Remembering Begum Akhtar
By Dr Basheer Ahmed Khan
Garden Grove, CA
Begum Akhtar is a renowned singer of Urdu ghazal and thumri. She died in October 1974 and her fans will be remembering her on this occasion and so should I. I remember the month and year of her death so vividly because I got the opportunity to attend her funeral at Lucknow. Much about it later.
My fascination with Begum Akhtar’s voice dates back to days of my youth when like all youth I was also interested in poetry and music. My elder cousin had a gramophone which worked on winding spring and some record collection that included the ghazals sung by Begum Akhtar. I used to go to their house and listen to them either alone or in the company of my cousin and his friends. One of the ghazals which I liked most was the one penned by Mirza Ghalib, The King of Urdu Ghazal.
Dil Hi Tho Hai Na Sang O Khisht
Dard say Bhar Na AayeKyon
Royenge Hum Hazaar Bar
It is heart and not a piece of stone to remain unaffected. People complain that I cry but no one complains to those who torment me to cause these tears.
I was on a vacation in my brother’s house in Bangalore. It was sometime in the early seventies. He gave me the news that Begum Akhrar is presenting a program at Ravindra Kala Mandir and if I would like to join him. There was no limit to my happiness at the prospect of hearing the singer whom I had admired on gramophone record all these years in a live performance, and I started to count days and hours to the event.
When we reached the Kala Mandir beating the evening rush hour, all the tiredness and anxiety vanished the moment we entered the hall. The atmosphere was romantic and welcoming the like of which I had not seen before. Ravindra Kala Mandirs were built in many metropolis of India in the sixties at a great cost to promote fine art and to commemorate the memory of Rabindranath Tagore. In the romantic light setting of this state-of-the-art hall beautiful women were lined on either side of the isle sprinkling rose water and rose petals on the guests in the classical Indian tradition. Classical music by the renowned artists of India on shehnai, sitar, sarod, violin, tabla was enchanting the environment and uplifting the souls to height of ecstasy. It was an atmosphere of fairytales. The next few minutes of waiting for the curtain to raise and the show to begin were worth the wait.
Begum Sahiba rendered about six to eight ghazals before the intermission on which she received tremendous applause from the audience. But my favorite number “Dil Hi Tho Hai” (or was it “KuchThoDuniya Ki Inayath”, it is difficult for me to remember which one after 44 years of this event), was not one of it. My feeble voice of request for this number would drown in the cacophony of other requests. I was sad.
Suppressing all my shyness I mustered courage and went to the artist studio behind the stage to meet her and make my request. She was sipping tea with the organizer of the program. Getting his permission, I approached her and made my request. Begum Sahiba asked: Why do you want to hear this ghazal when people are in a mood to hear the other happy ones. I said it is impossible for any sensitive and sensible person to remain unaffected by what is going around him and I rendered this rubaee of one of my favorite poets Naresh Kumar Shaad to elucidate my point. What I could not explain in a thousand words this rubaee did.
Ye Chah-thaty Ho Kay Darya Mein PhenkKar Path-thar
Na Koi MoujSar-e- Sath-Hay AabLehraye
Na Koi Shor Ho Gehra-yion Mein Saagar Ki
Na Koi Rad de Amal Ho ShikasteShauqKeBaad.
Meaning: After throwing a stone into a pond it is inevitable that ripples will generate on the surface and an echo will bounce from bottom; and not to expect it is like not expecting any reaction after a shattered dream.
She said that depending on the mood of the audience she would consider my request. I thanked her and left. She did not comply to my request.
In 1974 when I was posted to Lucknow on my first job, it was a dream come true. Ever since the days when I had seen the movie like ChaudvinKaChaand, Mere Mehboob, Dastak, etc. I was fascinated by the chaste Urdu spoken in Lucknow. I had longed to visit Lucknow and learn this language from the people of Lucknow. As an Urdu-speaking person from South of India where the Dakni dialect of Urdu is spoken, I was always apologetic for my accent when I had to meet Urdu writers and poets whom I used to meet when they came from North India.
As I was sitting in the Officer’s Mess waiting for dinner to be served I saw an elderly Sardarji entering the mess. As I was alone in the mess, he approached me and I was delighted to know that he was one of my favorite short story writers MrRatan Singh. He was one of those “TaraqqiPasand” writers who had lifted independent thinking generated by renaissance from the morass of irresponsible thinking to the heights of responsible thinking. He used to write regularly in the Urdu literary monthly “BiswinSadi” edited by KhustarGrami.
In a moment we developed a rapport because of our common interest. MrRatan Singh was then working as In-Charge of the Urdu program of All India Radio Lucknow. When I told him about my interest in visiting some local families to enjoy the original Lucknawi style of Urdu, his reply was both interesting and amusing. He said: Doctor Sahib, Ab kahanaap Us Urdu koLuckonwmeinTalashKarthay Ho. Taqseemkebaad Hum Sardaron ne thouskaHuliyaBigaddiyahai: meaning where are you searching for that Lucknow style of Urdu now? After partition immigrating Sardarjis have destroyed that language. His reply was a masterpiece of disarming honesty which should be the hallmark of any true writer who uses his pen to advance truth. He promised that he will take me to Begum Akhtar when she returns to Lucknow after her singing assignments.
Trainee officers did not have a phone at their residence so I received a call at the mess phone from Ratan Singh Sahib stating that Begum Akhtar died of heart attack at Ahmedabad (if I remember it correctly) and her body will be arriving tomorrow to Lucknow and her funeral prayer will be before dusk and that he would like me to accompany him to attend it. It was one of those deaths that are hard to forget. I was hoping to see her alive and remind her about my meeting with her in the artist studio of Ravindra Kala Mandir at Bangalore but that was not to happen and I was going to attend her funeral.
Next day I met Ratan Singh Sahib at the appointed place and we both went to Begum Akhtar’s Bungalow and waited at the lawn for her body to be brought for prayers. There were hardly fifty people to pray for the departed soul who sang some of the best ghazals to entertain and enlighten hundreds of thousands of them. This is the hard reality of life: everyone is there to be a part of your success and benefit from your talents and only a few are with you in your hour of distress and death. I was one of the fortunate few who enjoyed and was inspired by her voice when she was alive and prayed on her body when she was dead. May Allah accept both. Amen.
The legendary LataMangeshkar has said about Mehdi Hasan: God speaks in Mehdi Hasan’s voice. In my opinion words reveal their true meaning in Begum Akhtar’s voice.
One of the ghazals which Begum Akhtar sang that evening at Bangalore was the one written by ShakeelBadayuni and was aptly quoted by Gen Musharraf to explain the predicament which he and all CEOs face in our world today.
Mere Hum Nafas Mere HumnawaMujheDost Bun Kay Dagha Na they
Gham e Iskh se Hun Main Jan Ba-LubMujheZindagi Ki Dua Na they
MeraAzmItnaBuland Hai MujheparayeSholonKa Dar Nahin
MujheKhaufAatish e Gul se haikahin ye ChamanKoJala Na they
(Oh my companion! do not betray me after claiming to be my friend. Having betrayed me do not pray for my extended life for I have suffered enough in your love. I am not afraid of the outside enemies destroying my tranquility; what I am afraid of is that my tranquility may be destroyed by those whose beauty is enchanting me.)
When I ponder about how she could get this expressive voice to evoke such an acute understanding of the true meanings of the uttered words and stir emotions to ecstasy I was reminded of a Persian saying: AzDilRayzad Bar DilKhayzad, meaning what emanates from the heart affects other hearts. How did she get such a heart was another question. My answer to it is her life gave it to her.
In the conservative society of those days her mother as a singer girl was married to an aristocrat who had to keep his marriage secret, giving the first blow to young Akhtari. Later, when her other sister who could be her best friend to share her internal conflicts died at a young age, it made this lonely girl lonelier. The gossip corner of the film world in which she worked for a while with its tests and travails affected the heart of this unfortunate girl even more. The two possibilities before such a girl were either to become a topic of gossip by indulging in irresponsible behavior or to imbibe the life experiences and translate them into a cognition and consciousness that enlightens and softens the heart to give effectiveness to the words emanating from the mouth. As an intelligent and sensitive girl she chose the second option.
After her marriage to Barrister Ishtiaq Hussain in the 1940s she decided to shun the glamourous life of a singer which had given her so many wounds. She wanted to heal them by living the life of an exemplary housewife. She abstained from singing to heal those wounds, but destiny had given her those wounds to beautify her voice. With the voice being quiet the wounds bled quietly inside without finding an outlet to express themselves in the poetry which she loved to sing. She fell ill and her husband Ishtiaq who loved her dearly forced her back to singing to give an extended lease to her life. Thanks to barrister Ishtiaq for those 25 years of Begum Akhtar’s renewed singing career in which we enjoyed and were benefitted by many of the masterpieces sung by her.
Many singers owe their popularity to the poets whose poems they sing. In the case of Begum Akhtar, it was the other way round. Many poets became popular because Begum Akhtar sang their kalam. This showed the acumen of Begum Akhtar in choosing good poetry to express the difficult internal situations rather than go by the name and fame of the poet.
This beautiful voice and this beautiful person was lying before us in her coffin silent but evoking these and many other thoughts into a person who had met her briefly and who would admire her always.