Begum Akhtar: Queen of Light Classical Music
Vo jo ham meñ tum meñ qarār thā tumheñ yaad ho ki na yaad ho
Vahī ya.anī va.ada nibāh kā tumheñ yaad ho ki na yaad ho
Vo jo lutf mujh pe the beshtar vo karam ki thā mire haal par
Mujhe sab hai yaad zarā zarā tumheñ yaad ho ki na yaad ho
The love that between us used to be, you may, may not recall
those promises of constancy, you may, may not recall
Those favours that you did bestow, the kindness that you once did show
I can recall them all somehow, you may, may not recall
These lines from the evergreen ghazal Vo jo ham meñ tum meñ qarār thā, written by Momin Khan Momin, were sung by one of India’s finest ghazal singers of all time, Akhtaribai Faizabadi, more popularly known as Begum Akhtar. Her soulful renditions, drawn from a wellspring of personal tragedy, heartache and pain, have earned her monikers like ‘Mallika-e-Tarannum’ or ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’. But Akhtar never really cared for labels. All she ever wanted to do was sing, to seemingly exorcise her demons, delighting an entire generation of fans and aficionados along the way.
Begum Akhtar evolved her own signature style of thumri-dadra, in which she combined both the Purab and the Punjab styles of Hindustani classical music, and laced it with her own unique flavour. It was her rendering of Ghalib's ghazals that made her a household name.
She gave her first public performance when she was in her teens at a time when women vocalists were largely restricted to private performances; her voice rang out across the airwaves on All India Radio and Doordarshan; the world of movies beckoned; she was wooed by record companies; but most of all, she was just happy to sing.
Akhtar was born on 7th October 1914 in Gulab Bari village in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, to a courtesan named Mushtari Bai. Her father was a lawyer and the family was not musically inclined. But Akhtar, fondly called as Bibi was a born vocalist, for she was barely seven when she was captivated by the music of Chandabai, an artiste from a moving theatre company. Her father abandoned her, her twin sister and their mother when she was still only a child, and they had to fend for themselves early on. Mushtari Bai through all odds made sure that her daughters get academic education as well as music training.
Begum Akhtar started her music training at the age of 21 when her uncle encouraged her to embark on a musical career, she was trained initially by Imdad Khan, a Patna sarangi player, and then by Patiala's Ata Mohammad Khan where she learned khayal, dadra, thumri and ghazal singing. It was Ata Mohammad Khan who advised her to move to Calcutta as it had better opportunities for singers at that time. Akhtar’s mentors were classical masters and her music had her moorings in the tradition of pure classicism and their supreme art in thumri, ghazal and dadra. This also explains her penchant for setting her light classical repertoire to Hindustani classical tunes.
As was the custom then, Akhtar sang at mehfils or private performances and she broke with convention by giving her first public performance at the age of 21 in Calcutta at a charity event organised to raise funds for victims of the 1935 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. Begum Akhtar in one of her interviews recalls her first stage performance at the event, where initially she was not supposed to sing but a lot of singers didn't turn up at the last moment and the show was already sold out, she started panicking and started crying at the event and how her Ustad Ata Mohammed Khan suggested her to go to the stage herself and perform for the audience. She delivered an unforgettable performance and her renditions were heard all across the country.
Akhtar was destined and just after that concert, Jitendra Nath Ghosh of Megaphone Record Company offered her first album in Calcutta, which later released several gramophone records with her melodious ghazals, thumris and dadras. Her live mehfils were in the nature of a classical presentation with only the tabla, sitar and harmonium for accompaniment. People were moved by her voice and she gained immediate recognition.
It was only a matter of time before the world of celluloid discovered her, and she appeared in many Hindi movies in the 1930s, including Ameena (1934), Mumtaz Begum (1934), Jawaani Ka Nasha (1935) and Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1935). Even Mehboob Khan cast her in his film Roti in 1942. Like all other artists of the time, she sang her own songs in these films.
But Akhtar wasn’t seduced by the glitz and glam of the film world and, inspired by great musicians like Gauhar Jaan and Malak Jan, she decided to step away from the movies to come back to Lucknow to devote all her energy and time to Hindustani classical music.
On the personal front, Begum Akhtar married Nawab of Kakori Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi in 1945. A lawyer by profession and a connoisseur of Urdu poetry and music, Abbasi helped her appreciate the ghazals of Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Jigar Moradabadi, whose compositions she sang with passion.
Abbasi who was more like a guardian to her, is said to have barred her from singing for five years. Her voice stilled and her spirit broken, Akhtar slid into depression and she returned to singing only when it was prescribed as a remedy for her sinking spirits.
Akhtar thus returned after 8 years to Lucknow from Kakori to record on a request by the station director of AIR at Lucknow Radio station in the year 1953, but this time she reintroduced herself with a new name - Begum Akhtar, the name brought her own unique identity in the classical music space. She sang three ghazals and a dadra that day. It is said that she was so overcome at being able to sing again that she wept with joy.
Through her personal tumult and building a career in times that were, at best, inimicable to women, Akhtar made over 400 recordings in over more than forty years of her career, as she retained her reputation as the ‘queen of light classical music’.
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in his book ‘Master on Masters’ wrote about the lives and times of some of the greatest icons of Indian Classical music, where he writes about Begum Akhtar "Being classically trained, she sang with great confidence and ease. Each of her compositions was based on a raga. The speciality of her concerts was that regardless of the number of people in the audience, each person listening felt that she was singing just for them. The beauty of her performance lay in the fact that there were no frills or unnecessary ornamentation."
Akhtar delivered her last concert in Ahmedabad at the age of 60 but she took ill on stage and was rushed to a hospital. She died on October 30, 1974. Having already received the Padma Shri in 1968, Akhtar was posthumously conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1975.
The celebrated vocalist, whose ethereal and everlasting melodies and ghazals had captured the hearts of the nation, was buried in a grave next to her mother’s in a mango orchard at Pasanda Bagh, in Lucknow's Thakurganj area. Over the years, however, the garden has yielded to the urban sprawl as Akhtar’s grave was in need of immediate attention. In 2014, the marble tombs in a red brick enclosure were restored. These markers of Begum Akhtar may be in need to rescue but her voice, powerful and pregnant with pathos, will live on in our hearts forever.