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Begum Akhtar: The legend and the woman

Sathya Saran | Updated on May 25, 2021

Like a nightingale: Even now, 47 years after her death, Begum Akhtar’s voice spins its magic on all who tune in

Composer Madan Mohan cried at her grave, the raja of Ayodhya sent his Mercedes to fetch her for palace soirees: The editor of a book on Begum Akhtar opens new windows to the life and times of the celebrated singer

* Akhtari Bai Faizabadi — better known to us as Begum Akhtar — led a life so colourful that legends were spun around it

* Though she had a bevy of suitors — among them Raza Ali Khan, the Nawab of Rampur — she longed for domestic happiness

* Shruti Sadolikar tells us she learnt the importance of pain in music from Begum Akhtar

* Shubha Mudgal’s essay tries to unravel the magic of her singing

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Her very name stirs up interest, not only in those who have heard her songs, but also in others who have only heard the stories. And indeed Akhtari Bai Faizabadi — better known to us as Begum Akhtar — led a life so colourful that legends were spun around it. And legends have a way of weaving in fiction with fact, creating an image that often overwhelms the person it seeks to glorify.

The Life and Music of Begum Akhtar / Edited by Yatindra Mishra / Translated by Maneesha Taneja / Non-fiction / Harper Collins India / ₹699

 

Much has been written about her, but a new volume — Akhtari: The life and music of Begum Akhtar — is an attempt to present the facts of the singer’s life and art, through small personal details. Edited by Yatindra Mishra and originally written Hindi, it opens up many windows to the genius and life of the ghazal and thumri singer — with essays by, among others, academic Saleem Kidwai, musician Aneesh Pradhan and writer Rakshanda Jalal. Embedded in between the longer essays are gems by Lata Mangeshkar and others.

Despite being the daughter of one of Lucknow’s elites, her mother’s profession as a courtesan and her own illegitimacy forced her to grow up fatherless. Mushtaribai, Akhtari’s mother, took it on herself to ensure her daughter was groomed in music by the best teachers as she moved from city to city. Young Akhtari acted in a series of films where she had singing parts. But the pull of music was stronger and she decided to leave the heat of the arc lamps for the comfort of baithaks where she could sing to her heart’s content and bask in the glow of her listeners’ appreciation.

Though she had a bevy of suitors — among them Raza Ali Khan, the Nawab of Rampur — she longed for domestic happiness. She went on to marry Istiaq Ahmed Abbasi, a London-educated lawyer from a zamindari family, who supported her when she decided to give up singing and backed her when she ached to start recitals again. In fact, his support ensured she returned to the musical scene as Begum Akhtar, a respected singer whose concerts were attended by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who gave her a standing ovation. Her elegant demeanour, sparkling kohl-rimmed eyes, teasing nose ring and toothsome smile and the twists and turns her voice took as she glided through semi classical compositions or the lines of ghazals she set to music added grist to the legend mill.

Even now, almost 47 years after her death, Begum Akhtar’s voice spins its magic on all who tune in; her legend lives on. Editor Mishra, whose earlier works include Lata: Sur Gatha on the singer Lata Mangeshkar, tells BLink about his interest in Begum Akhtar. “I realised it was important to bring out her story... not only of her songs and music but her amazing life.”

Excerpts from the interview:

What was it about Begum Akhtar that fascinated you enough to make her the subject of your book?

I was fascinated by her personality. Despite being from a tawaif’s family, she looked ahead and carved her own path — learning from four major teachers of different disciplines, living in Hazratganj, and emerging from a pathetic background to become a diva. I realised it was important to bring out the story of this artiste ... not only of her songs and music but her amazing life.

Some of the stories in your essays are astounding. Like the gift of 50 acres of land which she gave back to a raja when she left his princely state. Where have you sourced these stories from?

I spent a lot of time on research. Begum was our Durbar Gayika in the palace in Ayodhya. My grandmother, Vimla Devi, the last princess of Ayodhya and herself a fine musician, used to tell me these stories of her first-hand experiences listening to and knowing Begum Akhtar. We have court records of gifts and other such details. I have used all that material in my essays.

What frame of time did your Hindi original take?

I tend to linger over my research. The book on Lataji took seven years; my next one, on Gulzar Sahab, took 13. This took two years of searching, assigning, writing my pieces. Vaani Prakash published that, and HarperCollins got the translations done [by Taneja Maneesha Mishra]. Of course some of the essays, like the ones by Rakshanda Jalal and Shubha Mudgal, were originally in English.

Do you feel some of the nuances of writing on music in Hindi are lost in translation?

It surely happens in every translation. It’s the problem with different ways each language is expressed and no fault of the translator who effects the best possible transliteration. But tell me how can any English word carry the full meaning of the word Kambakht, where the swear word was used as a term of endearment whenever Ustad Bismillah Khan used it to refer to the unique break that characterised Begum Akhtar’s voice?

Where did you research the material for the essays written by you?

As mentioned, in our own palace archives. But there were many other sources. I got the story of the Mercedes Benz being sent to ferry her to the palace from there. Dadi’s father, Raja Narayan Pratap Singh, used to send his Merc to fetch Begum in 1938-1945 for mehfils at the durbar. I went through AIR archives, museums, Sangeet Natak Akademi archives, newspapers, to find treasures such as Uma Vasudev’s article in the Patriot, November 10, 1974.

The book is divided into segments. Is there a reason why?

Yes. There’s a section about her life, and another of the interviews and treatises on her singing style etc. Each reveals a different aspect. Shruti Sadolikar tells us she learnt the importance of pain in music from Begum Akhtar. Her disciples, Shanti Hiranand and Rita Ganguly, have spoken about her without holding back. There are all precious stories that reveal her nature as an artiste and teacher, as well as a woman. Shubha Mudgal’s essay tries to unravel the magic of Begum Akhtar’s singing; she talks in detail on how without gimmickry Begum Akhtar used to sing lines in a single octave and yet, with slight variations between the couplets, add the element of unpredictability. Again she analyses the singer’s abundant use of twists, curves, loops and murkis in her rendition of Deewana banana hai ... and how she used her voice to chisel each embellishment. I felt another singer alone could write the piece. And of course a very important interview of Begum Akhtar by Archarya Kailash Chandra Dev Brihaspati is also added verbatim.

So, are you happy with the collection you have managed to put together?

I have done my best. I included tiny one-page stories if they showed some aspect of Begum Akhtar or the way she was perceived by her fans. Like the story of [composer] Madan Mohan crying at her grave; I thought it was important. I have had to sift through a lot of rumours and false stories, scandals added to spice up the telling, and stick to what I knew was true and verified. I hope I have done justice in my effort to keep a great artiste’s memory alive.

Sathya Saran is a Mumbai-based journalist, editor and author

Published on May 25, 2021

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