An obsession with love & pain

musical legend

HIGH on music Begum Akhtar (left) at a performance.

(If it is madness that you wish for me/   then make me mad, lest fate make you like me/ O ye onlookers!/ Do not turn back and stare at me in mirth/ Lest love also make you mad like me) — Behzaad Lakhnavi

And what happens when one gets mad with love — it creates a magic called Begum Akhtar. No doubt this was one of the favourite ghazals of the much-adored diva, who could create ecstasy out of pain. While on one hand her intense hunger for love made her art more passionate, the immense sense of suffering transformed it into a heady concoction that touched and moved everybody — from fakirs to nawabs and pandits to pucca sahibs. This and many more unknown facets of Begum’s life has been unveiled in Begum Akhtar: Love’s Own Voice by S Kalidas, recently brought out by Roli Books.

The book not only traces the unique musical journey of a tawaif from a forgotten town in Uttar Pradesh to the national stage as the queen of ghazals, it also explores the colourful persona of Akhtari bringing alive successfully both the flamboyance as well as the loneliness of a woman, who believed in love as an end in itself.

In simple and readable prose the author has, in fact, weaved a treasure trove, not only for the fans of Akhtari, but also anyone interested in human relations and social history. “It is not a biography. I would describe it as an intimate monograph into one aspect of her life, which was the need to love and be pained by it,” says Kalidas. Delving deep into the life of Begum Akhtar as a person rather than an artist, the author seeks to find out how she was constantly tormented by the twists and turns of her own destiny, which in turn gave her music a melancholic charm.

According to the author, of all the personas she donned, the one Akhtari identified with the most was that of the unrequited lover in pain. Quoting Sheila Dhar, wife of Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary P N Dhar and a close associate of Begum, he says, “Love was a condition of life for her. If love did not happen, she had to invent it. And if there was no pain in it, she would invent that too. The slightest injury to her ‘self’ would torment her like a dagger driven deep into her heart.”

This feeling of pain remained with Akhtari even during her heydays, though even her near and dear ones did not know what her sorrows were. “At the end of her life she had achieved pretty much everything she wanted. She had her music and her admirers; there was no real want of money. But as with many great artists, she too, nursed an undefined need. A need that could not be fulfilled. Perhaps, if that need were not there, Begum Akhtar would not have been there either,” the author says, quoting Saleem Kidwai, another close associate of Akhtari.

It was to his surprise that when Kalidas went to Mumbai to interview some of the artists who could throw light on Akhtari’s brief stint in movies, he was told about the wild parties that the pretty lass used to host. “Some of the extras told me that Akhtari used to throw parties in Juhu beach and drink so much that she had to be carried into her car,” says Kalidas. It is this tempestuous life that Kalidas terms as ‘desperate defiance’, which attracted him to keep aside his job as an art critic and journalist and make the documentary Hai Akhtari on the life of the Begum a few years back.

The book, which heavily draws from the documentary as well as from the personal reminiscences of Akhtari’s disciples and associates, also gives an interesting account of Akhtari’s liaison with Nawab Raza Ali Khan of Rampur. ‘There was this seven-stringed necklace of Basra pearls in the Rampur collection and from the seventh string of this necklace, hung a big diamond pendent. The nawab used to say that if there is anything more lustrous than that diamond, it is the smile of Akhtari. However, after a couple of years Akhtari got tired of the nawab and felt terribly restricted by the court life in Rampur. One day, without telling anyone, she left the city and the necklace left with her.’

It was perhaps to escape the clutches of the nawab and also to get social acceptance that Akhtari turned her gaze towards Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and subsequently married him. Life as Mrs Abbasi was respectable, but at the same time claustrophobic for Akhtari as she had to give up singing and become a purdanasheen.

“She did miss singing,” said Sayeeda Raza, a producer at All India Radio, Lucknow, who helped Akhtari marry Abbasi. “But more than, that she missed the whisky. And I panicked, for I had to-tommed eulogies about her good conduct and her chastity. But within the first few years of the marriage, she had started drinking and meeting people at her mother’s home and I must say that Ishtiaq bhai bore it all very stoically.”

Akhtari knew and appreciated Abbasi’s role in taking her away from kotha and putting her on stage as he was the one who nurtured her talent and made her proficient in Urdu and Persian poetry. When after a silence of six troubled years, Akhtar returned to professional singing via the AIR, no one could stop her soaring flight. “Many of her contemporaries like Siddheshwari Devi were better trained than Akhtari, who was never good at the grammar of music,” says Kalidas, as Begum was more interested in the tune and lyrics of the song. “She used to say asar hona chaiye (it should leave an impact on the listener’s mind),” he says.

And the effect continues.

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