“God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
~Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
BEGUM AKHTAR (1914-74) was the most charismatic figure in 20th century Hindustani light classical music.
The Begum still casts a spell. The last from the great female singers of the tawaif (courtesan) community, Begum Akhtar, born Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, possessed a voice that intoxicated millions and exuded a charm that seduced nawabs and royalty.
Akhtaribai Faizabadi, or Begum Akhtar as she was more popularly known, was born on 7th October, 1914 in the small town of Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh in northern India. She was born in a high class family that was not musically inclined. However, at her uncle's insistence, she was sent to train under Ustaad Imdad Khan, the great sarangi exponent, and later under Ata Mohammed Khan. Later she travelled to Calcutta with her mother and started learning music from classical stalwarts like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and finally she became the disciple of Ustaad Jhande Khan Saheb.
Her first public performance was at the tender age of fifteen. She took the music world by storm. The famous poetess Smt. Sarojini Naidu appreciated her singing during a concert which was organized in the aid of victims of Bihar earthquake. She was greeted with "a stunned applause by the audience", who did not let her leave the stage until she sang four ghazals and five dadras at a stretch. Among the audience was a titanic figure of the era, Sarojini Naidu, also known as the 'Nightingale of India', who was lavish in her praise for the young singer.”Sarojini Naidu sent her a khadi sari in appreciation of her performance and that was as momentous as the standing ovation she got at her first concert." The day after the concert Akhtari was hailed as a prodigy by the newspapers. This encouraged her to continue singing ghazals with more enthusiasm. She also cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company at that time. A number of gramophone records were released carrying her ghazals, dadras, thumris, etc.
Born Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, Begum Akhtar began her training as a singer at age 7, and gave her first public performance at age 15 and soon became the voice of ghazals, dadras and thumris. In a biography of Begum Akhtar, Her father abandoned her , her mother and twin sister, a parting that led to a constant search for approval from her father, and one that she never ever got. At the age of 4 the siblings were poisoned and Begum Akhtar survived but her sister died, and a second parting left an indelible mark of sorrow on Akhtari Bai’s soul. A series of abusive relationships began with her first guru – a respected name in Indian Classical music, and was followed by an assault by a known royal patron of music from Bihar. At age 13 she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter whom she could never acknowledge as her child and always called her a sister! These traumas shaped a life full of melancholy that was channeled into the most divine music.
As a youngster, Akhtari was influenced by singer Jaddan Bai (mother of actress Nargis), and followed in her footsteps to move to Bombay to pursue an acting career in films. But after a few films like Ek Din Ka Badshah and Roti, she soon returned to her salon in Lucknow where she was vied for and wooed by the gentry.
One of her most ardent fans, Nawab of Rampur Raza Ali Khan was a regular at her salon. His liaisons with Akhtari Bai were to be heard frequently.“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 pendant. The nawab used to say that if there is anything more lustrous than that diamond, it is the smile of Akhtari.”
|Contribution To Hindi Films :|
| As An Actress |
1. King For A Day (1933)
Director : Raaj Hans
2. Ameena (1934)
Director : -
3. Roop Kumari (1934)
Director : Madan
4. Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1936)
Director : Pesi Karani
5. AnaarBala (1940)
Director : A M Khan
6. Roti (1942)
Director : Maadhav Kaale
| As A Singer |
Naseeb Ka Chakkar | -
1. Kalyug Hai Jabse Aaya Maya Ne...
Roti | Anna Sahab Mainkar
1. Wo Hans Rahe Hain Aah Kiye Jaa...
2. Ulajh Gaye Nayanwa Chhute Nahin...
3. Char Dino Ki Jawani Matwale...
4. Ai Prem Teri Balihari Ho...
5. Fir Fasle Bahaar Aayi Hai...
6. Rehne Laga Hai Dil Me Andhera...
Panna Dai | Gyan Dutt
1. Hamen Yaad Teri Sataane Lagi...
2. Main Raja Ko Apne Rijha Ke Rahungi...
Dana Pani | Mohan Junior
1. Ishq Mujhe Aur Kuchh To Yaad Nahi...
|Begum Akhtar In Roti (1942)|
You can cage the singer but not the song. ~Harry Belafonte.
After marriage to a respectable lawyer, she was told to stop singing, until poor health led to a prescription that she be allowed to sing to heal. In 1945, Begum AKhtar was married to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and became known as Begum Akhtar. However, after marriage, due to her husband's restrictions, she could not sing almost 5 years, and subsequently, she fell ill. Music was prescribed as the only remedy! In 1949, she returned to the recording studios. She sang three ghazals and a dadra at Lucknow Radio Station. She wept aferwards and returned to singing in concerts, a practice which lasted until her death somewhere along the line she had 7 abortions, and a bout with cocaine addiction, and eventually died of a heart attack after a concert at Ahmedabad – at the age of 60 years.
Somewhere along the line also followed a career in films (the last role was in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar) and a phenomenally productive career as a singer for All India Radio, concerts and many many records. Her performances moved female singers out from the shadow of kothas, royal palaces and onto the stage with the attending aura of respectability! A Padma Shri, followed by a Sangeet Natak Academy Award, and a posthumous Padma Bhushan are not really needed to appreciate the unique voice that resonated with pain. She was posthumously awarded the Padmabhushan. Begum Akhtar sang at numerous mushairas and concerts and left behind a discography of close to four hundred songs, mostly classical numbers that she herself composed.
During her last concert in Ahmedabad, she raised the pitch of her voice as she felt that her singing had not been as good as she had wanted it to be. She was not feeling well on the fateful day. The additional demand and stress that she put herself under resulted in her falling ill and was rushed to the hospital. She died on October 30, 1974, in the arms of Nilam Gamadia, her friend, who invited her to Ahmedabad, which has become her final performance. She passed away, leaving a big void in ghazal lovers' hearts.
Just eight days before her death, she recorded Kaifi Azmi's ghazal:
“sunaa karo merii jaan un se un ke afsaane
sab ajanabii hai.n yahaa.N kaun kis ko pahachaane”
Today her name is almost synonymous with the concept of ghazal gayaki, and her imitable style of singing which immortalized her, and gave her the title of
“Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals)”.