Reminiscing the Queen of Ghazals

The tomb was covered by bushes and was difficult to approach

Reminiscing the Queen of Ghazals

She may have once captivated the audiences across the country by her “ghazals, thumri and dadra”, yet she needed to be “rescued” and “re-discovered” after having slipped almost into oblivion after her death 38 years ago.

And Begum Akhtar’s passionate plea in one of her most popular ghazals “mere hum-nafas, mere hum-nawan, mujhe dost ban ke daga na de” (my belo­ved, my companion, do not betray me) was answered by none other than the lovers of her “soulful” music. Those, who loved Begum Akhtar and her sweet renderings, indeed did not betray her.

An initiative by citizens made sure that the memories of the legendary ghazal singer from Awadh (the central region in Uttar Pradesh), who had been buried in the state capital after her death on October 30, 1974, remain alive in their hearts.

Begum Akhtar’s admirers literally re-discovered her legacy by restoring her tomb that had almost disappeared after being encroached upon by her own des­c­endants and some others. They also rec­­eived some support from the government.

The tomb of the “Queen of Ghazals,” which is located at Pasandbagh area in the old Lucknow, had been surrounded by buildings from all sides blocking the app­roach. “It had almost disappeared,” said Salim Kidwai, a historian of Awadh culture, who had family relations with Begum Akhtar. Kidwai is also working on a book on Begum Akhtar.

“The area had turned into a kind of unauthorised urban slum. It was impossible to locate her tomb. It had been covered by bushes. It would have slipped into oblivion if we had not intervened,” Kidwai said.

A group of Begum Akhtar’s admirers took up initiative to restore the singer’s legacy and put it back on the cultural map of Awadh. “People extended whatever help they could,” he pointed out. While Ashish Thapar, an architect, provided free advice, another admirer Parag Pradhan chipped in with the marble stones for the restoration work. Along with her “mazar” (tomb), the mazar of her mother, which is just beside it, was also restored.

Kidwai said that the Central government did provide financial assistance of  Rs 5 lakh  through a trust for the restoration work but the Uttar Pradesh government refused any aid. “It was shocking to say the least,” he said. “The tomb is a symbol associated with the rich culture of the Awadh region and Begum Akhtar’s admirers are spread all over the world. Yet the state government did not evince any interest in the work,” Kidwai lamented.

The restoration work, incidentally, was completed on October 30 this year, the day of her death anniversary, much to the joy of her admirers, recalled Kidwai. It took around two months to complete the work. Begum Akhtar’s association with Awadh is very strong. She was born at Faizabad town, about 125 km from Lucknow. In fact, she was known as Akhta­ribai Faizabadi though she became famous by the name of Begum Akhtar.

In spite of the strong association with the region, the tomb was the last symbol of her presence here. The house in Faizabad, where she was born, had been sold  and her house in the state capital was also bought a few years back. Begum Akhtar, who was trained in music by the great sarangi player Ustad Imdad Khan and later by great exponents like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and Ustad Jhande Khan Saheb, had given her first public performance at the age of 15.

She had also acted in a few Hindi films,which include Ameena (1934), Mumtaz Begum (1934), Jawaani Ka Nasha (1935), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1935). In all these films, she sang all her songs. The songs “Aye Ishq Mujhe Aur to Kuch Yaad” and “Hamein Dil Mein Basa Bhi Lo” were absolutely melodious and were liked by all. Her last movie was that of a classical singer in Satyajit Ray’s film “Jalsa Ghar”. “There were attempts by many singers to adopt her style but did not succeed. She could not be matched,” Kidwai emphasised.

Unfortunately after her marriage with barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi in 1945, she could not sing for four years because of family restrictions. She fell sick but music again came her rescue. In 1949, she returned to record at the Lucknow radio station and sang three ghazals and a dadra. Her last performance was at a concert in Ahmedabad.  She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and was awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan (posthumously) and also bestowed the title “Mallika-e-Ghazal” (queen of melodies).

“I had seen how Ammi’s (Begum Akhtar) resting place has been lying negl­ected and uncared for all these years. I am very pleased that Ammi's Mazaar has been restored and dedicated to the city of Lucknow and its citizens,” said Shanti Hiranand, Begum Akhtar’s disciple.

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