Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tribute! Begum Akhtar "The Mallika-e-Ghazal" (Queen of Ghazals)

Akhtaribai Faizabadi, or Begum Akhtar as she was more popularly known, was born on 7th October, 1914 in the small town of Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh in northern India. She came from a courtesan background--her mother was Mushtari Bai and was born in a poor family that was not musically inclined. However, at her uncle's insistence, she was sent to train under Ustad Imdad Khan, the great sarangi exponent, and later under Ata Mohammed Khan. Later she traveled to Calcutta with her mother and started learning music from classical stalwarts like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and finally she became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan Saheb.

Films Division's Documentary on Begum Akhtar

Her first public peformance was at the tender age of fifteen. She took the music world by storm. The famous poetess Smt. Sarojini Naidu appreciated her singing during a concert which was organised in the aid of victims of Bihar earthquake. This encouraged her to continue singing ghazals with more enthusiasm. She also cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company at that time. A number of gramophone records were released carrying her ghazals, dadras, thumris.

Begum Akhtar - Very Old Ghazal

With the advent of talkie era in India, Begum Akhtar acted in a few Hindi movies in thirties. East India Film Company of Calcutta approached her to act in Mumtaz Beghum (1934), Jawaani Ka Nasha(1935), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1935) including King for a Day (1933, director : Raaj Hans). Like others of that era, she sang her songs herself in all her films. She continued acting in the following years.
Subsequently Begum Akhtar moved back to Lucknow where she was approached by the famous producer-director Mehboob Khan, as a result of which she acted in ROTI which was released in 1942 and whose music was composed by maestro Anil Biswas. Begum Akhtar later left Bombay and returned to Lucknow. In 1945, Begum AKhtar was married to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and became known as Begum Akhtar. However, after marriage, due to her husband's restrictions, she could not sing almost 5 years, and subsequently, she fell ill. Music was prescribed as the only remedy! In 1949, she returned to the recording studios.

Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjam Pe Rona Aaya - Begum Akhtar

Her performances moved female singers out from the shadow of kothas, royal palaces and onto the stage with the attending aura of respectability! A Padma Shri, followed by a Sangeet Natak Academy Award, and a posthumous Padma Bhushan are not really needed to appreciate the unique voice that resonated with pain. Begum Akhtar sang at numerous mushairas and concerts and left behind a discography of close to four hundred songs, mostly classical numbers that she herself composed. Her voice matured with time, adding richness and depth. She sang ghazals and other light classical pieces, singing them in her inimitable style. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit. She was a regular performer on All India Radio. She usually composed her own ghazals and most of her compositions were raag based.
During her last concert which was held in Ahmedabad, she had raised the pitch of her voice as she felt that her singing that day had not been as good as she had wanted it to be. She had not been feeling well that day to begin with. The additional demand and stress she put herself under resulted in her falling ill and being rushed to the hospital. She passed away on 30th of October, 1974 leaving a big void in ghazal lovers' hearts.
Just eight days before her death, she recorded Kaifi Azmi's ghazal:  
sunaa karo merii jaan un se un ke afsaane
sab ajanabii hai.n yahaa.N kaun kis ko pahachaane

Today her name is almost synonymous with the concept of ghazal gayaki, and her imitable style of singing which immortalized her, and gave her the title of Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals).

Ghazal By Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (Begum Akhtar)

No one had a voice like hers, full of dard that welled up from her life experiences! 
(Posted on October 8, 2010 by Pardesi):
In a biography of Begum Akhtar, Rita Ganguly and Jyoti Sabharwal tell us of how 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. A series of abusive relationships began with her first guru – a respected name in Indian Classical music, and was followed by an assault by a known royal patron of music from Bihar. At age 13 she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter whom she could never acknowledge as her child and always called her a sister! These traumas shaped a life full of melancholy that was channeled into the most divine music.
After marriage to a respectable lawyer, she was told to stop singing, until poor health led to a prescription that she be allowed to sing to heal. Somewhere along the line she had 7 abortions, and a bout with cocaine addiction, and eventually died of a heart attack after a concert at Ahmedabad – at the age of 60 years!

Akhtari Bai Faizabadi - Begum Akhtar sings a Qaseeda for H.H. Osman Ali Khan, Nizam of Hyderabad.

"Begum Akhtar: Love’s own voice" 
By S. Kalidas - Roli Books, Rs 495, 84 pp.
( Begum still casts a spell. The last from the great female singers of the tawaif (courtesan) community, Begum Akhtar, born Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, possessed a voice that intoxicated millions and exuded a charm that seduced nawabs and royalty. Journalist and musicologist S. Kalidas’ book Begum Akhtar: Love’s Own Voice, strings together an account of Akhtari’s life from her birth in 1914 to her becoming the defining name in ghazal, dadra and thumri singing.... (Source:

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