In an old record I once heard, the song ended with a voice saying, `Mera naam Akhtari Bai Faizabad’. This announce ment by the singer was the norm in the 1930s. Today, it’s difficult to reconcile the name `Akhtari Bai’ with all its connotations of the `kotha’ and `tawaif’ and Padma Bhushan Begum Akhtar. But this best defines the remarkable journey of one of India‘s finest ghazal singers.Begum Akhtar was born on October 7, 1914 in Faizabad, the old capital of Awadh in Uttar Pradesh. Her mother, Mushtari Bai, was a singer but money was scarce. There were few openings for a single mother with two daughters. Akhtari’s own recollections of her father are shadowy and her descriptions of her childhood are tinged with melancholy, a hint of which resonated in her music for most of her life. When Akhtari was four, her twin sister died. When a fire destroyed their house, mother and daughter moved to Gaya to live with her uncle Yusuf Hussain.
Mushtari was determined to provide her daughter the opportunities that she herself had been denied. Akhtari began training, first with Ustad Imdad Khan, and later with Ustad Ata Muhammad Khan. In truth, classical singing was not Akhtari’s forte. She enjoyed the freedom of singing folk songs, thumri, dadara and the ghazal. With finances dwindling, Mushtari and her daughter moved to Calcutta. It was the cultural capital of India and Mushtari hoped that it would provide better earning opportunities for them. A programme had been organised for the victims of the Bihar earthquake. When some of the expected artists did not turn up, Akhtari, then only 15, was suddenly thrust on to the stage.With a silent prayer she began to sing.
Akhtari’s voice was noticed by the owner of Megaphone Records J N Ghosh, who recognising her talent, recorded a number of songs by `Miss Akhtari Bai’. Yet despite this initial break, Mushtari felt that her daughter was not getting the recognition that she deserved.She took her daughter to a pir who blessed her and asked Akhtari to open her book of songs.He then placed his hand on the open page and asked her to sing that particular song at her next recording. The song was `Diwana banana hai toh diwana bana de’ (Drive me mad, if you need to madden me). The song took listeners by storm. Its impact may best be illustrated by this anecdote by Bismillah Khan. He told me that late one night when he was asleep at home he heard the song being played on the radio somewhere. He shot up awake mesmerised by the voice. In later life, Bismillah Khan and Begun Akhtar shared a great camaraderie. She was one of the few people he was comfortable with, someone teas ing and laughing with her.
By this time well established in the world of music, Akhtari found a place in the world of theatre. The Urdu Parsi theatre welcomed her for she was an actor who was young, attractive and could also sing. She became `Miss Akhtari Bai Filmstar’ Begum Akhtar’s restless temperament and free spirit took her to many places. She became the star of the court of the Nawab of Rampur, Nawab Raza Ali, himself a poet and connoisseur of music. He was apparently besotted by her intoxicating combination of youth, beauty, talent and charm. He built a house for her just outside the palace hoping that she would sing for him alone. But Akhtari was not one to be so confined. She left for Bombay. The filmmaker Mehboob Khan cast her in his film, Roti. Her co-star, Sitara Devi told me that she was the quintessential `princess’ who could not endure the hardships of frequent takes and retakes. “In one shot the hero, Sheikh Mukhtar, had to pick her up. But after a few retakes she began to cry and complained that this was causing her pain in her ribs!’ Akhtari left Bombay soon after, after finding it impersonal once hinting that she had suffered heartbreak in the city. Back in Lucknow, she restarted her training under Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan. Endless hours of riyaz and her inherent talent gradually placed her among the upper echelons of singers and musicians.Her voice was not perfect. It spanned a single octave and a note higher, her voice broke. But for her admirers that in itself made her voice unique. As Bismillah Khan said, “Her voice was flawed. But that was the beauty of it. I would wait patiently for her voice to crack as she approached the higher notes and when it came, I would exclaim, `Wah! This is what I wanted to hear!’“ At the height of her career, Akhtari had acclaim, fame and money. But now she wanted security.
Ishtiaq Abbasi came from one of the better known families of Lucknow. When he proposed to her she said yes. He had however one condition: after marriage, Akhtari must not sing in public. Akhtari had become `Begum Akhtar’ but the decision cost her dear. Without music Begum Akhtar was lost. Her longing for a child was also denied to her again and again. At about this time her mother, the one constant in her life, passed away. Akhtari fell into a state of depression.Seeing her so her husband relented. She could sing again in public, but he requested that she not sing in Lucknow, a request she honoured.The popularity of Begum Akhtar reflected the popularity of the ghazal. She had lifted the musical form from the narrow lanes and claustrophobic rooms of the `kotha’ and taken it to concert halls across the country.
At home in Lucknow, Begum Akhtar took on a select group of students. But as one of her best known shagirds Shanti Hiranand recalled, she was an artist not a teacher. “Her methods were unorthodox. There were no fixed hours. She sang as and when the muse beckoned. She would sing for hours together and told me to learn by listening. Sometimes if I got a note wrong she would threaten to throw the harmonium at me! And yet she was the most loving, generous ustad one could have.“
But there was some deep sadness within her. “One rainy morning she began to sing, `Chha rahi kaali ghata, jiya mora leharaye hai’,“ recalls Hiranand. “She sang non-stop for hours, and all the while tears flowed down her cheeks. All my questions were to no avail.That morning there was only the rain and her song. One could only guess at the depths of emotion that found expression in her music that day.“ A major reason for Begum Akhtar’s command over the ghazal was her love and knowledge of Urdu poetry, many illustrious poets of her day writing lyrics specially for her. This, and a flawless diction, were a felicitous combination that justified the title of `Mallika-e-Ghazal’, a position unchallenged even 40 years after her death. Her music transcended caste, creed, age, religion, political and geographical boundaries.
On October 30, 1974 Begum Akhtar was performing at a concert in Ahmedabad. She had been unwell all day. After the concert she suffered a fa tal heart attack. Her body was brought to Lucknow and laid to rest next to her mother’s grave. I had met Begum Akhtar only once.
At the end of the perforckstage to meet her. She was mance I went backstage to meet her. She was relaxed, with a cigarette in her hand. Years later, when I was doing research for my film on her, I discovered that drink was also a regular part of her evening routine. Her smoking often raised comments. But when an admirer asked her how she could reconcile her singing with the packet of cigarette always by her side, she apparently replied with a smile that she didn’t sing from her throat any way.
The writer is producer, Aye Mohabbat, a film on Begum Akhtar