Categories
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. 

Categories
Review

Silence between the Notes

Title: Silence between the Notes – Anthology of Partition Poetry

Selected, edited and introduced by Aftab Husain and Sarita Jenamani

Book Review by Namrata

Despite being more than seven decades old, Partition continues to be raw and unflinching. Endless books and movies have tried to capture its pain and enigma and yet there seems to be so much more that needs to be told about that one incident that changed so many lives, forever.

Silence between the Notes is an anthology of Partition poetry which includes contributions from Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, English, Hindi, Bengali and Kashmiri languages. It is a unique collection as this is the first book which is extensive, representative and inclusive of it all. Selected, edited and introduced by Aftab Husain and Sarita Jenamani, this anthology promises to bring forward the voices which had perhaps got lost somewhere in all the noise that followed Partition.

Sarita Jenamani is a poet based in Vienna who writes in English, Hindi and Odia, her mother tongue. A general secretary of the Austrian chapter of PEN international, she is also the co-editor and publisher of the bilingual literary magazine Words and Worlds.

An eminent name on modern Ghazal poetry from South Asia, Aftab Husain writes in Urdu, English and German. His poems have been translated into many languages. Apart from being a member of the Austrian chapter of PEN international, he is also the co-editor of the bilingual literary magazine, Words and Worlds.

When India was declared independent, the joyous news was also followed by the sad news of Partition of India into two countries, India and Pakistan. What followed was mass migration of lakhs of people as Muslims in India migrated to Pakistan while Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan migrated to India, all in a hope for better tomorrow. Nobody knew how this supposed call for betterment led to so much blood shed on both the sides that till date, the cries and blood stains can be heard and seen.  Was it religion or was it politics, no one can say! All one can say is that the wound is too deep for even time to heal it.

My soul quivered at the sight of human blood, spilled here and there

Like beasts, men madly roamed at city’s every thoroughfare.

(‘The Partition’, Maikash Ambalvi)

Picking up gems from different languages ranging from Urdu and Kashmiri to Bengali and Sindhi, this collection of ninety-one poems is a heart-wrenching read. One cannot read this collection without feeling that pinch in their heart and sensing a lump in their throat on this poignant portrayal of the incidents that happened before, on and after Partition. The beauty, irrespective of the language they were written in and despite being translated, leaves one unnerved.

With works of stalwarts like Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Amrita Pritam, Agha Shahid Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Keki Daruwalla and many others featured therein, these poems are strung together with the thread of hope binding them. Taking us through the conflict they witnessed, heard or experienced, the poems in this collection make you witness the trauma inflicted upon through Partition. One can almost hear the sobs and feel that fear undergone through these pages.

Even in some of the darkest stanzas it is difficult to miss the tiny glimmer of hope in the hearts of the poets. Like that ladies who tied pillows on their waists and stomachs to protect themselves, or the one where they talk about how trains arrived at stations but the names of the places had been changed, leaving them unidentifiable. These poems talk endlessly about kind neighbours who took them in and protected them or that random stranger who had offered them food. There might be pain in their words and through ink, they might be giving form to their blood and tears shed at that time. However, their voices are trying hard to hold onto hope.  As Sarita Jenamani’s poem, ’70 years later’ begins,

‘August is the cruelest month

It drags us

To a butchery

Plastered with mirrors-

Mirrors of the ancestral rage’

And ends with,

‘August in a month of monsoon

And monsoon brings

A maze of hope’

If someone were to ask, whom did the Partition benefit, there would be pin-drop silence in response. This is the same eerie silence that reflects out in the title of the book ‘Silence between the notes’. Each poem, each stanza, every word is followed by a pause which is reverberating with questions but sadly, has no answers. This silence is also reminiscent within the moments when the reader pauses reading the book briefly after finishing one poem, just to regain composure and start reading it again.

Today, almost seventy years later, we are still at a point where the harsh memories of this incident have chained us and sadly, there are times, when we see the signs of it reoccurring around us clearly pushing us further down the abyss. The only thing that helps us stay afloat is that we have hope, for a better tomorrow, for a kinder world and for humanity to prevail above it all.

Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at privytrifles@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.