Once the toast of cultural circles, artistes and musicians often slip out of public memory as soon as they quit the stage. The late Begum Akhtar still rules hearts in the world of classical music, but in her home State, Uttar Pradesh, her soul-stirring voice has all but faded from the minds of music lovers. In fact, even as preparations are on nationally to celebrate her centenary year - in 2014 - the place of her birth and musical taleem (education) remains oblivious to her legacy.

But that may change soon if 80-year-old Shanti Hiranand has her way. A student of the great vocalist, Shanti has teamed up with fans of Begum Akhtar to revisit her work and has even restored her grave, which once lay forgotten in old Lucknow’s Thakurganj area.

Born in Faizabad, Begum Akhtar later moved to Lucknow and made it her home. She passed away here in 1974 aged 60 and is buried at a two-grave cemetery next to her mother, Mushtari Sahiba.

Says Shanti, “Begum Akhtar was my guru, guide and mentor, ever since I came to her to learn singing in 1957. She passed away while performing at a concert in Ahmedabad. I was lucky to have trained under her in the traditional styles of thumri, dadra and ghazal, but I learnt a lot more than that from her. She had a charming way of connecting with her audience. But the neglect her memory has been subjected to was painful for me and some other fans, so we decided to do something about it.”

She began by focusing on the restoration of her guru’s last resting place. Realising it would cost a lot, she began her rounds of the Ministry of Culture. She even approached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for help. Finally, the Department of Archaeology released Rs 5 lakh for the project, but that was not enough.

Things looked up after the Sadbhavana Trust of Lucknow came on board. Madhavi Kukereja, the local head of the trust, of which writer Salim Kidwai is a founder-member, recalls that when her janaza (funeral procession) was being taken, Shanti Hiranand and Salim Kidwai, two of her closest confidants, were there. The then Chief Minister, H. N. Bahuguna, had promised that the singer’s memory will be kept alive but nothing came of it. “Her house was sold in no time and even the name plaques were removed. In this way, her very existence was wiped out. But Shanti aapa had made a promise to Begum Akhtar on her deathbed that she would ensure her memory and musical legacy carried on.”

As the Mallika-e-Ghazal had wished to be buried in an open space, she was laid to rest in a mango orchard within her home, ‘Pasanda Bagh’; but over the years, the orchard disappeared, thanks to land grabbing and illegal colonies coming up all around. The graves of Begum Akhtar and her mother fell into complete neglect.

In 2010, during a concert organised by the Sadbhavana Trust, Shanti appealed to the people of Lucknow to do something to revive the veteran singer’s memory in her own city. “The total cost of the renovation was estimated at Rs 7.5 lakh… we are still to raise the remaining Rs 2.5 lakh. Although we have approached the Uttar Pradesh government once again for support, it has not responded to our request,” says Madhavi.

Had it not been for an enthusiastic Delhi-based architect, Ashish Thapar, who offered his expertise pro bono for the project, things would not have moved forward. “I belong to Lucknow and I have grown up here… I always wanted to do something for my city. So when Madhavi approached me with the idea of renovating Begum Akhtar’s grave, I was ready. I am a big fan, and here was my chance to do something creative for a great cause and, that too, for my hometown and its people,” says Thapar.

Like many others, Thapar was surprised to discover that Begum Akthar was from Lucknow. “I had no idea she had lived in the old city. Although I was working against constraints of time and space, my heart and soul was with this project and people too responded in a very supportive way,” he says.

But it was no easy task, as the graves lay amidst encroached land. Years of neglect had confined them to a tiny piece of land behind a rickety gate that was unapproachable. “Based on the kind of person she was, the life she led and the ideology she lived by, I got an idea of what she would have wanted for her final resting place. A white-and-black makarana marble carved in Mughal inlay style was the ideal choice for the grave,” says Thapar.

He collaborated with his friend Parag Pradhan, an architect specialising in marble inlay work. “Having grown up listening to her thumris and ghazals, I was more than happy to get involved. When I got to know the budget was limited and fans were donating their services, I decided to join in by designing the cover of the grave. My inspiration came from the motifs used in the Red Fort in Delhi,” says Pradhan.

The work was completed in time to mark her birth anniversary. A candlelight tribute was organised and the grave was turned into a public space in November 2012. That glittering night, in the presence of her fans, Shanti gave voice to some of the legend’s popular ghazals, thumris and dadras.

Besides keeping Begum Akhtar’s work alive through performances, Shanti now has the satisfaction of giving Lucknow a permanent monument to the singer’s greatness.

© Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on December 13, 2012)
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