Could Akhtari Bai, a charming tawaif who blossomed into the nationally loved singer Begum Akhtar, be called a feminist?

In the centenary year of this legendary singer of ghazal and thumri, her hometown Lucknow is mulling this question after a local women’s group commemorated her as one of the region’s iconic feminists.

“Begum Akhtar would not have understood the term ‘feminist’,” observes historian Saleem Kidwai. Although, having known her personally, he asserts that the singer had lived life on her own terms until her death in 1974, revealing a true feminist soul.

He suspects that Begum Akhtar would have broken into helpless giggles and thought it a great joke to be called a feminist, despite the fact that she had so smartly stepped away from the crippling circumstances of her birth and dared to be different.

When Madhavi Kuckreja and her team at Sanatkada, a non-profit organisation for women, were planning their annual cultural event, they decided to celebrate the life and times of Lucknow’s famous daughter on her 100th birth anniversary; and the lives of other women who have all but been forgotten by history.

But is Begum Akhtar truly a feminist? After all, she earned the title of begum, or lady, only after marriage to a ‘respectable’ lawyer. She was born into a community seen as one of the abettors of patriarchy.

Although, like all tawaifs , she came from a matrilineal society. Children were known by their mother’s name, and the community celebrated the birth of the girl child. Daughters inherited property, controlled incomes and moved around town with freedom. In 19th century Lucknow, the tawaif enjoyed a status that was perhaps superior to that of the so-called respectable women of the elite for they had their own income.

But would building fortunes by indulging the vanity of patriarchs and patriarchs-in-waiting be termed feminism?

Born in 1914, Begum Akhtar was the only child of Mukhtari Bai, a small-time tawaif in Faizabad. Kidwai says the mother was called Bade Sahib (‘his highness’) by the household, which was terrified of her tyrannical ways. From a young age, Akhtari Bai’s earnings from song and dance had supported the family.

When her very attractive daughter joined the Hindi film industry in Bombay and started enjoying late-night rides with friends on Marine Drive and moonlit picnics on Juhu beach, Mukhtari Bai was in a state of panic. Afraid of losing the goose that had laid so many golden eggs for her, she summoned her daughter and regained control over her life.

But Akhtari Bai managed to escape the matriarchal hold by arranging a marriage for herself into high society. She did this knowing that the price of respectability was a life in purdah , and giving up the arts and individual freedom. Perhaps Begum Akhtar’s feminism lay precisely in her understanding of all this. After her marriage, she charmed her way into the hearts of those who mattered and was soon considered an equal by even the most supercilious. She did all this, but she never lost the freedom to be herself. She reigned over classical arts with her unforgettable ghazals, thumris and dadras.

Her manners were impeccable and she was loved for her generosity. She may not have seen herself as one, but Begum Akhtar was nevertheless a feminist because she consciously created a path for herself using her tremendous talent, but without compromising on her dignity. She was unconventional and fearless in asserting her choices despite her gender.

(© Women’s Feature Service)

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