People’s eyes light up when I mention Begum Akhtar.

From the owner of a shop selling chikankari clothing in Lucknow’s Chowk, whose father was a huge fan, to a tourist guide who drives an e-rickshaw in Husainabad. From an Urdu poet and a ghazal singer to a prince of the erstwhile royal family of Mahmudabad—they all know and love her music.

A young Begum Akhtar in the film ‘Roti’
A young Begum Akhtar in the film ‘Roti’

For this was her city—not where she was born butthe place she made her home, first as a young girl whose musical career was managed by her mother, and then as an established singer who commanded deep respect.

It is said that her remarkable career can be divided into two phases—first as Akhtari Bai, then as Begum Akhtar after her marriage. When she is remembered now, it is mostly as a singer of great repute, celebrated for her masterful rendition of ghazals,thumri and dadra.

Akhtar “epitomized (Lucknow’s) feudal high culture both in her music and poetry, but also in her speech and manners, as well as her personal style. Her entire persona evoked a nostalgic, feudal Lucknow," writes scholar Regula Burckhardt Qureshi in an article titled “In Search Of Begum Akhtar: Patriarchy, Poetry, And Twentieth Century Indian Music" (2001) that analyses a lessdiscussed but central aspect of Akhtar’s life—that she was a tawaif, a hereditary courtesan performer and professional female musician.

Akhtari Bai Faizabai was born in 1914 in Faizabad to the courtesan Mushtari Bai. She lived through a turbulent time in India’s history, both in terms of the politics of gender and changing performance contexts.

The hand-painted jacket of a gramophone record of Begum Akhtar’s.
The hand-painted jacket of a gramophone record of Begum Akhtar’s.

This was a time when courtesan performers (from tawaifs in the north to devadasis in the south) were being demonized not just by the British colonial government but also by the Indian nationalist elite. Both equated courtesan performers with sex workers; the nationalists sought to “rescue" them while appropriating their arts repertoire and “cleansing" them of erotic material.

At the same time, talented, skilled women of courtesan lineage were performing in new contexts—moving from salon- and court-based settings to gramophone recordings, radio, theatre and films. But it was getting harder and harder to perform in public while their courtesan identities remained public. National institutions like All India Radio had made it almost impossible for unmarried women to perform.

To escape social censure, many got married. It is not as if they did not marry earlier, but now there was pressure on them to hide their origins to keep their careers going. It is in this context that Begum Akhtar’s own marriage became significant.

Historian Saleem Kidwai, who knew Begum Akhtar closely and who is deeply interested in the histories of courtesan performers, says her marriage was akin to a social coup. As Akhtari, she had been a singer-actor who had, in the tradition of many accomplished tawaifs, been trained by famous ustads, among them Ata Mohammad Khan of the Patiala gharana. She had briefly acted in films and had a successful run as a recording artist.

As Begum Akhtar, she was well-known as a singer but she could only erase the stigma associated with her origins because of her status as the wife of a “respectable" man, Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi, a taluqdar (landowner) and barrister. Unlike most other courtesans who had married “respectable" men, she wasn’t the second wife (Abbasi was a widower). “He knew all the gentry, and he proudly introduced her into his circle, therefore she had access to every respectable family because nobody could refuse to see him.

“And when she met them, she charmed everybody," Kidwai says. This legendary charm is in evidence in every anecdote I hear about her, just as it is visible in every recording of her performing live. In some ways, this wit and charm wasn’t just a personal quality but an essential part of the tawaif performance. Kidwai, who first saw her perform in Delhi when he was only 17 and was immediately spellbound, tells me of her “tremendous skill as a mehfili performer". As a courtesan who had sung for years for a live audience, often without even a microphone, and who had been trained to understand the complex poetry she was singing, she was obviously a powerful performer.

And yet, while this power is justly celebrated, the context in which her skills were honed is hushed up. Akhtari, and many others like her, had to stay silent about their backgrounds because of the prejudice that dismissed and derided their communities (as ethnomusicologists Anna Morcom and Amelia Maciszewski, among others, have documented, hereditary female performers came from a number of marginalized caste backgrounds).

Traces of this history can be found everywhere in Lucknow, if you know where to look. Take, for instance, the erstwhile Victoria Park in Kaisarbagh, a neighbourhood built by nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the Awadhi ruler deposed by the British and exiled to Kolkata in 1856. It was renamed Begum Hazrat Mahal Park several decades ago. “Begum Hazrat Mahal took a very prominent part in the First War of Independence in 1857 and led the rebel forces," says an article published in the Lucknow edition of National Herald in 1957. What the reports fail to mention is that Hazrat Mahal was a courtesan, formerly known as Mahak Pari, and part of Wajid Ali Shah’s parikhana—a building where courtesans practised and performed music and dance for the nawab.

The cover of a book on Akhtar.
The cover of a book on Akhtar.

The premises of the parikhana eventually became the Marris College of Music. It is now called the Bhatkhande School of Music. This is an ironic turn of events, given that the man it is named after—Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande—did everything in his power to discredit courtesan performers. “He and others of his ilk constantly bemoaned the displacement of Hindustani music in the hands of ‘ignorant and narrow-minded’ Muslim ustads and ‘dancing girls’, and argued that Indian music needed to be ‘rescued’ by morally upright, dedicated and educated men," writes Saba Dewan in her seminal book on courtesan history, Tawaifnama.

Himanshu Bajpai, a writer and performer of dastangoi (an Urdu storytelling art form), takes me to the old neighbourhood of Chowk, and shows me the lanes where the kothas, or salons, of Lucknow’s courtesans were located. Today, the area is a bustling shopping district, and the buildings formerly occupied by tawaifs now hawk chikankari clothes. The women who lived and performed in these buildings are long gone, driven out through a series of social and legal measures, including repeated police raids. But a look at some of the symmetrical large windows on some of the balconies and terraces, especially of the older buildings, reveals their unspoken histories.

Bajpai also takes me to Begum Akhtar’s mazaar—she is buried next to her mother. The grave site is in an old part of Lucknow, on a plot of land which belonged to Akhtar and was much larger before it was divided among her descendents. Until it was restored in 2014, her birth centenary year, the grave was not pleasant to look at—cemented, with grass growing wildly around it. Bajpai says it was regularly desecrated by people abusing drugs, having sex, urinating or defecating.

These days it is protected by a brick boundary wall. A small sign outlines Akhtar’s life, and another one lists the people responsible for the restoration, among them her most famous pupil, Shanti Hiranand, and Kidwai himself. The Sanatkada Trust, a non-profit run by Madhavi Kukreja, led the restoration, and the pleasing, symmetrical design of the site, which includes delicate pietra dura work on both graves, was done by architect Ashish Thapar. Even tucked away in an old, busy part of the city, it is a quiet testament to the power of the singer’s memory and her tremendous impact.

Every year, on her birth anniversary on 7 October, a small audience gathers at the mazaar to hear a singer perform some of the songs she was so well loved for—past performers have included Hiranand and Shubha Mudgal. People sit around the grave with delicate harsingar blossoms falling on them as they listen to the music.

Kidwai says a descendant of Akhtar gave up the plot so that it could be restored properly. A devout Muslim, he was uneasy about the performance of music at her grave. “Her spirit will be tormented by this," he told the historian, who had to convince him that a woman who had dedicated her entire existence to music would not have objected to it being performed in her memory.

Kidwai witnessed her performances in Delhi and elsewhere as Begum Akhtar, though old friends would still call her Akhtari. It was on the recommendation of a former tawaif called Benazir that Akhtar did something quite unprecedented—the performance of the ganda-bandh ceremony (the tying of a sacred thread) by a teacher to a pupil, signifying the formalization of the relationship. She had two ganda-bandh pupils—Hiranand and Anjali Banerjee. She also made history in other ways. The nawab of Rampur, who wanted to marry her, came to her kotha, a fact that Kidwai said was also unprecedented. “When he left, she gave all the new furniture she had used to decorate the house to his courtiers and gave her new car to his son," he says.Rich patrons had prided themselves on their generosity to courtesans. Here was a courtesan who was showering her generosity on the nawab instead.

It should not have been extraordinary for a singer of her stature to formally take on pupils. But it was, because the ganda-bandh ceremony was the domain of male ustads. It should not have been extraordinary that Akhtar, as a former tawaif, was featured on national platforms like All India Radio and Doordarshan, and given honours like the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan. But it was.

She was known for singing about love like nobody else did—the first ghazal she became known for, as Akhtari, was Behzad Lakhnavi’s Diwana banana hai toh. The last couplet of this ghazal may well have described her own art—behzad har ik gaam pe ik sajda-e-masti/har zarre ko sang-e-dar-e-janana bana de (Bahzad, at every step, I bow in intoxication/every particle of dust appears to be the keystone of my beloved’s threshold).

There is no doubt that she had to suffer to achieve this recognition—her life as a public performer depended on hiding the reality of another life that simmered silently under the surface. Now, conversations are finally opening up about the hypocrisy that led to this erasure. It is time to acknowledge her life in all its fullness.

Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer, journalist and editor.

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