Ghazals have always fascinated me, despite the fact that I hardly know much about them. I like them for their poetry, for the enchantment of Urdu words flowing out in exquisite, soulful melody, for the way the verses build up, weaving themselves into narratives that seem deeply personal to the singer, yet reach out and touch the audience. Narratives that speak of pain, loss, loneliness, longing… personal tragedy by any other name.
Yet, I had never heard of Begum Akhtar, or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, until one evening last week when Shiva and I went to watch Team Malhaar rehearsing for ‘Hayee Akhtari’, a Broadway-styled musical that pays tribute to the musical legacy of India’s ‘Malika-e-Ghazal’ whose birth centenary celebrations end this October.
It was Jogiraj Sikidar, the person behind the show concept as well as the Founder and Director of Malhaar, who narrated the story of this amazing woman. A true story that is stranger than anything that human imagination could have come up with. (See below.)
Begum Akhtar’s journey is of personal significance to Jogiraj, as he is the disciple of Rita Ganguly, who was tutored by the Ghazal queen herself.
Opening at 7:30 pm on Friday 18th September, 2015 at Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, Malhaar’s Hayee Akhtari is anecdotal, based on the reminiscences of Begum Akhtar’s pupil Rita Ganguli. The musical aims to explore the many facets of her unique persona, apart from showcasing the vast treasury of music she left behind.
Malhaar promises to transport the audience to ‘Lucknow’s Nawaabi era with rich and elaborate costumes and spectacular visual effects’, besides treating the senses with the Ghazals, Thumris and Dadras made immortal by the Begum herself. Now that’s what I call a tempting package!
The vision behind Malhaar and the team’s dedication (they are all professionals working in unrelated fields sharing a common passion for the theatre and performance arts) are beyond question, and their ambition to have a wholesome ‘Made in Dubai’ production is commendable in itself. Having watched their beautiful presentation of ‘Draupadi’ last year, I have high hopes on Hayee Akhtari.
Besides, I have always had a not-so-secret crush on all things ‘Nawaabi’ since the day I watched ‘Umrao Jaan’ (the Rekha-Farooq Sheikh one, I mean) a few decades ago… Sigh!
Begum Akhtar’s Story, as provided by Malhaar:
There are many parallels and influences that could predetermine the course of one’s destiny, and yet, every human comes fitted with two divine gifts – that of one’s calling and that of one’s free will. Some discover it early, and some at later date – but be that as it may, this pair of unseen wings chafe at the spirit and flutter away until one dares to embark on a singular quest … on a path riddled with hurdles and hurt … but one that just as often creates gifts that become the wealth of our world.
Begum Akhtar’s immortal songs symbolize her gift to our world and remind one of the poem of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
“God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
that they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
On the 7th of October 1914, Bibbi Sayyed and her twin Zohra were born into a wealthy, upper class family with no inclination towards music. Her place of birth was Bada Darwaza, Town Bhadarsa, Bharatkund, Faizabad – the once beautiful capital of the state of Avadh and the city filled with the beautiful buildings and gardens by the fabled Bahu Begum, beloved wife Nawab Shuja ud Daulah!
Her father, Asghar Hussain, a young lawyer who fell in love with her mother Mushtari and made her his second wife, subsequently disowned her and his twin daughters Zohra and Bibbi.
In a biography of Begum Akhtar, “her father abandoned her, her mother and twin sister, a parting that led to a constant search for approval from her father, and one that she never ever got. At the age of 4, the siblings were poisoned and Begum Akhtar survived but her sister died, and a second parting left an indelible mark of sorrow on Akhtari Bai’s soul. Poverty began as did a series of abusive relationships. At age 13, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter Shamima whom she could never acknowledge as her child and always called her sister!”
These traumas shaped a life full of melancholy that was channeled into the most divine music.
Her early musical influences included the vocals of touring singer Chandra Bai. Later, she was influenced by Jaddan Bai (the mother of famous actress Nargis). Her partiality to music and particularly to singing was visible even in infancy and so, at a very early age, and at her uncle’s behest, she was sent to study classical music with Ustad Imdad Khan, the renowned sarangi exponent.
As she grew, she travelled with her mother to Kolkata to continue her studies with such great classicists as Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan. She finally became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan.
Somewhere along the path of learning, Bibbi Sayyed or Akhtar was christened Akhtari Bai Faizabadi by another of her gurus, thumri and khayal singer Ustad Zamiruddin.
She was 11 when she had her first performance in Kolkata and with her rendition she simply mesmerized her audience. At this particular concert was another historic debutante – Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan.
She was just about crossing out of her teens and dazzlingly beautiful, when she sang to help raise funds for the victims of the Bihar Earthquake of 1934. It was here that she was greeted with “stunned applause by the audience”, who did not let her leave the stage until she sang four ghazals and five dadras at a stretch.
Among the audience was a titanic figure of the era, Sarojini Naidu, also known as the ‘Nightingale of India’, who not only lavished praise upon this young singer but sent her a khadi sari in appreciation of her performance and that was as momentous as the standing ovation she got at her first concert.
The day after the concert Akhtari was hailed as a prodigy by the newspapers.
As a young artiste, she sang for the Megaphone Record Company, which turned her fortune around. Having grown up in poverty, the monthly salary of Rs 500 which the record company paid her was significant; it got her a house in Kolkata’s Ripon Street and even a car.
She became a much recorded artiste and her beauty and grace had the film producers and directors of the time flocking to her door with opportunities to act in a number of films in which she sang her own songs. One of these films was “Roti” for which director Mehboob Khan approached her.
The music director was Anil Biswas under whose baton she sang six ghazals. The film was released in 1942 and its message and music enthused and impacted one and all.
Begum Akhtar’s good looks and sensitive voice made her an ideal candidate for a film career in her early years. When she heard great musicians like Gauhar Jaan and Malak Jan, however, she decided to forsake the glamour of the film world for a career in Indian classical music.
Her supreme artistry in light classical music had its moorings in the tradition of pure classicism. She chose her repertoire in primarily classical modes: a variety of raags, ranging from simple to complex.
One of her most ardent fans, Nawab of Rampur Raza Ali Khan owned a seven-stringed necklace of Basra pearls in the Rampur collection, from which hung a large diamond pendant. The Nawab was often heard saying, “If there is anything more lustrous than that diamond, it is the smile of Akhtari.”
In 1945, Begum Akhtar was married to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and gave up singing to build a home and family. Several miscarriages and deep depression had her fall ill.
Even her doctors recognized that her only medicine could be music and so, almost five years after her marriage, in 1949, she returned to record at the Lucknow Radio station and sang three Ghazals and a dadra.
Such was her joy that she wept and from that point forward she continued to give public performances and sing in concerts till heaven demanded her presence, in concert.
Begum Akhtar was persuaded by the outstanding music director Madan Mohan, to sing in two movies “Daana Paani” (1953) and “Ehsaan” (1954). The songs “Aye Ishq Mujhe Aur to Kuch Yaad” and “Hamein Dil Mein Basa Bhi Lo” became anthems in popularity.
The last film she acted and sang in was Satyajit Ray’s internationally acclaimed “Jalsa Ghar” released in 1958.
She acted on stage as well. However, the theatre required for her to raise her voice so that she could be heard at the back. Since her voice was adversely affected by it, she had to give up theatre.
Begum Akhtar was often referred to as the Malika-e-Ghazal or Rooh-e-Ghazal – as tribute to her inimitable style of singing and fluid ease of rendition. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit and would mostly compose her own raag-based ghazals. She also sang in several languages including Gujarati and Bengali. One of my favourites is the enduring Bengali classical song “Jochona Koreche Aari” (জোছনা করেছে আড়ি).
As a person, she was as graceful as she was a free spirit and outright charmer! She had a ready laugh and smoked and drank and had lovers and feared loneliness because it brought back harsh memories and the terrifying melancholy they induced.
There were rumours about her being a Tawaiif – a courtesan – a derogatory, almost humiliating term used for women who sang in public during those times. These rumours appear even in write ups to this day – 41 years after her passing but they follow a line of conjecture based on the conditioning of yore!
Her life is proof enough to rebut this.
Begum Akhtar performed last in a concert in Ahmedabad on the 26th of October 1974. On that particular day, she was unwell to begin with and felt that her voice was not up to the mark. So she raised her pitch and this put such stress on her that she suffered a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital.
She breathed her last on 30th October 1974, leaving her fans dazed and heartbroken. She was buried next to her mother Mushtari Begum in the mango orchard of her home “Pasanda Bagh” in Lucknow.
Every human comes fitted with two divine gifts – that of one’s calling and that of one’s free will. Some discover it early, and some at later date – but be that as it may, this pair of unseen wings chafe at the spirit and flutter away until one dares to embark on a singular quest … on a path riddled with hurdles and hurt … but one that just as often creates gifts that become the wealth of our world.
Her life inspires, her voice is a constant in the lives of her fans and her influence remains immortal. Indeed, her musical legacy is a glorious part of our inheritance!
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