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Begum Akhtar

by Mohan Nadkarni

First Published in: The Economic Times, Bombay on October 25, 1981

Death came to Begum Akhtar on the performing stage on the night of October 30, 1974. The place was Ahmedabad, far from her home-town, Lucknow. The concert literally proved to be her swan-song. The euphorious delight she had shared with her packed audience for three hours was overtaken by a pall of gloom in a matter of moments.

Not only Ahmedabad but India as a whole mourned her loss deeply. True enough, the name of Begum Akhtar had a special significance and meaning for connoisseurs of thumri, ghazal and dadra. Each of these song-forms express a vital species of poetry with a charm and appeal of their own. Flexible in form and lyrical in content, they offer ample scope for expressing the subtest nuances of emotion. In other words, sensuous romanticism is the very essence of these singing forms and their renditions call for a great deal of talent and imagination on the part of the singer to depict their lyrical fineries and musical subtleties.

The likes of Begum Akhtar are born but rarely. Timbre and tone coursed through her veins. The Faizabad-born Akhtaribai was barely 7 when she was captivated by the music of Chandabai, an artiste of a moving theatrical company. Soon she embarked on her musical career, receiving initial training from Imdad Khan, a sarangi-player from Patna, and then from Ata Mohammad Khan of Patiala and Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana, then based in Lahore. They were all classical maestros - and it might surprise many of Begum's votaries to know that her supreme artistry in thumri, ghazal and dadra had its moorings in the tradition of pure classicism. This also, incidentally, explains her penchant for setting her light classical repertoire to essentially classical tunes.

Begum Akhtar's real aptitude had always been for thumri, ghazal and dadra in which she was destined to be peerless. She was inspired to achieve her goal by Jaddan Bai, a noted disciple of the great Maujuddin Khan (and mother of the late celebrated film actress, Nargis), and the equally noted Barkat Ali Khan, the more gifted but less fortunate brother of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Her husband, Mr. Ishtiaq Abbasi, a Lucknow barrister and a great connoisseur of Urdu poetry and music, also helped her acquire literary appreciation of the great ghazals of Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Jigar Moradabadi, which she used to sing with passion.

It was not only the hypnotic quality of Begum Akhtar's voice or the authenticity of style and approach that compelled special admiration from her countless votaries. It was equally the youthful exuberance she so naturally revealed in her singing till her death at 60. Strange but true, she did not take special care or observe diet to keep her voice in perfect condition. She was in fact a chain-smoker and a hard drinker. To her, her voice was Allah'a gift. And she would say, in all humility, that she had done nothing for it. To quote a perceptive rasika: "The peculiar charm of her voice was easier felt than described. Hers was a strange voice - not round or petal-Soft, but angular pincer-like. It was seasoned with an occasional ``crack" ravishing like a beauty spot on a fair face"

A regular broadcaster, Begum Akhtar also had to her credit nearly 400 songs in commercial discs. Yet she remained unspoiled by the name and fame she earned as the ``queen of light classical music".

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