuñ merī vo shama kahāñ hai 

jo bazm kī har cheez ko parvāna banā de 

The Pir asked her to begin her next performance with this ghazal, and so she did and in that fortuitous moment she cast a spell on the nation by this effervescent rendition!  The ghazal was recorded – it became a mega success, running into platinum disc! This turning point in her life showered her with wealth, fame and luxuries.  She was amongst the early band of female singers to give public concerts, and break away from singing in mehfils (private recitals), and in time she came to be known as Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazal). Begum Akhtar’s good looks and distinctive voice made her well suited for a film career in talkies. She acted in a few Hindi movies East India Film Company’s Ek Din Ka Badshah and Nal Damayanti. She acquired fame and a carefree lifestyle but she was still uneasy. Begum had a certain verve and charisma, a glamorous identity with a dash of bold red lipstick and finely embroidered georgette saris. But behind the dazzling smile and glimmering wizardry of her performance, the vulnerable lonely little girl was still ever apparent. I think this is what endeared her to her audience.

Yeh bahaar ka zamaana 

Yeh hasin gulon ke saye…

Jise dekhni ho jannat 

Mere saath saath aaye..

Later Begum Akhtar moved back to Lucknow and stayed there for three years where she was approached by the famous producer-director Mehboob Khan, to act in Roti (a socialist theme) with Sheikh Mukhtar and Sitara Devi which was released in 1942 where the music was composed by the maestro Anil Biswas.  This film is available on Youtube in excellent condition, but her six songs were removed because of some contractual issues with the Megaphone Record Company. The audio portions were released later. She played a cameo role of a classical singer in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), which turned out to be her last film appearance.

She was a chain smoker, she was constantly searching for something deeper, more meaningful, and more perfect, perhaps a happy childhood that was never hers.  Begum Akhtar’s voice had a nasal twang, reminiscent of the film actress Meena Kumari, whose period movie Pakeezah (about the life of a courtesan) she watched six times because she had to take smoking breaks and was unable to watch the film to the end in one go. Once on a train journey she confiscated the accoutrements of the guard at a small railway station till he sourced cigarettes for her.  She was a quite a handful but as a student of music, she was very humble, giving her gurus great respect. 

In 1945, Akhtari Bai married a barrister, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, who was a connoisseur of Urdu poetry. She became Begum Akhtar. After marriage, she did not sing in concerts for five years. She was devoted to her role as a loving wife and took her domestic duties with as much sincerity as her singing (she did not even hum a hymn) but when her mother died, she fell very ill. A return to music was prescribed to heal her broken heart, and in 1949 she returned to the recording studios weeping tears of joy![ She sang three ghazals and a dadra at Lucknow All India Radio station. She wept afterwards and returned to singing in concerts, which she continued to do until her death. It was as though she finally broke through the self-imposed shackles of society and broke free to just come face to face with her identity, defined by her voice! She devoted her life to bringing the genre of ghazal singing from salons through the radio stations to homes. Her diction and pronunciation were excellent, and her comprehension of music vast! She chose ghazal, thumri, daadra for her musical expression, because these forms gave her the opportunity to explore the words and sentiments of poets with unique empathy. Her voice acquired a versatile richness and depth, and she sang deeply anguished songs with a serene face as if they were made for her.

Ulti ho gayi sab tadbire
Raat ko ro ro Subah Kota aur subho ko jyon tyun sham kiys

Tabiyat in dino begana-e-gham hoti jati hai

A stage comes when one becomes immune to pain.

there is no bitterness or complaint. 

Ab to yahi hain dil se duaayein bhoolane wale bhool hi jaayein

When the lover who has moved away, it is time to move on.  

The best one can do is to wish that he completely forgets.

Woh Jo Hum Mein Tum Mein Qarar Tha Tumhe Yaad Ho ke Na Yaad Ho
Wohi Yaani Waada Nibah Tha Tumhe Yaad Ho Ke Na Yaad Ho

Woh Jo Lutf Mujh Pe The Beshtar Woh Karam ke Tha Mere Haal Par
Mujh Sab Hai Yaad zara zara Tumhe Yaad Ho Ke Na Yaad Ho

The steadfast love we had between us, you might remember or you might not. The promise of staying together, you might remember or you might not…

When she sang these beautiful lyrics, every one in the audience felt she was singing personally for them. My dad used to drop everything and sit still as listened to her sing and laugh as she sang Hori Kaisee ye dhoom machaee  in a very difficult raga Zila Kafi.… 

Later he tried hard to emulate her. His sweet singing profile with rainbow colors of Holi in the background is etched my heart! 

Begum Akhtar has nearly four hundred songs to her credit. Her timeless training in khayals and ragas especially taught by Ustad Wahid Khan sahib of Lahore, made her singing multi-dimensional as she could sing thumris, dadras and ghazals in different ragas on different occasions. Her repertoire included ragas Kalawati, Deshkar, Chandrakauns, Kalingda, Kaunshi kanhada, chayanat, Des, and Narayani.  She effortlessly served a blend of Punjab and Poorabang thumris of which she became a leading exponent. She is also remembered for the Bengali classic Jochona Koreche Aar. Her diction and charming stage presence were superlative! She remained eternally indebted to the opportunity of learning classical music in India and she once said: "I was so silly as a child as I didn’t pay heed to vocal exercises taught by my Ustad, but today my heart overflows with gratitude for him, who so patiently molded my voice to make it so pliant.”  She suffered her third heart attack during a concert in Ahmedabad on 26 October 1974. She died on 30 October 1974 in the arms of Nilam Gamadia, her friend. For her final performance she poured all her emotions into her signature ghazal composed by Shakeel Badayuni

Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya
Jaane Kyon Aaj Tere Naam Pe Rona Aaya

Yun Toh Har Shaam Ummido Mein Guzar Jaati Hai
Aaj Kuch Baat Hai Jo Shaam Pe Rona Aaya


Kabhi Taqdeer Ka Matam Kabhi Duniya Ka Gila
Manzil-e-Ishq Mein Har Gam Pe Rona Aaya


Jab Hua Zikr Zamane Mein Mohabbat Ka ‘Shakeel’
Mujh Ko Apane Dil-e-Nakaam Pe Rona Aaya

Oh love, your destiny has brought me to tears today
I wonder why, the mention of your name brought me to tears today

Most evenings were spent living in hope
Something is different today, the evening brought me to tears today

Sometimes mourning over fate, sometimes complaining about the world
In the arduous journey of love, every step  I took brought me to tears

The mere mention of love in this world, Shakeel (name of poet)
The unsuccessful attempts of my heart has brought me to tears today

This was her final siren song to the Divine. Bibbi was one with her beloved! 

She was buried alongside her mother in her home in Thakurganj, Lucknow. Her tomb was in a mango orchard. Over the years, the garden has been engulfed by the growing city, and the tomb has fallen into disrepair but she lives in the hearts of her disciples in every city and her fans all over the world.

Aaye kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aaye, lyrics Faiz Ahmad ‘Faiz’

Let the clouds come, after that let the wine come.

 Thereafter, who cares if misfortunes come

Begum Akhtar liked the poet Faiz loved a glass of wine. 

As the light of a street lamp twinkles through the evening drizzle, I am transported through the dazzling light of her nose stud to another evening or perhaps it’s just a soul-stirring dream. Regardless I am in camera with Begum Akhtar as she sings live n concert: 

Hamri atariya pe aao sanvariya 

Dekha dekhi balam hoi jaye

Hamri atariya pe aao sanvariya… 

Come to my balcony, oh my dark beloved(Krishna)
We could gaze into each others’ eyes… 

She is singing late into the night, a smile on her soft cheeks, her voice reverberating n the old haveli (mansion). 

Chha rahi kaali ghaa jiya mora lahraaye hai
Chha rahi kaali ghaa jiya mora lahraaye hai
Chha rahi kaali ghaa
Sun ri koyal baanwari tu
Sun ri koyal baanwari tu kyoon malhaar gaaye hai
Chha rahi kaali ghaa jiya mora lahraaye hai

Rainclouds are darkening the sky, filling my heart with foolish whims
Rainclouds are darkening the sky, filling my heart with foolish whims
clouds are darkening the sky
Why on earth, Oh dark cuckoo…
Why on earth, Oh dark cuckoo, are you singing a song of joy?
Rainclouds are darkening the sky, filling my heart with foolish whims

Her fans cheer her on. Her voice has a familiar poignancy. A tear rolls down my dad’s eye. I tighten my grip on his hand. We are both spellbound by her wizardry. In that inimitable moment her voice cracks softly making the classic rendition immortal and inseparable from the name of the great Mallika of Ghazal

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Acknowledgements

Zikr Us Parivash Ka. Documentary by Nirmal Chander  

Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi. Biography by Shanti Hiranand 

Hai Akhtari. Documentary by S. Kalidas 

Concerning Begum Akhtar: Queen of Ghazal by Robert Charles Ollikkala  

Tradition of Hindustani Music. M. L. Ahuja 

Eminent Indians: Musicians. Rupa Publications

Begum Akhtar The Queen of Ghazal. Rupa & Company

Rekhta

Online contributions by friends, fans and admirers of Begum Akhtar

Monita Soni is a pathologist and helps diagnose cancer. Her writing style weaves Eastern and Western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on "All Things Considered.”

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