Among the many treasures that video-sharing platforms like YouTube often yield is this absolutely magnificent 24-minute video of a Doordarshan telecast, featuring the legendary Begum Akhtar singing the verses of literary giant Kaifi Azmi. Kaifi sahib is not only present at the mehfil but is, in fact, part of the performance, occasionally reciting a couplet from one of his ghazals, which Begum Akhtar later renders in song. The performance is in the form of a studio concert before an invited audience, in an intimate chamber setting.
Begum Akhtar’s charm and charisma is matched in equal measure by Kaifi sahib’s rich baritone, stylishly lazy drawl, Byronic good looks, and powerful recitation. Masterfully anchored by a knowledgeable presenter whose command over Urdu and the poet’s work is evident, the video offers many lessons to those who look at music and the arts as beyond mere entertainment.
We live in an age where collaborations between artistes are fashionable and often touted as being the true test of so-called originality and experimentation. But the fine art of ghazal singing was, in a sense, a collaborative genre that brought together poetry and music. And yet, not every ghazal written and published in a sha’air’s diwan found its way into the repertoire of a singer. Ghazal singers habitually read and internalized the verses of great masters, both past and present, usually committing them to memory. And it was this culture and habit of reading that they would draw upon for their repertoire. Often, a ghazal would be immortalized in the singing of it, particularly in the voice of a singer as accomplished and unique as Begum Akhtar herself. All of this and more is apparent in this video.
Charismatic: Begum Akhtar immortalized ghazals with her rendering. Photo: Courtesy ‘Ae Mohabbat’
There is a wonderful vibe that Begum Akhtar and Kaifi sahib share in this performance. They not only exchange compliments in flowery Urdu, but are also deeply respectful of each other’s mastery over their chosen idioms. There is wit, humour, repartee, great artistry, and an entire ethos that this television programme is able to capture over the performance of two ghazals:
Main dhoondtaa hoon jise vo jahaan naheen miltaa.
Nai zameen naya aasmaan naheen miltaa
Sunaa karo merii jaan in se un se afsaane,
Sab ajnabi hain yahaan kaun kis ko pehchaane
Perhaps it is this ethos that we need to rediscover, appreciate and cherish if we wish to keep alive the grand but fast disappearing art of ghazal singing. Some days ago when the grand master of ghazal, Mehdi Hassan, died, news channels scrambled around for reactions and bites, interspersing tributes with footage of the by then dreadfully sick and infirm artiste on a hospital bed.
One should, of course, be grateful for small mercies, because his demise could well have remained unnoticed and unreported by the media. But by far a more fitting tribute would be if the ghazal is given its due importance by the Indian music industry. Because the ghazal, its poets and singers wait in the wings, ready to win the hearts of listeners, as in the past.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org