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Begum Akhtar: no one like you 
'On 31 October 1974, news on good old Doordarshan featured the demise of a singer called Begum Akhtar. The prominence given to the news caused me to ask, "Who is this Begum Akhtar?"'
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Begum Akhtar: no one like you

'Thanks to Prof Satish Bahadur of FTII, I acquired 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'
Begum Akhtar: no one like you
'Under spousal duress, she gave up singing for 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'
Begum Akhtar: no one like you

'The image of her smiling and shaking her head at her mistake is imprinted on my mind forever, an image I will treasure for life'


The queen I loved

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, Basavaraj, Kishori...

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?
E: Yes.
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 diva.

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

The maktaa:

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
mere hisse kii goyaa har khushii kam hotii jaatii hai

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.

Abhay Phadnis

(Also loves vintage film music. Translates into English songs that move him. Lives in Chennai)

Published on 8 December 2001

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