To write about Begum Akhtar is an extremely mounting task. I pick up my pen and the ink is silenced by the authority of her voice. Yet I try, I try to capture the catastrophe into the words, words that freed her. However, I know that not even words cannot capture her.
The nights were melancholic. The days were blotted out of the times as if they never existed. The darkness inside was resonated by the world outside. The noise of the outer world was exactly antithetical to the cold silence inside. It was in the evening when I surrendered my grief to Begum and she artfully expressed my tragedy:
Yoon to har shaam ummeedon mein guzar jaati thi
Aaj kuch baat hai jo shaam par rona aaya
(Every evening was, by hope, sustained
This evening’s desperation makes me weep)
After that the solitary evenings, and the silent nights all melted in the melody of Begum’s voice. I first met Begum through the family heritage of old cassettes which fell in my custody just before they were obliterated by the onset of the digital regime. In the first part of the cassette, Gulzar introduces the icon and then the flame of her voice burns in many hues but never flickers. She sang her characteristic ghazal, Behzad Lakhnavi’s Deewaana Banaana Hai To.
This was the ghazal that took her to insurmountable heights. It is said that her mother took a teen Akhtari Bai to a peer who put his finger on the ghazal and asked her to sing it in her next recording. This was the ghazal that Pandit Jasraj heard on a gramophone as a six-year-old and decided to become a singer.
My relationship with Begum Akhtar deepened when I read about her in The Ghat of the Only World, a tribute to Agha Shahid Ali by Amitav Ghosh. The depth of her voice also helped me in understanding the art of ghazal. Probably it was she who inspired Agha Shahid Ali to take the ghazal form of poetry to English.
That encounter with the Urdu ghazal and Begum Akhtar remains a sacred memory and there was no going back. At the age of fifteen, I wanted to veil myself in her voice to understand heartbreak. The notes of Mir, Ghalib, Faiz, Shakil Badayuni, and Kaifi Azmi painted my room when I came to college. In the solitariness of the strange world, Akhtari Bai’s voice kept me company. Like Begum, loneliness and her voice became my constant musafirs.
There is a very famous couplet of a ghazal by Ghalib which says:
Ranj se ḳhū-gar huʾā insāñ to miṭ jātā hai ranj
mushkileñ mujh par paṛīñ itnī kih āsāñ ho gaʾīñ
(if a person would become accustomed to grief, then grief is erased,
so many difficulties fell upon me, that they became easy)
Probably this describes her life the best. The pain in her voice was not superficial; it came from the heartbreaking episodes from her own life. Born to a courtesan and a barrister in Faizabad, Bibbi’s (Bibbi was her birth name) life was nothing short of a catastrophe, a catastrophe that she mastered with her voice.
At the age of four, she along with her twin sister and mother was abandoned by her father. Forsaken by the world, the twin sisters consumed poison. She survived only to live with the pain of a lost sibling. She then took refuge in music. Her mother insisted on her learning pure classical music but Bibbi couldn’t be captured in the strictures of Hindustani Classical Music and found her freedom in ghazals, where she could adorn the words with pain and love.
Shortly after her first concert at the age of eleven, Begum had to introduce a girl child into the world and bring her up as a sister. She was a mother even before she grew up and yet she was not a mother. In her early youth, she also tried her hand at acting in Bombay in which she succeeded but left it detachedly. She wanted to sing and not limit herself to the cinema. In the 1940s, she thus came to Lucknow where she set up her own Kotha (salon). Later she married an Oxford return barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed and gave up music for eight years in consideration for a stable life, love and home.
But after six miscarriages and the death of her mother, she could not hold herself together. It is said that she jumped into her mother’s grave and asked to bury her with her mother. The doctors said that she needs to have an outlet for grief and thus she returned to music, to life.
Her bond with music was not limited by religions and rituals; she was a practising Muslim yet a devotee of Lord Krishna. However, she could never give up alcohol and cigarettes. One of her remarkable achievements was to break out of the Kotha circle. She was the one to bring the Dadra and the thumri to people through public concerts. She was also the first woman to declare herself an Ustad and perform the ceremony of Ganda Bandh with her disciples.
She again ignited the extinguished stars and reclaimed the sky of music. She was the Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of ghazal). However, she sang the thumri, tappa, dadra, chaiti, hori with same expertise. The tragedy of her life became a part of her voice and thus she remained unmatchable.
Wherever she sang, however large the audience was, she was actually singing for every individual scraping their own life experiences and yet she was a Sufi, her music was addressed only to God. From Jigar Moradabadi to Kaifi Azmi, poets wrote ghazals to be immortalized by Begum’s voice. She was awarded Padma Bhushan posthumously. However, her flawed but perfect voice is felicitated every time a heartbroken finds refuge in it.
Whenever I lie down lifeless in my bed heaved only by pain, I listen to Begum Akhtar who has become an inseparable part of my identity. I can live my life only as an admirer of Begum. Language or my understanding of the form of music is immaterial now. We are at that stage of ishq, when we are only voices echoing in the void of life.
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