There must be thousands of music lovers all over India, each of whom thinks that he or she alone knows what a unique and major vocalist Begum Akhtar was. Her numerous admirers find a splendid articulation of their own unspoken angst and a sensual pukar (cry) torn from the depths of their own souls in her singing. Such music redeems even as it spans the enormous distance between the wild joy of love and the inescapable loneliness of the human situation. With her perfect emission, her open vowels and her unique capability to articulate each phrase in its entirety without breaking the flow of the notes, Begum Akhtar remains an inspiration to all younger music lovers. But strangely in her context, one rarely hears the usual celebrity question, what was Begum Akhtar nee Akhtari Bai Faizabadi really like? When we were growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, her stature as a major Indian singer was somewhat obscured by the then common bias against professional female singers. The all male gallery of illustrious ustads and the panditjis alone was considered by the cognoscenti to be the authentic representatives of the various gharanas (schools of singing).
Despite the fact that in their earliest days, many of the ustads were sheltered from abject penury by well-heeled professional singing women. To them, a woman who came from a long line of professional singing women was doubly removed from the highest rungs of our classical heritage: once as a woman and then again as a member of a family of performing female artistes. When news came that Akhtari Bai Faizabadi had married a barrister and chosen to leave singing and go in purdah as Begum Akhtar, there were many who sniggered openly. Even now, few music lovers pause to reflect on the immense pressures that led a successful and financially self-sufficient female performer at the peak of her career to choose a traditional marriage with all its strictures against performing in public.
Fortunately, Begum Akhtar chose to come back to the world of music before the self-imposed isolation destroyed her or her marriage or both. In the historical context, her marriage to Abbasi Saheb is quite understandable. When a talented and financially independent female artist is made to feel insecure emotionally (which is often), she usually looks to marry a man who she thinks has the gravitas she was being denied in a man’s world. Thus, a Meena Kumari married Kamal Amrohi, a Gauhar Jan married Seth Chandulal Shah and a Carla Bruni married a Nicolas Sarkozy. Of course, their considerable talents hardly ever stand to gain much from the association; it is mostly the male partner who gains fame (and also money) by association.
And then suddenly one day, Begum Akhtar was gone. I remember being told of her sudden death as I was dusting my bookshelf. She died of a massive heart attack at an All India Radio concert. It was perhaps a befitting finale for an artist like her. I still remember the moment and the titles of the books facing me with a stunned clarity usually reserved for a sudden death in the family or the murder of a world leader.
Begum Akhtar’s music remains a perennial. Whether you play an old 78 RPM disc or download her music from the Web, you can taste the searing honesty and down-home realism of her mind through her notes. And it still spans the entire gamut of feelings that feed female sexuality. It acknowledges and blesses both the joy, as also the genuine bewilderment and restlessness of soul that marks the perennial attraction between man and woman.
Today, technology may have reduced the marginal cost of communication but our classical singers now rarely inherit their new shagirds (students) and audiences from small-town India that loves and lives and has its being in the dialects. The increasingly Anglocentric big cities display little understanding among both the new singers and the audiences of the innate beauty and glory of the text. Whether Hindustani, Purabia, Brij or Urdu, Begum Akhtar understood the finest nuances of the Indian vernaculars and could embellish the beauty of the text as she sang. This made the humble words unforgettable. She herself enjoyed good poetry and encouraged writers and poets to bring her their latest, which they happily did. Such a meeting of minds between musicians and writers is getting rarer now.
Begum Akhtar’s wonderfully creative years happened to coincide with the years when India was waking up to the beauty of her own classical heritage and the rare creativity of many hitherto disempowered groups. For that reason, her music, like my late mother Shivani’s writings (they were both good friends), gave their art a rare moral cutting edge and a communicability that transcends time and space. Both these talented women also exposed through their art the neediness, the terrible pull of physical desires and the terrible grief that comes with self-denial, to Indian women.
Begum Akhtar’s music validates and redeems a woman’s pain and grief. Perhaps that was why my mother, a lonely and itinerant traveller, loved her music so. “Go and listen to her whenever you can,” she said to me, “so one day you can tell your children you had actually heard Begum Akhtar sing live.”
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor,?Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com