Begum Akhtar: The Tormented Soul Who Rose to be the Ghazal Queen

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghose

There is a very poignant pen portrait of one of the greatest ghazal singers, Akhtari Bai of Faizabad, who later became famous as Begum Akhtar. She sang Dadra and Thumri also. She chose these forms because they gave her the perfect opportunity to explore the poetry and convey myriad emotions. Rita Ganguly, her student and companion, puts in her book Ae Mohabbat (one of Begum Akhtar’s all-time famous ghazals), ”her taseer (soulful sound) was the result of years of loneliness, pain, suppression and silence. It also ensured that Akhtari Bai was a master of what Brecht called the alienation effect; she had the ability to sing the saddest song with a bright smile.” She was a classic example of how personal tragedy dogged her life and brought the best of music: soulful, pensive, melancholic.

begum-akhtar-rita-gangulyRita Ganguly co-authored the book with her publisher, Rita Sabharwal, and gives a gripping portrait of the tormented soul, who came home and cried after every big performance. Her torturous journey of life from Bibbi to Akhtari Sayyed to Akhtari Bai Faizabadi to Begum Ishtiaq Ahmed Abassi and, finally, to the name we all recognize, Begum Akhtar, has been well-documented in her book. She narrates how Begum Akhtar took one blow after another right from her childhood, in her undying quest to sing, and sing with perfection and from her heart. The early trauma of Begum Akhtar’s life resulted in the singer being consumed by melancholy. She always felt a deep vacuum in her life and lived in constant fear of what would happen next. Rita Ganguly rues that loneliness was her constant companion.

Begum Akhtar’s birth centenary was observed in 2014, and it was Rita Ganguly who paid a richly deserving homage, through her highly readable book, which remains her much labour of love and respect.

There are heart rending narratives, though unconfirmed and rejected by Ganguly, of how she was not allowed to sing, having been married to a so-called respectable family. When she finally appeared on stage, she broke down and was quite crestfallen, that even death would be preferable to the music-less existence that she was forced to undergo. Her husband finally relented, and that set Begum Akhtar’s amazing musical journey to reach glorious heights.


Begum Akhtar in film Roti (Mehboob Khan, 1940)

She and all other professional female singers of her time had to fight conservative male patriarchy, their derisive and barely concealed contempt and downright hostility. The stifling boundaries that the patriarchy set for women, didn’t allow much space for creative pursuits, if these involved women to be in public domain. That she overcame severe obstacles by battling adversity, the orthodox society had placed on her and countless other women performers, speaks volumes of her gutsy character. It is because of the indomitable courage and fierce determination to pursue music as a passion, and excel, breaking free from the suffocating societal taboo, that today women can hold their heads high, and follow their dreams, without any social pressure.

Begum Akhtar was no ordinary singer. Sarojini Naidu praised her that she was brilliant; the legendary Gauhar Jaan predicted she would be a great ghazal singer. And much later, as she became a household name with her sublime voice and mellifluous singing, she remained humble, though moody and unpredictable.

Akhtar sang for many contemporary poets, including poets of yore, Jalaluddin Rumi, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib. We all remember her for some of the matchless singing style associated with her, that has endeared her to all her aficionados and countless music admirers: ‘Yeh naa thi hamari kismet’, ‘mere humnafas, mere humnawan’, ‘Kuch to duniya ki inaayat ne dil tod diya’, ‘ai mohabbat tere anjam pe rona aaya,’ and many more. Incidentally, ‘Ai Mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya’ made her a household name in India, and during those days, in public concerts, she had to sing the ghazal multiple times, each time giving a different treatment in her renditions, making the audience spellbound.

The right kind of pathos the rendering created among the audience that many of whom came to identify themselves in similar situation. The way she sang the words ‘ronaa aayaa’ really made many eyes moist, such was the mesmerising impact her singing would make on the listeners.

She who gave joy to millions of listeners of many generations, including great and very renowned Hindustani classical musicians, but her own life was to be full of sorrow, pain, deep melancholy, abusive relationships, and betrayal by people she loved. This was echoed by Sheela Dhar, an eminent musicologist, in her book “Raga ‘n Josh – Stories from a Musical Life”, and I quote: “She was given to occasional attacks of melancholy which could last for days and were as much a part of her as her sparkle. During these times she was inconsolable, though her friends never gave up trying to cheer her up. In this frustrating process, I discovered that the only role in which she felt really comfortable was that of the wronged woman. She was fully persuaded for the moment that life was made up of unbearably tragic happenings and that these constituted a terrible reality. She lived each moment intensely, emoting inwardly, languishing in her sorrow. Her heart remained permanently pierced by a dagger which some unfeeling and insensitive person was twisting. Despite her sorrow and pain, she conducted in public with the greatest reserve and dignity. She was a singer of exceptional charm too and there are legendary stories afloat about her extraordinary life. Above all, steering clear of everything, was her exquisite singing and she devoted every moment of her life to music, which remained with her till the very end.”

There is an unforgettable ghazal composed by Sudarshan ‘Fakir’ ‘Kuchh to duniya ki inaayat ne dil tod diya’, that Begum Akhtar lent her magical voice, which reflected her trauma and pain, and the suffering that she endured:

कुछ तो दुनिया की इनायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

और कुछ तल्खिहालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

हम तो समझे थे कि बरसात में बरसेगी शराब

आई बरसात तो बरसात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

दिल तो रोता रहे और आँख से आंसू ना बहे

इश्क़ की ऐसी रवायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

वो मेरे हैं मुझे मिल जायेंगे जायेंगे

ऐसे बेकार खयालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

आपको प्यार है मुझसे कि नहीं है मुझसे

जाने क्यों ऐसे सवालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

Rita Ganguly took all these years to muster courage to write about her guru, to share her Ammi’s story, as she says in her inimitable style, “not just as a student but as a woman who has seen another woman’s life from such close quarters.” Akhtar died after a heart attack suffered during a concert in Ahmedabad in 1974.

As Rita Ganguly has been seeking to carry forward her Ammi’s legacy through her songs, she believes that Begum Akhtar would be best understood by her melodious ghazal — Khushi ne mujhko thukraya hai, dard-e-gham ne pala hai (Happiness eluded me, and pain nurtured me). This summed up her story and her musical odyssey.