Haunting ghazal

Print edition : August 14, 2009

BEGUM AKHTAR (1914-74) was the most charismatic figure in 20th century Hindustani light classical music. There were others before her and of her time, such as Durgesh Nandini Bai, Vidyadhari Bai, Badi Moti Bai, Rasoolan Bai, Batulan Bai and Siddeshwari Bai (later Devi, who was the authors first guru) who were musically as gifted as, if not more than, Begum Akhtar but did not possess the kind of glamour that she had to reach out to listeners of all kinds, the initiat ed and the uninitiated. Begum Akhtar, or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi earlier, was in that sense unique both as a musician and a human being.

Rita Ganguly, the third of the Begums five pupils, has written Ae MohabbatReminiscing Begum Akhtar as a biography and a memoir co-authored with her publisher, Jyoti Sabharwal. The book is both moving and banal. Moving because it reveals in detail the struggles of the aspiring singer Bibbi, the abandoned daughter of a lawyer from Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, who, while still in her teens, becomes Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, the sensation of the Hindustani light classical music world in the 1930s; banal, because Rita Ganguly, an obviously talented vocalist in her prime, uses this opportunity to promote herself.

However, the good parts of the book are of real historical importance. Rita Gangulys skills as a narrator are most evident in the sections entitled This Story Must Be Told and Reliving an Era. In the first part of the narrative, we find the life of the singer gradually unfolding before our eyes; it is indeed a story worth telling. Vignettes such as the journey from Faizabad to Gaya to stay with relatives after Akhtaris mother, Mushtari, is ditched by her lawyer husband, Asghar Hussain, loses an infant daughter owing to medical neglect and poverty and has to earn a living as a seamstress and find a music teacher for her precocious daughter give us a glimpse of a world that has disappeared.

An early familiarity with male vanity and sexuality marked her life. Her first teacher, then in his mid-seventies, ran a hand up and down her thigh when eight-year-old Bibbi asked him innocently how he managed a meend (gliding note) that left her breathless. Then, in her mid-teens, Bibbi became Akhtari Bai Faizabadi and the mother of a daughter Shamima (Shammo) after a short, though not wholly inexplicable, liaison with the younger brother of the Raja of Rajnand Gaon.

While Akhtari Bais fame soared as a singer on gramophone records and on the stage, her mother, Mushtari, had to create a smokescreen and declare that Shammo was her own daughter and Akhtaris little sister. Seth Karnani, the financier of entertainments in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and owner of Corinthian Theatre, was clearly smitten with her but was shrewd enough to predict a bright future for the rising star. It must be remembered that the popular music of the day was raga-based, and Akhtaris melodious, high-pitched, carrying voice was perfectly suited for the stage. She became a rage in Calcutta and her dadra, Chaa Rahi Kali Hgata, was a huge hit as a 78 rpm gramophone record.

Later, when her voice had deepened and she had married an elderly admirer, barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, Nawab of Kakori, she recorded the same song again. This time, the plaintiveness of her earlier rendering was replaced by an abiding poignance and the couplet Ae Masiha Ab toh bolo! Kya Tumhari Raae Haeye acquires a new meaning in the context of a life lived to the full in pain and in ecstasy.

Begum Akhtar. Her matchless, touching and emotive singing was an indivisible part of her chaotic life and by far the best part of it.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

By charting Begum Akhtars journey through life and music, the author intentionally or otherwise creates a vivid portrait of a society as yet unable to shake off the shackles of feudalism while aspiring to modernity. Akhtari came on the musical scene when the tawaif, or singing courtesan, was very much a part of the upper-class cultural scene in northern India.

The landed gentry and the rising business class were both patrons of classical music and of the courtesans who specialised in light classical forms such as thumri, dadra, chaiti, baramasa and ghazal. Although dependent on words, each of these forms required of a singer to be well-trained in classical music. Old-timers such as Benazir Bai of Lucknow, pupil of the great Baba Nasir Khan, had also been instructed in dhrupad and dhamar in addition to khayal, tarana and the light classical forms.

Young Akhtari, even when she was little Bibbi, was trained very well in the exacting art of khayal singing. Her first teacher, Ustad Imdad Khan, made her sing kharaj (tonic of the lower octave) and gave her a thorough grounding in scales and the basic grammar of Hindustani music. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to practise. Her poor mother would stretch the family budget to the utmost to see that her gifted daughter got plenty of nutritious food.

Ustad Ata Mohammed Khan of Patiala was her second guru. He came into Akhtaris life thanks to sarodiya Ustad Sakhawat Hussain of the Shahjehanpur Gharana, who had just returned from his European tour as the music director of Madam Menakas dance troupe.

Ustad Ata Mohammed Khan started off Bibbi on a minor scale, Bhairavi. She took some time to get the hang of the komal swars (minor notes). The turning point came when Khan Saheb rendered, Gunkali, a mid-morning raga, Ananda Aaj Moray Man Bhayo, Shubh Ghadi/ Shubh Din Muhurrat Sakhiyan Sab Mil Mangal Gaayen. He made her practise for hours on the kharaj and do swar abhayas (voice culture) step by step, each note gliding from one swar to another in ascending and descending order and rendering each note with an enduring sa, re, ga.

Ata Mohammed Khan taught her Gumkali for three months. He then taught her another raga, the pentatonic Deshkar. He first taught her asthayi (first phase of the composition) and then antara (second phase of the composition). He also taught her to improvise in many ways from dhaivat to shadj, that is, from the sixth note to the first. Bibbi was encouraged to use her imagination to improvise.

Ata Mohammed Khan gave her a thorough grounding in the basics and prepared her for bigger things. He also taught her a thumri in raga, Maand, Kanhaa Na Jaane kar Preet/ Dekho Re Man Radhey. Her efforts to render a khayal convincingly from alap (the introduction to the ragas contour and mood), badhat (slow improvisation), behalwa (the creation of a wave-like motion through the juxtaposition of key phrases), fast tans and bol tans, and then seamlessly moving into dhrut khayal (or into quick tempo) were amply rewarded.

Ata Mohammed Khan would tell his star pupil: Taseer Paida Karo (make your music soulful). She did that later while rendering light classical forms, and her renderings were full of bhava and wisdom as she grew older and became less dependent on virtuosity. By the time she reached her third teacher, Behre Wahid Khan Saheb, the venerable master of Kirana Gharana, Akhtari was a young woman of immense talent and musical maturity. He gave her a nuanced grounding in Khayal singing. But she knew that her real vocation lay as a light classical singer.

Twice in her life Begum Akhtar was faced with the abiding truth that music was to touch the hearts of people: first as a child when she heard a berni (low-brow singer) render a haunting dadra Purab Desh Bangal Se/ Wapas Na Aaye Morey Saajan ; and then, while learning from Ata Mohammed, she heard in the wee hours of the morning a fakiran (a wandering woman minstrel) singing Kaliyar Waley Morey Sai/ Laaj Rakh Leejo/Aaj Laaj Rakh Leejo. The song entered Akhtaris soul and she realised that virtuosity was not everything.

Begum Akhtars music was as colourful as her life. Though she sang thumri very well, in this genre she was surpassed by both Rasoolan Bai and Siddeshwari Bai. Her forte was dadra and ghazal. In these two forms, she was peerless. In the later part of her life, after her marriage to Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, the quality of the ghazals she sang improved dramatically. He introduced her to poets such as Ghalib, Meer, Momin, Jigar Moradabadi and Faiz.

She brought grandeur to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalibs poetry; she was able to bring out with warmth and finesse the intellectual and spiritual tussle within him about mans place in the universe, as she did with the anguished existential poetry of Meer Taqi Meer and the defiant, celebratory nature of Fiaz Ahmed Faizs work, or the all-encompassing love of life in Jigars ghazals. How she managed all this was a mystery. She had little formal education but a highly developed aesthetic sense which would be the envy of the most sophisticated, well-read members of the privileged class. She also brought to the fore poets like Shakeel Badayumi, who wrote about everyday emotions and amorous experiences with style, and promoted younger, more populist poets like Sudarshan Faqir and Shamim Jaipuri. She had the ability to dignify and elevate relatively lesser-known poetry and bring out the nuances of seemingly ordinary verse that the lay reader was most likely to miss.

Her great strength was her adaptability. In her early 78 rpm records when just out of her teens she sang in a very tuneful, high-pitched voice, her technique was solid though her aesthetics was quaint. It was as if she was singing in the style of an earlier era. She wore her heart on her sleeve unabashedly, and, no doubt, her listeners expected it of her.

As she grew older, in her Begum Akhtar phase, her voice deepened, grew mellow, and she realised that life was indeed a vale of tears. Her singing became richer and reflective and gave even greater delight to the cognoscenti as well as her untutored fans. Her rendering of Koeliya Mat Kar Pukar in late middle age is substantially different from, even more satisfying than, her earlier recording, which was full of youthful sparkle.

Nawab Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, Bar-at-Law, never really took his law practice seriously and it went down further when parvenu pleaders learnt to navigate the murky waters of the law and its enforcement. In addition he lost a substantial part of his property, first due to Partition and then through indifferent management.

Abbasi Saheb had forbidden his wife to sing professionally after their marriage. After all, Akhtari had now become the wife of an aristocrat. Begum Akhtar became a victim of acute depression. The day was saved thanks to Sunil Kumar Bose, Chief Producer, Music, All India Radio Lucknow, and his indefatigable younger colleague, Luv Kumar Malhotra, who convinced Abbasi Saheb to allow his wife to sing for AIR. Then, within a decade, a downward turn in his fortunes forced him to let Begum Akhtar sing professionally. She was an instant success on the concert stage and as a recording artist for HMV, possibly the highest seller of discs in her category.

Begum Akhtars career was more successful in social and financial terms than her senior contemporaries such as Badi Moti Bai and Rasoolan Bai, both of whom had to struggle to keep the wolf from the door, and Siddeshwari, who travelled to Delhi to take up an AIR producership to prop up a waning concert career. She loved the good life and constantly spent whatever she earned. She had a large brood of dependants, including Shammo and her 10 other children from various ill-judged marriages.

A satlarha, or a seven-string pearl necklace, of great value would be left with jeweller-sitarist Arvind Parekh in the off season when he would advance her the money to tide over the lean period. Then when the music season began again, Begum Akhtar would pay him back and the necklace, a gift from the Nawab of Rampur, would return to her. This went on for a good seven or eight years until her death. When she passed away, the necklace was with Arvind Parekh. The gentlemen and artist that he was, he returned it to Abbasi Saheb but refused to accept money for it, saying that it was his privilege to have been of some assistance to Begum Akhtar.

Rita Gangulys book is sound and informative when she discusses the world of Begum Akhtar from birth to childhood, adolescence and adulthood and, naturally, her music. But when she holds forth on her closeness to her teacher, she goes awry. Initially trained by Siddeshwari Devi, she went over to Begum Akhtar to further her knowledge of light classical forms, particularly ghazal.

Begum Akhtar already had two excellent Ganda-bandh (officially accepted and initiated) shagirds, or pupils, from 1954, Shanti Hiranand and Anjali Banerjee. She also had another lay pupil, Deepti Bose, whom she considered to be the most promising of the three.

Soon after Rita Ganguly came, she had another very talented disciple, Vasundhara Pandit, who died much too early and is now remembered by only a few people. Though Rita Ganguly was indeed close to Begum Akhtar for a few years, from reading this book one gets the impression that she was the only student who mattered. One got a similar feeling reading Shanti Hiranands Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi.

Begum Akhtar was as warm-hearted a person as was her singing. She was also deeply insecure, emotionally. She did not hesitate to fall in love with younger men. She loved and deeply respected her husband, who had given her status and respect in a hypocritical world. She had no problems in keeping her marriage separate from her amorous adventures.

Her matchless, touching and emotive singing was an indivisible part of her chaotic life and by far the best part of it.

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