The queen I
Begum Akhtar tugs
at the heart in two styles -- one raw and exuberant, the other
mature and 'respectable' -- and no one has yet matched her in
either, writes Abhay Phadnis
At the age of 15, I fell in love - totally, irrevocably, hopelessly in
love - with a woman who died when I was 11 years old. Her name was
Akhtaribai Faizabadi, aka Begum Akhtar.
My affair with Akhtaribai's music started in a strange way. I come from a
family that is steeped in Hindustani classical music, perhaps by reason of
birthplaces: my father comes from Dharwad in northern Karnataka, my mother
from a town called Ichalkaranji in southern Maharashtra. Both towns have
strong links with the history of Hindustani classical music -- Ichalkaranji
was home to Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar (and the lamentably little-known
Kane-buwa); Dharwad's musical lineage is too well known to merit repetition.
Both my parents are connoisseurs of Hindustani classical music, especially fond of the Kirana
gharana that -- though Punjabi in origin -- seems to have found its spiritual
home on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border. I grew up in Poona, where the
musical scene was again strongly Hindustani classical music-dominated.
In our house, any music other than khayal was regarded with a kind of amused
indulgence. Thumri singers like Siddheshwari Devi and Rasoolan Bai were
accepted as great by reputation, but their music never found a place in the
consciousness of the household. In our house, "great" singers were
necessarily from the "classical" mould -- Bhimsen, Gangubai, Kesarbai,
A musical world beyond this first impinged on my consciousness when I was 11
years old. On 31 October 1974, the evening news on good old Doordarshan
featured the demise of a singer called Begum Akhtar. A photograph that I was
to see many times again -- of the Begum, draped in a shawl, playing a
harmonium and looking up with a delightful smile on her face -- stayed on the
screen for a long time. The prominence given to the news caused me to ask,
"Who is this Begum Akhtar?" The following dialogue then ensued (E stands for
elders; I for the 11-year-old me!):
E: She was a ghazal singer.
I: What is a ghazal?
E: Well - it is an Urdu song.
I: Urdu? Isn't that what they speak in films?
I: So she was a singer in films?
E: No, no -- she was a semi-classical singer.
I: What is "semi-classical?"
E: Well, she sangs thumris etc.
I: What are thumris?
E: Have you finished your homework?
Thus memorably was I introduced to a singer and a musical form that were to
haunt me in the years ahead.
Life went on in its course. In the 9th standard, I changed schools. In the
new school, my best friend was a boy called Apurva Bahadur. His father,
Prof Satish Bahadur, taught film appreciation at the FTII. I would hang
out at Apu's place most evenings. We would sit just outside the front door,
talking of whatever 14-year-old boys talk of. Lending a constant background
to our chatter was the music emanating from their living room, where Prof
Bahadur would spend the evening smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening
to Begum Akhtar. He seemed to have all her records ever released, and he
would play them one after the other, evening after evening.
For a long time, the music was just a background drone. And then, one
evening, something happened: a particular piece of the singing made its way
to my heart and twisted it in a way that made me gasp. I started paying more
attention to what was playing on the music system and found that it had a
magnetic quality that would keep me bound there till Prof Bahadur's evening
session was over. After over a year of this passive listening, I started
borrowing the good professor's records -- and that generous soul let me take
whatever I wanted. I would take a record home, keep listening to it over and
over, and record it onto a cassette. In a few months I thus acquired quite a
large collection of Begum Akhtar's ghazals, thumris, and dadras. I would
keep listening to them endlessly, much to the bemusement of my family.
I had only one problem: while I loved listening to the sound of her voice
and to the beauty of her music, I could make out just about half the words
of the ghazals she sang! My Hindi was pretty good, but the Urdu of the ghazals
was beyond me. I did not know anyone who knew Urdu well enough to teach me.
But fate gave me an inanimate teacher: while cleaning up one of the
bookshelves at home, I came across an Urdu-Hindi dictionary. (My father said
he had bought it ages ago, but couldn't remember when or why.) Having
discovered this treasure-chest, I embarked on an exercise that took up most
of my free time in my college years: I would transcribe the ghazals I was
listening to, and painstakingly check the meanings of the words I couldn't
understand. Bit by bit, the ghazals started making sense; I now discovered a
whole new world -- the world of Urdu poetry.
English poetry I had always loved. I did not think very much (to be
translated as did not know very much!) of Marathi poetry. But the majestic
beauty of Urdu poetry swept me off my feet. And it started off a beautiful
cycle: the more I heard Begum Akhtar's ghazals, the more I struggled to
understand their meaning; the more I understood of ghazals, the more I was
drawn to her rendition of them! Over time, I started listening to other
ghazal singers too: Mehdi Hasan, Farida Khanum, Malika Pukhraj, Iqbal Bano,
Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh. I love their singing, but Akhtaribai remains for
me the exemplar of this school of music.
Akhtaribai's life and times are too well documented to bear repetition. (For
those who do not know about her, the following leads would be useful: G N
Joshi's article on Akhtaribai in his book Down Memory Lane; Sheila Dhar's
account in her marvellously funny book Here's Someone I'd Like You to
Meet; and the very well made documentary, Hai! Akhtari!. Those familiar
with Marathi may like to read Sureshchandra Nadkarni and Lata Deo's
biography, Begum Akhtar, and an article that P L
Deshpande wrote on her.
Suffice it to say here that having received training in Hindustani
classical music, she started out as a singer of ghazals and the various forms
lumped together under the label "semi-classical" music -- thumri, dadra,
kajri, chaiti, etc. She made a huge name for herself in the 1930s and early
1940s, both through mehfils and through 78 rpm records. In 1945, at the peak of
her popularity, she got married to a lawyer from Lucknow and -- apparently
under spousal duress -- gave up singing for almost five years. Then, she
apparently fell ill, and legend has it that the doctors determined her abstinence
from music was the cause of her illness! Whatever be the truth of that, it led
to the Second Coming: Akhtaribai started singing again.
But not as Akhtaribai the "gaanewaali". In her new avatar as a "respectable"
married woman whose husband held a high place in Lucknow society, she became
Begum Akhtar. But it was not just the name and the context that changed: the
music of "Akhtaribai" and the music of "Begum Akthar" differ
significantly from each other. Akhtaribai sang with gay abandon: the early
recordings of ghazals like Diwaanaa banaanaa hai to and Wafaa nahii.n na
sahii hark back to the singing style of Gohar Jaan and Malka Jaan. The
open-throated singing, the carefree taans, the utter spontaneity and verve
that she brought to her singing -- all these changed, changed utterly. Her
Begum Akhtar phase is quite different: the singing is mellowed, controlled,
disciplined; the taans are less profuse; there is a gravitas that is at odds
with the exuberance of the young Akhtari. And it is more than just age or
maturity: Begum Akhtar's marriage was an exercise in upward social mobility;
her later singing follows that pattern. The "gaanewaali" of the 30s and
40s -- wonderful singer though she was -- could not be allowed to rear her
head in the "respectable" concert platforms of the 50s and 60s. In the
latter years, what people saw and heard was Begum Akhtar, the semi-classical
To bring home the extent of the transformation, look at the same piece sung
30 years apart. Akhtaribai first recorded the kajri Chhaa rahii kaarii
ghaTaa in the 1930s. It is beautifully sung with raw vigour and
spontaneity. The same piece recorded for All India Radio in the mid-1960s
becomes a soft, mellow rendition. What is lost in spontaneity is made up for
by sheer virtuosity. The latter recording is surely among the best of Begum
Akhtar's recorded output.
The Second Coming lasted 25 glorious years. Mercifully for those of us
who could not hear her live, the lady was a prolific recording artiste too --
her musical greatness is captured on vinyl, tape, and CD for generations.
Something intriguing that I discovered some time ago: in her Akhtaribai
days, the lady has tried her hand at poetry too! There are two ghazals
(available on a compilation of 78 rpm recordings brought out on tape by
Hindustan Records) written by her. Admittedly not great poetry, but not
below average either -- and beautifully sung! The first ghazal goes:
wo aa rahe.n hai jo biimaar kii dawaa ke liye
Khamosh baiThe hai.n sab chaaraaGar du_aa ke liye
Khudaa ke waaste chup "akhtarii" hawaas na kho
unhe.n bulaayaa hai phir arz-e-mudda_aa ke liye
The second one starts:
hamako nazar se apanii giraaye hu_e to hai.n
aGayaar unake dil me.n samaaye hu_e to hai.n
The maktaa is:
naam-e-wafaa se go nahii.n waaqif "akhtarii"
lekin shama_aa lahad pe jalaaye hu_e to hai.n
It is now 27 years since Begum Akhtar died. Twentyseven years since the possibility
of hearing her "live" was extinguished for ever. I did not know whether any
audio-visual record of her singing existed (apart from the kajri sung by her
in Ray's Jalasaghar). Just as I had given up hope, a minor miracle
occurred. I was in Delhi in October 1984 and, while spending the night at a
friend's place, suddenly heard the Doordarshan announcer say, "...Begum
Akhtar kii ek ghazal". I ran to the TV, pushed up the volume and sat glued
to it. There she was, draped in a shawl with the harmonium in front of her,
a smile playing on her face. She was noticeably under the weather, but in
great form! She was singing Jigar's ghazal:
tabiiyat in dino.n begaanaa-e-Gam hotii jaatii hai
kii goyaa har khushii kam hotii jaatii
She was singing beautifully, and then came what was - for me - the
piece-de-resistance. In the middle of the 'maktaa', she fumbled with the
words: "wahii hai zi.ndagii lekin" became "wahii hai zi.ndagii
apanii". She immediately realised her mistake, and her face lit up with an
incandescent smile as she laughed at herself, and immediately corrected the
line. That image of her smiling and shaking her head at her mistake is
imprinted on my mind forever, an image I will treasure for life.
Every year, on 30 October, I sit in front of the TV set, tuned into
Doordarshan and hoping (lately against hope) that they will again play a
recording of hers.
(Also loves vintage film music. Translates into English songs that move him. Lives in Chennai)
Published on 8 December
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