At a time when the sphere of Hindustani classical music was largely male-dominated, across regions and repertoires, with the tradition of training confined to guru-shishya, the presence of women singers was spars, scattered and undocumented. It was however, by the late 19th and early 20th century, that we saw the fame and artistic credibility of singers such as Girija Devi, Siddheswari Devi, Gauhar Jaan, Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai etc. It is into this socio-cultural context, the emergence of Begum Akhtar, as a classical singer and subsequently ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’, is to be located.
Born in Faizabad in 1914, the life of Begum Akhtar, ironically marks a life that witnessed unquantifiable fame, admiration and accolades on one hand but was faced with its own share of pain, loneliness, misfortunes and agony on the other. Her life and artistic journey also provide a glimpse of ideological and cultural transformation that the newly independent nation was witnessing in the course of reimagining and reconstructing itself.
Initial phase (1914-1942): The question of identity and acceptance
With her mother Mushtari Bai, being from a class of professional singer/courtesans, Akhtar faced the usual social ramification, from the very beginning. That this, Awadh culture, gave both credence as well as legitimacy to this class of courtesans, made it an institution in its own might, associated with the elite popular culture under the feudal patronage. This was at the crossroads of cultural transformation, with the arrival of British ideals of Victorian Morality, whereby the once revered, admired class was now merely viewed as ‘Nautch Girls’, meant for entertainment. So much so, that by the middle of the 20th century, saw the transformation in the status of these courtesans or Ba’is, as mere sex workers, by the emerging middle class, further deepened by the nationalist reorientation of Indian art and culture in the late 20th century. This class of professional singers were to be replaced by the vocational singers by the post-independence Indian State, perhaps to weed out the ‘moral taboo’, and legitimise classical singers in place of courtesan singers.
Incidentally, those close to her, including her students assigned some of the most remarkable personal and professional characteristics of Begum Akhtar’s singing, her charm; her engaging and uninhibited manner; her ability to create a feeling of one to one intimacy on stage, and the communicative power of her voice; largely due to her initial training as a ‘courtesan’.
Akhtar had a reserved and lonely childhood accompanied with rigorous classical training. Akhtar’s father, Asghar Hussain, she says, was ‘a respectable man’ who married her mother, though briefly. Bibbi, as Akhtar was called in childhood, also had a twin sister Zohra, who died at a young age. As the mother and daughter were later abandoned by Hussain, the early days were difficult and besides, all her life, Akhtari yearned for her father, whom she did happen to take good care of, in his final days.
Rita Ganguly, one of Akhtar’s closest students, says the early trauma of Begum Akhtar’s life resulted in the singer being consumed by melancholy. She always felt a deep vacuum in her life and lived in constant fear of “Ya Allah, ab kya hoga?“
At the age of about seven, Akhtari started receiving her initial lessons by the Sarangi maestro Ustad Imdad Khan, the famed Sarangi accompanist of singers Mallika Jan of Agra and Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta. Further, her training began under Ustad Ata Mohammed Khan of the Patiala gharana. As was the practice in those days, the Ustad and Shagird would live under the same roof and train for hours; her training rituals used to start early in the morning and months used to pass just by practicing a single note or a single aalap. It is said that Khan Sahib was so impressed with her singing that he willingly took the decision to move to Mukhtari and Akhtari’s home.
Her first major public performance was at a music festival at Alfred Theatre, Calcutta. In the concert organized to raise funds for the victims of the Nepal-Bihar earthquake in 1934, young Akhtari, was praised and complimented for her singing by Sarojini Naidu, an eminent poetess and the Nightingale, herself. Reminiscing the evening which turned out to be a solo concert, singing four ghazals and five dadras back to back amidst the cheering crowd, she said in an interview,
“I had never before faced an audience. My knees turned to water and I began to tremble all over with sheer stage fright. I thought I would collapse on the stage. I started with a favourite ghazal of mine. Suddenly I felt my nerves relax and my voice sore in full-throated ease.”Begum Akhtar
Her first recording was by the Megaphone Record Company in 1933, instrumental in releasing the gramophone records of her popular ghazals, thumris and dadras, later on. By June 1944, it rose to 154 recordings. However, her popularity rose only after her seventh single which was ‘Deewana banana hai to Deewana bana de, warna kahin taqdeer tamasha na bana de‘ written by Behzaad Lakhnavi, making her a sensation across; and to many of her early recordings, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali accompanied her on the harmonium.
Meanwhile, in the 1930s, she was also part of films like Ek Din Ka Baadshah (1933), Nal Damyanti (1933), Roop Kumari (1934), Mumtaz Begum (1934), Ameena (1934), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1935), Jawani Ka Nasha (1935) and Anaar Bala (1940). Renowned Director Mehboob Khan approached her for a film titled Roti (1942), in which she had sung six Ghazals.
It was during this time, that she was given an ultimatum by Ustad Ata Mohammad Khan, that “either you concentrate on your music or go to become an actress“. It is also believed that at a music conference in Bombay, which had stalwarts like Gauhar Jaan and Zohra Bai Ambalewali, Akhtari realised that she lacked the preparation and finesse of a trained voice and hence she started training earnestly again under Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana. Interestingly, the subsequent invitations from the Court of Hyderabad, Rampur, Darbhanga, and Kashmir, became a reason for her deflection from theatre and films.
Though she was invited by many of the Rajwaadas of pre-independent India, Raja Ali Shah Khan of Rampur was the longest patron, who showered Akhtar for her services with expensive gifts including Packard Car. During this period, Akhtar also maintained a house in Lucknow and entertained her admirers. By the late 1930s, she had become one of the wealthiest and most glamorous women in Lucknow.
Paradoxically, this phase at Lucknow, in the 1930’s had inherent limitations too, for the idea of ‘respectable’ was problematic for two reasons—the assumed relationship between art and improper behaviour, for it was these Raja-Maharajas who provided social basis and patronised in terms of music preference.
So much so, that despite her dislike for Raja of Nandgaon, her financial state compelled her to work temporarily, for he provided Akhtar and her mother with a home on 28 Ripon Street in Calcutta. Years later, Akhtar recalled that she strongly disliked this man, but she stayed with him, and pretended to like him, in order to support her mother. Later, Rekha Surya and Avantika Bhuyan, both Akhtar’s student, testifies how “she gave birth to her daughter Shamima, at the age of 16.” To shield her from social prosecution her mother stated that the newborn was hers and not Akhtari’s. That’s how for years it was believed that Shamima was actually Ammi’s sister. It remained a well-kept public secret, for long.
The appropriate role of a respectable woman, generally perceived at this point of history, was to be within Purdah, confined within the secure inner space or the Janana khana. This was in stark contrast to the reality of the Baís/courtesan singers, who had to exist in a varied social and public sphere.
Regula Qureshi in her essay, ‘In Search of Begum Akhtar: Patriarchy, Poetry, and Twentieth-Century Indian Music in 2001’, draws in some ways, her life parallels that of M. S. Subbulakshmi. Qureshi explores the ironies and conflicts involved in the life of a woman who transformed herself “from a hereditary professional singer to a respectably married lady who even gave up her singing career, only to emerge into the public domain transformed into a national symbol iconic of the courtly musical culture which had shaped her.” She pointed out, how in North India, “recording provided an opportunity for courtesans to continue as singers and entertainers even as their opportunities for live performance diminished. Many courtesans became singers for films. Interestingly, it was also through sound recordings that Begum Akhtar’s reentry into public as a singer after she had married and her persona had changed from courtesan to respectable married woman was facilitated.“
Begum Akhtar lived during these transitional phases and these conditions might have influenced both her life and art. For these marked subtle, yet definitive alterations in terms of moral shifts, shifts in terms of class and patronage and above all gender hierarchies. As the scholar Robert Ollikkala, rightly connotes, “who Akhtari Bai really was, an individual separated from any specific role or combination of roles, will always remain something of a mystery.” For, there were thousands of Bai-Ji’s, and quite few of them were fine singers, but “there was only one Akhtari—something that made her very special.”
The silent phase (1942-49)
Her desire to gain social respectability and acceptance, was partially fulfilled in 1942, when she approached unannounced to Sayeda Raza of All India Radio, Lucknow with an unusual request of wanting to get married with a recently widowed lawyer from an ‘established’ Lucknow family, Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi. Her choice, if seen from the context, highlights that while fame had its own limitations, the increasing taboo attached with the courtesan singing had eroded the respectability and charm of the profession, thanks to the evolving sensibilities and redefined notions of ‘morality’! The case was akin with Siddheshwari Devi and Girija Devi, too.
However, in the article, ‘Remembering Ammi’, Avantika Bhuyan, reminisces, ‘contrary to popular media perception, her marriage with Nawab of Kakori, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, wasn’t an unhappy one. It wasn’t friendship that they shared. He was more like her guardian. A great scholar himself, he would explain poetry to her. Ammi had innate intelligence. She wasn’t academically very qualified but was intellectually very bright.’
In fact, this stigma of coming from a not so respectable space infused a life-long inferiority and lack of esteem in Begum Akhtar. Though she remarked, “I am proud of my family singing background. I accept that. How can you blame someone for her background? What can you do about your birth? You must accept what God gave you and make your own life.”
Shanti Hiranand, her student in her final decades, also points this, “She wanted respectability but never forgot her courtesan roots. She always saw upper class women as being better than she was.”
However, this arrangement had its share of compromises and costs, for both Abbasi and Akhtar were aware of the repercussions. As he belonged to a landed respected family, it took nearly a year before he disclosed to his family about his marriage to Akhtar. While Abbasi did not want a singing woman for a wife, Akhtar agreed to give up singing.
But this as known, slumped Akhtar into a depressed phase. Her mother’s demise, added a heavy emotional toll, speaking of these dark and silent days of her life, she said,
“I gave up everything for him but he could not give up even a little for me; I was not allowed to perform in any program or gathering-I was almost not allowed to sing at all. For a year and a half even, the radio was a distant thought, even humming a tune was impossible for that girl, for whom singing was life. I gave up everything. I looked sick. Even then I didn’t realize just how thoroughly song had penetrated my heart. How could I uproot what had spread its tendrils throughout my inner being?”Begum Akhtar
The visible decay from both physical and emotional deterioration, coupled with constant pressure from Abbasi’s friends, to ‘allow’ her to sing, once again, for the times had changed and that music was no longer the domain of the singing prostitutes, led Begam Akhtar, to start singing, after a hiatus of five long and silent years. This time, it was agreed that she would only sing on the radio, and not on the screen, for the ‘Purdah’ will maintain the dignity of her singing. Begum Akhtar, thus made her first All India Radio recording in 1948, as Akhtar Ishtiaq and not as Akhtari Bai.
The return of the Begum (1949-1974): The melodious decades
In 1949, she returned to her passion of music, singing three Ghazals and a Dadra at the All India Radio Lucknow Station, thereafter, a regular performer there.
She continued to give public performances and to sing in concerts and recorded songs for two films – Daana Paani (1953) and Ehsaan (1954). Her last movie recording was in Satyajit Ray’s award-winning film Jalsaghar.
As time gradually elapsed, Akhtar found her singing in public concerts and stage rather than the salon of a patron. Though she did not perform in any public concert in Lucknow (Abbasi’s residence), only much later did she return to sing in a fundraiser for flood victims, a programme organized by local Women’s league for an all-female audience of ‘upper’ societies.
From the early 1960s until her death in 1974, Akhtar toured consistently singing in newly established concert halls of major cities of the country, always accompanied by host of her female students, including Shanti Hiranand, Anjali Banerjee, Rita Ganguly, who were devoted to Akhtar more as her daughters than students. She was their beloved and revered Ammi! In fact, Begum Akhtar, perhaps initiated the first of its kind tradition of Ganda Bandhan for her Shisya, a norm largely reserved for male Gurus and Ustad.
She also performed in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the USSR as part of a national cultural delegation, representing India’s rich musical heritage. By the time of her death Akhtar had become a national symbol. Her name is still a household word in musical circles especially among the connoisseurs of semi-classical music. She performed her last, at a concert in Ahmedabad (1974), during which she fell seriously ill.
The choice of Begum Akhtar’s poetry
It was Akhtar who gave Ghazal a unique shape by making it a more classical and artistic expression, which became immensely popular as an art form. She raised the level of so called semi-classical/light-classical singing, which was considered inferior to the classical repertoires sung by the great maestros of the Hindustani Classical music, to such an extent that it gained a new level of respectability and seriousness. She chose her repertoire in a variety of raags, ranging from simple to complex. She was also a fine singer of dirges, elegies and salaams specially on special occasions like that of Muharram.
With nearly 400 songs to Akhtar’s credit, her style of singing was inimitable, unique and extremely difficult for other singers to emulate, as most of her compositions were self-composed and based on complex ragas.
On a close examination of her repertoire, there are two notable aspects. Firstly, she extensively sung the works of most of the top-notch poets, while the other being an eclectic mix of classical as well as 20th century poets.
For instance, the great 19th century Mirza Ghalib, with renditions that included – ‘Dil hi to hai na sang-o-kisht’, ‘Aah ko chahiye ek umr asar hone tak’, ‘Yeh na thi hamari kismat’, ‘Ibn-e-mariyam hua karey koi’, ‘Koi umeed bar nahin aati’ and ‘Daayam pada hua tere dar par nahin hoon mein.’
Alongside, when we think of a 20th century poet, she excelled at Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with ‘Aaye kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aaye’, ‘Donon jahaan teri mohabbat mein haar ke’ and ‘Shaam-e-firaaq ab na pooch.’
In addition, two specific poets that Akhtar sang beautifully were Shakeel Badayuni and Sudarshan Faakir.
While the former wrote ‘Mere humnafas mere hum nawa’, ‘Ae mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya’, and ‘Door hai manzil raahe mushkil’, the latter penned ‘Kuchh toh duniya ki inaayaat ne dil tod diya’, ‘Ishq mein ghairat-e-jazbaat ne rone na diya’, ‘Ahal-e-ulfat ke hawaalon pe hasee aati hai’. These renditions by Begum Akhtar transcended Faakir into immortality.
Beyond these, she also lent her voice, for the Nazams of Ibrahim Zauq (‘Laayee hayaat hamein’), Jigar Moradabadi (‘Duniya ke sitam yaad na apni hi wafaa yaad’), Ali Ahmed Jaleeli (‘Ab chalte hue saagar’) and Taskeen Qureshi (‘Kis se poochein humne kahaan’).
The charm of Begum Akhtar
Akhtaribai wasn’t a classic beauty, but her charm made her irresistibly attractive and adorable. Her close friend Sheila Dhar tells the story of Nawab of Rampur’s fascination for the Begum. “There was this seven-stringed necklace of Basra pearls in the Rampur collection. And from the seventh string of this necklace, hung a big diamond pendant. The nawab used to say that if there is anything more lustrous than the diamond, it’s the smile of Akhtari.“
Akhtar’s smile was infectious. The way she smiled while singing a Ghazal with a twinkling in her eyes which matched the sheen of her twinkling diamond nose pin, assured the listener and that too, to each one of them, that the Ghazal Queen was singing just for him/her. Perhaps, this was the charm and magic of Akhtar’s singing which made her listeners addicted to her singing and her persona.
Begum Akhtar, undoubtedly was an amalgamation of her art and her endearing personality. One of the testimonies to this was when Kaifi Azmi said, “By listening to her Ghazal one actually starts seeing the ghazal in front of his eyes.”
It is then not to wonder, that the sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar dedicated his ‘Sindhi Bhairavi’ to Akhtar. According to thespian Dilip Kumar, the sadness in Akhtar’s music inspired him to work on the image of a tragic hero.
She has been a huge influence on singers, younger than her, from the subcontinent. Her voice had an unmatched pathos, and her perfect enunciation or talafuz, of chaste Urdu poetry made her a role model. In fact, even Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj says he decided to become a singer as a six-year-old only after hearing her sing ‘Deewana banana hai toh‘ on a gramophone at a tea shop.
They say, till date, there is no other female voice that can sing Faakir or Daagh or Jigar or Ghalib better or turn a moment into a lump in your throat or sear your soul with, “tujh se milkar hamein rona tha bahut rona tha..tangi-e-waqt-e-mulaaqaat ne rone na diya.” The pain and agony felt in her deep voice reflected her years of loneliness, fears, insecurities and pain which she had endured both as a woman and as an artist. And only she could sing so powerfully yet with such melancholy the famous nazm – ‘Aye mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya, aaj kuch baat hai ki sham pe rona aaya’, and immortalising both the shayar and herself. Otherwise, what explains why, Akhtar, who had a huge presence on stage, felt frightened returning back to her room after the performance because of the loneliness and emptiness that she felt after such crowded evenings.
Writer Mrinal Pande recollects, as to “how Begum Akhtar’s wonderfully creative years happened to coincide with the years when India was waking up to the beauty of her own classical heritage and the rare creativity of many hitherto disempowered groups. For that reason, her music, like my late mother Shivani’s writings (they were both good friends), gave their art a rare moral cutting edge and a communicability that transcends time and space.” Was she in retrospect, an agent of transformation or one who was transformed in those transitional changes then?
It was this persona of Akhtar which made even the intellectuals fall for her singing, a legacy which is in existence even to this time and age. The famous Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, was smitten by her so much so that a young Shahid, in complete awe of Akhtar who once when visited Srinagar, was driven around the city in a car only to search of her Capstan Cigarette. It is a vivid memory which resurfaces in Shahid’s poem ‘I Dream I Am the Only Passenger on Flight 423 to Srinagar’:
‘Her picture: she smiles: she lights a Capstan.
Sharp in flame, her face dissolves in smoke.‘
In the later years, affection rose to an extent that every concert of Akhtar was attended by Shahid and Saleem Kidwai. The poet once had told Amitav Ghosh that, as a teenager he couldn’t bear to be away from Begum Akhtar and that ‘in other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love—but I don’t know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her.’ In 1974, he wrote a famous elegy mourning the demise of Akhtar which became a monumental commemoration of Akhtar’s persona and her artistry. In the poem, he wrote:
“Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow,
sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you.
She wears her grief, a moon-soaked white,
corners the sky into disbelief.”
It was probably this relationship with Begum Akhtar that engendered his passion for Ghazal as a verse form and the resultant was his English ghazals which was a rare genre in the American context. For her contribution to the field of music and its enrichment, she was awarded the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan (posthumously) in 1968 and 1975 respectively and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for vocal music in 1972. She was extensively written about, which helps deconstruct the singer and the person that Akhtar was, some of which includes ‘In memory of Begum Akhtar’ (1979), ‘Great Masters of Hindustani Music’ (1981), ‘Begum Akhtar: The Queen of Ghazals’ (2005), ‘Begum Akhtar: The story of my Ammi’ (2005), ‘Ae Mohabbat… Reminiscing Begum Akhtar’ (2008), and ‘Begum Akhtar: Love’s Own Voice’ (2009).
Begum Akhtar remains the quintessential ‘Mallika–e–Ghazal‘, to this day, appreciated, cherished, revered, emulated, rediscovered and loved even after four decades of her death, thanks to the supreme artist that she was and the charismatic aura which surrounded her.