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Begum Akhtar’s mastery of the ghazal, thumri and dadra forms accorded her an unparalleled iconicity.
Begum Akhtar’s mastery of the ghazal, thumri and dadra forms accorded her an unparalleled iconicity.

A loyal patron

The genius, mastery and expressive style of Begum Akhtar

She was one of the country’s most charismatic singers, with a bewitching smile and a unique voice soaked in such expressive pain and passion that it placed her in the league of all-time legends. Scores of singers attempted in vain to sound like her and still do, but alas, her genius, mastery and expressive style remain elusive for most. Loved and revered by countless music lovers, Begum Akhtar’s mastery of the ghazal, thumri and dadra forms accorded her an unparalleled iconicity.

Forty years ago, she was invited to perform at the Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune. Focused on Indian classical music, the festival is one of the largest and most prestigious music events in the country, made even more venerated by the fact of its having been started by none other than the great Pandit Bhimsen Joshi as an annual memorial for his guru Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar, popularly known as Sawai Gandharva. Among the many music lovers who thronged to hear Begum Akhtar perform at the Sawai Gandharva Festival in 1972 was Satish Tanksale, a businessman who recently had moved to Pune. In that inexplicable, mysterious way in which music is known to work its magic on listeners, Tanksale joined the ranks of Begum Akhtar admirers even though he had little or no knowledge of Urdu poetry. He remained an admirer even though that was the single occasion on which he witnessed her in concert, because on 30 October 1974, Begum Akhtar died tragically in Ahmedabad.

Several years later, Tanksale decided to retire and devote his time to the many areas of interest he had neglected in the pursuit of his business interests. He now found the time to explore Urdu poetry and music, both of which steadily became a passion. In the course of these pursuits, the voice of Begum Akhtar spoke to him through the words of the great masters of Urdu whose verses she rendered with such perfection and effortless ease. In 1972, he had been captivated by her performance. But now he felt a deep and intense reverence for her art that prompted him to travel to Lucknow to pay homage at her grave, and perhaps to catch a glimpse of “Ashiana", her home in Lucknow after her marriage to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi. In Lucknow, while asking for directions to the artiste’s mazaar (grave), it became apparent that few seemed to know or care. He finally found the graves of the great Begum Akhtar and her mother Mushtari Begum in a pathetic state of neglect. It was left to Tanksale to take up the broom and organize the cleaning of the area, as other admirers, disciples and followers had been prompted to do on their visits.

It took the efforts of many individuals and organizations to finally start restoring the grave of one of India’s greatest singers in 2012; among them Shanti Hiranand, eminent singer and senior disciple of Begum Akhtar, who approached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for help and succeeded in securing a special grant for the purpose from the ministry of culture and department of archaeology, historian and author Salim Kidwai, Sadbhavana Trust, architect Ashish Thapar and designer Parag Pradhan. But Tanksale’s efforts can neither be forgotten nor ignored, and it is for this reason that I choose to share his story, because it is the story of a music lover who made a difference.

For the last 12-13 years, he has felt compelled to make an annual pilgrimage to Lucknow, usually unaccompanied. He cannot explain why he feels the need to make the trip, or why he sobs uncontrollably and inconsolably at the mazaar. Or how and why he approached a number of senior and eminent musicians some years ago to sign a petition requesting the Uttar Pradesh government to give due attention and care to the mazaar of Begum Akhtar. He remains resolute and untiring in his devotion to Begum Akhtar, and is now dreaming of a suitable memorial for the singer.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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