To round off this mini-series of women singers who better to take center stage than Akhtari Bai Faizabadi or as she was known by her stage name, Begum Akhtar.
Begum Akhtar was the real thing when it came to thumri, dadra and ghazal. Unlike Lata Mangeshkar and Meena Kumari who sang and acted ‘like’ courtesans (tawaif) in films such as Pakeezah, Begum Akhtar was one of the last links to that north Indian mujra culture that has so captured the imaginations of writers, historians and artists for the past 150 years.
Born in the small mofussil town of Faizabad about 100 kilometers from Lucknow, the great center of late-Mughal north Indian culture and art, Akhtari Bai’s life was not too far off from the conflicted story of Sahibjaan depicted in Pakeezah. The tawaif’s life was lived in a tough triangle of lust, shame and desire (for respectability). Many a man with means, social backing and unrealistic expectations tried their hand at taming the shrew.
In the early 20th century a young Faizabad lawyer fell in ‘love’ with and married a tawaif but soon tired of her (and one assumes, the social opprobrium). Like a villainous lover in the Bollywood melodrama, he abandoned his wife and two young daughters, including one named Bibbi. Bibbi had an ear for a melody and a relative arranged for her to study with Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan. Under his tutelage Akhtari Bai gained a grounding in thumri, khayal and dadra as well as ghazal. Her sweet voice and good looks were perfectly suited to a film career and though she did act and sing in several films she quickly chose the path of classical music.
At the age of 31 Akhtari Bai, in her own bid for respectability, married a successful Lucknow lawyer who immediately imposed a ban on her singing in public. The girl who had been raised in a mileu of song and dance, who had studied and perfected several styles of semi-classical singing and who neither knew nor wanted any other life, was silenced. Again, one need not think too long before the mind turns to any of a hundred cruel screen husbands from Bombay.
Begum Akhtar’s spirit wilted and she became sick. Physicians at last recommended that her only hope was to return to singing and her husband relented. On the day after she recorded her first ghazals after 4 years of imposed silence, she wept in the studio. In the remaining years of her life she went on to perform regularly on All India Radio, TV and stages all across India. She earned the name Queen of the Ghazal. The great Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi is quoted as saying “The word ghazal has two meanings: Begum Akhtar.”
Tonight’s choice is a collection of 6 ghazals recorded 5 years before her death in 1974. All are fine examples of her command of melody and rhythm, with so many great performances. My own favorite being Ilaahi kaash gham-e-ishq.
01 Kuchh Duniyan ki Inayaat ne Dil Tod Diya
02 Ab To Yahi Hain
03 Bazm se Unki
04 Ab Chalakte Hue Saaghar
05 Kis Se Poochain
06 Ilahi Kaash Gham-e-Ishq