Remembering Begum Akhtar

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Young Akhtari Bai Faizabadi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Begum Akhtar. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Nirmal Chander, the director of the documentary "Zikr us parivash ka" (left), with his cinematographer Ranjan Palit. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Shanti Hiranand, Begum Akhtar's first pupil, reminiscing on camera about her Ammi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Kathak dancer Ruchi Khare playing the role of a "tawaif" in an aristocrat's private "mehfil" in the documentary. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Nirmal Chander’s documentary focusses on the essentials of Begum Akhtar’s music and her rise to greatness in the feudal ambience of pre-Independence U.P.

BEGUM AKHTAR was the last of the great light classical singers in Hindustani music. The pain and sensuality in her voice, along with its sureelapan (tunefulness), made her an exceptional interpreter of thumri, dadra and ghazal. When she died in Ahmedabad on October 30, 1974, she was just 60 years old. She had lived life to the fullest and went just when she was on the verge of a burnout.

Nirmal Chander, a talented, innovative and enterprising film-maker, has made a truly fine, restrained documentary on Begum Akhtar that focusses almost exclusively on her music rather than on her mercurial personality or her turbulent private life. He was commissioned by the Sangeet Natak Akademi to make Zikr us parivash ka to celebrate Begum Akhtar’s 100th birth anniversary in 2014. The title of the film is a line from one of Mirza Ghalib’s celebrated Urdu ghazals and literally means “Remembering that Angel’s Face”.

Born Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, Begum Akhtar had come up through the school of hard knocks, having been abandoned by her lawyer father soon after she and her twin sister were born. Evidently he had tired of his liaison with Mushtari, a tawaif (singing courtesan) in Faizabad, after the additional filial responsibility of the birth of his daughters was brought home to him. His behaviour was typical of most men from landed upper-class families of that time. Chander deals with this aspect of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi’s life in a matter-of-fact manner with just two title cards. He then gets to the heart of the matter, her music, with ease and confidence.

Chander begins the documentary by asking the ordinary people of Faizabad if they had heard of Begum Akhtar or if they knew where she had lived. Nobody seemed to know very much. He uses this short sequence from the present as a point of departure to Begum Akhtar’s past and, naturally, her music. He intersperses the music-making with interviews of people who loved and respected her, and uses chronology loosely, poetically, without losing sight of her evolution as an artist. So much for the structure of the film.

The director has a natural flair for creating mood. In this regard he is, of course, helped immensely by his cinematographer Ranjan Palit, co-editor and art director Reena Mohan (who is also his spouse) and a gifted director in her own right, gaffer Nand Kumar aka Nandu, and sound designer Boby John, who helped “brighten up” old mono quarter-inch tape recordings of Begum Akhtar’s songs while ensuring that they retained their allure. Aided by such a talented team, Chander proves to be a natural leader.

Begum Akhtar’s first teacher was a masterly sarangi player from Patna who would massage her thighs to help her understand the “aroha“ (ascending) and “avroha“ (descending) scales in the raga Bhairavi. This incident is mentioned in Ae Mohabbat:Reminiscing Begum Akhtar, her biography by her disciple Rita Ganguly, but not in Chander’s film. Instead, he recreates the scene of her being taught to sing very simply.

Little Akhtari is singing along with her teacher (who is not mentioned by name; her second and third teachers were excellent khayal singers, Ustad Ata Mohammad of the Patiala gharana and Ustad Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana). She is seated on a low divan opposite her ustad who is teaching her the scales. It is an overcast morning. In the background is an old bungalow; gleaming copper cooking vessels are drying in the foreground.

Shanti Hiranand, her knowledgeable first pupil from Lucknow, remembers on camera how fond her Ammi (as her students called her) was of cooking and how meticulously she supervised the making of every dish. The copper vessels in the scene where Akhtari as a child is being taught by her teacher serve a dual purpose; they are a reminder of her becoming a gourmet and gourmand in prosperous adulthood, and the struggle that her mother Mushtari went through to provide Akhtari with nourishing food in her growing years. The director captures this idea relating to food effortlessly; it brings together associative memories of the past seamlessly.

The interviews with people who knew Begum Akhtar are uniformly informative. Yatindra Mishra, prince of Ayodhya and a music connoisseur, is interviewed in his palatial residence in Faizabad. He tells us of Akhtari’s sense of honour and pride. She had been given 50 bighas of land by his grandfather, the Raja of Ayodhya. Mishra narrates that she wanted to return the land to the Raja, who refused to take it back when she was leaving Faizabad forever and how she actually managed to make good her desire to do so.

The choice of locations is apt and recreates the ambience of the feudal pre-Independence era in Uttar Pradesh unobtrusively. Photographs of Begum Akhtar from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and late middle age are used simply and effectively.

The introductory black-and-white photograph of the child Akhtari with her mother establishes how indispensable one is to the other. Her photographs with her admirer Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, barrister-at-law and Nawab of Kakori, who married her, also throw light on their relationship. He was an eligible middle-aged widower and she a brilliant singing courtesan who longed for marriage and a settled respectable life.

The historian Saleem Kidwai, who is the nephew of Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, talks about the crucial role his uncle played in acquainting Begum Akhtar with the greats of Urdu poetry such as Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Dagh and Jigar, and how Abbasi gave her the confidence to sing peerlessly the ghazals of these masters.

Chander says, “I listened to Begum Akhtar’s music for six months before discovering how the film was to be made. The choices were difficult but had to be made correctly because there were four ghazals or thumris that could fit into a particular situation in the film.”

The most memorable moment is a thumri, “Ab ke baras ghar aaja”, sung in her “middle-range” authoritative voice when she was in her mid to late forties.

The visualisation blends with the song easily and Ranjan Palit’s camera captures the dark clouds poignantly to harmonise with the sung words.

Similarly, other songs associated with her like the dadra “Chaa rahi kari ghata” written by Muztar Khairabadi and “Koeliya mat kar pukar” are also tellingly used, as is the Ghalib ghazal, “Zikr us parivash ka” from which the film gets its title.

Ruchi Khare, a well-known Kathak dancer and teacher at Bhatkhande Sangeet Maha Vidyalaya, Lucknow, performs convincingly as a “tawaif” in a re-enactment of an aristocrat’s private “mehfil”, and also in a scene outdoors amidst lush greenery. Shruti Sadolikar Katkar, a well-regarded Hindustani classical vocalist, speaks on camera about Begum Akhtar’s essential qualities as a vocalist and how with maturity she was able to achieve maximum effect with minimum effort in her singing.

She also remembers Begum Akhtar teaching deserving students for free at Bhatkhande Sangeet Maha Vidyalaya and speaks glowingly of her generous gesture.

Nirmal Chander’s documentary deals with the essentials of Begum Akhtar’s music but not her problematic transition from Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, a singing courtesan of exceptional talent sought after by the landed aristocracy and rich businessmen, to Begum Akhtar, the respectable wife of a nawab. He is right in sticking to her music because that is what she will be remembered for and not all the pain she endured through life’s ups and downs in a society that was struggling to break off the shackles of feudalism and enter the modern world.

The director has done considerable research on his subject and her times but has not got bogged down by academic aims. He uses the knowledge thus gained to improvise an insightful and moving documentary. He says that the film was made on the editing table along with his co-editor Reena Mohan. Rest assured, a lot of thought has gone into structuring the story, the way it has been shot and, of course, the choice of music and the laying of the final mixed soundtrack.

The no-nonsense approach with which this project has been tackled is to be recommended to every young documentarist with similar artistic intentions.

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