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Essay

Begum Akhtar: The ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’

By Bhaskar Parichha

‘When I decided to be a singer, my mother warned me I’d be alone a lot. Basically we all are. Loneliness comes with life.’

-Whitney Houston

For Begum Akhtar loneliness came rather belatedly — after her marriage to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi. With marriage came the ban — no music, no concert. How can a Begum sing publicly?

However, Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was known before marriage, couldn’t have lived a day without a recital because she was born for it.

Her first guru was Ustad Imdad Khan, a great sarangi exponent. She was also trained under Ata Mohammed Khan. But it was in Kolkata in the early thirties that her musical career took a big twirl. She began learning music from such classical stalwarts like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and Ustad Jhande Khan. There was no going back after that.

Begum Akhtar gave her first public performance at a very early age — fifteen to be precise and she took the music world by storm.  Sarojini Naidu — the nightingale of India — was so moved   by Begum Akhtar’s singing during a concert organised in the aid of victims of Bihar earthquake that she prophesied the materialisation of a great singer in the young Akhtaribai.

Ghazal singing was Begum’s forte. She cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company in the mid-thirties followed by a number of gramophone records carrying her ghazalsdadrasthumris.  What is little known about the ‘Queen of Ghazals’ is that she was a feminist to the core.  Begum lived her life like no other woman till her death in 1974. She had dared to play around with the freedom to make choices in life, revealing a true feminist soul.

With the advent of the talkie era in India, Begum Akhtar acted in a few Hindi movies. In fact, she was the leading lady in films of those times. Ek Din Ka Badshah (An Emperor for a Day) was her first film produced by the East India Film Company of Calcutta. Then came Nala Damayanti (1933).  Like others of her genre, she herself sang her songs. She continued acting and there were a couple of memorable films to her credit: Ameena (1934), Mumtaz Begum (1934), Jawaani Ka Nasha (The Drunkenness of Youth, 1935), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (The Circle of Destiny, 1935). She acted in Roti (1942) — produced and directed by Mehboob Khan — for which she sang six ghazals. The music was composed by melody maestro Anil Biswas.

Begum Akhtar’s association with films continued even after a face-off with Mehboob Khan. Music Director Madan Mohan gave her a chance to sing in two of his films– Daana Paani (Food-Water,1953) and Ehsaan (Favour,1954). Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) was her very last role where she played the role of a classical singer. Begum Akhtar alternated between Bombay and Lucknow in pursuit of her career. She had a stint in theatre too. But her voice needed to be regularly hoisted up. So, she gave up acting in theatre.

Begum Akhtar’s voice matured with time, adding richness and depth. She sang ghazals and light classical pieces in her inimitable style. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit — an incredible inventory for someone who grew up amid harsh conditions.

A regular performer on All India Radio, she invariably composed her own ghazals and most of her compositions were raga– based. Begum Akhtar had a deep, husky and richly-timbered voice with nasal intonations. In her thumris she blended the Purab and Punjabi styles. She did not resort to taan patterns in a fast tempo. Her dadras were infused with a sprightly mood; her ghazals were thumri-oriented with much scope for improvisation.

The peculiar charm of her voice was easier felt than described. Hers was an extraordinary voice — not ‘round or petal-soft but angular and pincer-like.’ She was known to use a momentary split in her voice, called ‘patti’, which appeared like a crack in the upper register. It is said that her admirers waited for the ‘patti’ to come out when she sang.
Begum Akhtar was a scholar of Urdu poetry too. Her favorite poets were Ghalib, Dadh, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jigar Moradabadi, Shakeel Badayuni, and Kaifi Azmi. Many small poets rose to prominence when she selected their lyrics. It speaks highly of her music that she had an impressive following even in regions where Urdu or Hindi was not properly understood. In later years she sang in Bengali and Gujarati too. She taught for a trice at the Bhatkhande College of Music in Lucknow. Her disciples included Shanti Hiranand, Rita Ganguly, Vasundhara Pandit, and Rekha Surya.

The singing sensation’s last concert was held in Ahmedabad. It was here that she fell ill and had to be rushed to a hospital. Death came her way on the 30th of October, 1974 leaving a big void in ghazal singing. She was posthumously awarded the Padmabhushan, the third highest civilian award in India.

Begum Akhtar’s name is synonymous with the notion of ghazal gaayaki*. She immortalized her own definitive style of singing — a style that few have been able to be equivalent. She is fittingly called — Mallika-e-Ghazal.

*The mode of rendition

Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies.His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 

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