Begum Akhtar

- Written by : Onkita Adhikary

Like precious pearls set on strands of gold, lyrics of ghazals written by maestros encrusted in the ragas of pure Hindustani music, sung straight from the soul, was the signature style of Akhtaribai Faizabadi. A woman born to a courtesan, disowned by her father, spurned in love only to resurrect as the continent’s iconic voice, Begum Akhtar was a true trailblazer. She would be instrumental in bringing out ghazals from the small durbar soirees and mehfils and putting it on the stage and in the spotlight and making it stand in the league of classicism that it truly deserved. Born on 7th October 1914 in the small hamlet of Faizabad, this legendary singer trained under stalwarts like Ustad Imdaad Khan, Ustaad Ghulam Mohammad Khan before being inducted into the Patiala gharana under the wings of Ustad Ata Mohammad Khan to finally blossom into the Mallika-e-ghazal or the “Queen of ghazals” to captivate an entire generation.

When asked by Acharya Brihaspati in an interview for Akashwani, what she thought was the reason behind the “taseer” or the effect of Hindustani classical music, on whether it was the serenity, wistfulness, melancholy or preparation, Begum Akhtar’s prompt response was “honesty”, something that reflected in every genre she sang. From thumri to dadra to raagas to ghazals, the honesty of Akhtari Bai’s soulful voice touched a chord in every listener's heart making her a legend in her lifetime. In a career spanning for over four decades, singing over 400 compositions with effortless ease, she rose from being the daughter of a courtesan to the continent’s euphonious voice. Her favourite raag was Gunkali, a magical raag that evokes poignancy and pain, her voice would often tear up souls. At the pinnacle of her success, the name Akhtari Bai was synonymous with vulnerability and celestial pathos. Listening to her unique dulcet voice singing the famous ghazal written by Sudarshan Fakir,

“ कुछ तो दुनिया की इनायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया और कुछ तल्खि-ए-हालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया”

Ist is not hard to fathom why she was said to have had the Midas touch in music, turning every sonnet into a milestone and every poet to a bard.

Torn apart by the pangs of unreciprocated love, loss of loved ones, betrayal and societal palisades, Begum Akhtar went into the abyss of depression and substance abuse only to be rescued by music in the most poignant of ways. In the middle of a concert held in Ahmedabad on 29th October, 1974, she collapsed while singing and passed away the very next day at the age of 60. Today, in the small bylanes of Lucknow, in Pasand Bagh lies Padmashri Begum Akhtar in musical eternity, lovingly shaded by a lush Parijaat tree that like her blossoms in the month of October and wraps the entire mazaar with its lingering essence. The enigma called Akhtari Bai, once unloved and disowned, rose to become Begum Akhtar; a woman who was loved by generations, a woman that the country bestowed the country’s second highest civilian award and a woman whose voice lives on forever.


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