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A Retrospect into the Life of Mallika-e-Ghazal - Begum Akhtar

“Deewana Banaana Hai to Deewana Bana De” was one of her intoxicating compositions which contained a captivating effervescence maddening her listeners with her mellowness and depth of appeal…this was non- other than Akhtaribai Faizabadi, popularly known as Begum Akhtar. 


Perhaps Begum Akhtar was the most vital link with lucknow’s colorful musical past, as her music bestowed old world charm  of the glorious era of the Nawabs of lucknow, that represented rich music, high class urdu poetry, polished mannerisms, tasteful living and polite linguistics. Her music evolved as an old wine which enriched over time with rich flavor and mesmerizing appeal.


Begum Akhtar was born on 7th October, 1914 in Faizabad town of Uttar Pradesh. She showed keen interest in music at a very young age and was sent to train under the great Sarangi player, Ustad Imdad Khan. Later, she learnt classical music from great exponents of Hindustani Classical Music like Ustad Ata Mohammad Khan, Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan and finally she became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan Saheb.


Since childhood Bibbi (Begum Akhtar’s childhood name) was a restless and a stubborn child, who was extremely sensitive to music with a gifted talent for memorizing songs. Her initial taleem started with Ustad Imadad Khan of Patna who chose to begin her lessons with raga Kamod. Young Bibbi found the raga unfamiliar and thus was unable to cope with it, as she was  more attracted to simple village songs and folk tunes and thus discontinued her lessons. Later she moved to Gaya with her mother where she started her music lessons under Ustad Ghulam Mohammed Khan for some time. 


On one of her visits to Faizabad, she came across Ustad Ata Mohammed Khan of Patiala who got impressed with her eagerness and talent to learn music and  took charge to impart her vocal training. The Ustad stressed on voice culture techniques and made her practice in the lower octave (Kharaj Bharan). Initially Bibbi was again on the verge of giving up her lessons, unless one day she heard her Ustad elaborate the nostalgic Raga Gunkali that transformed her completely, to take her taleem earnestly. Begum Sahiba once said, ‘ I was so silly as a child as I didn’t pay heed to the vocal exercises taught by my Ustad, but today my heart overflows with gratitude for him, who so patiently molded my voice  to make it so pliant”.


At the tender age of fifteen Bibbi gave her first public performance that took place at  the Music Conference  in Calcutta  organized to raise funds to help the earthquake victims in Bihar. Many of the famous music maestros of that time refused to perform, making it difficult for the organizers to commence the show. Ustad Ata Mohammad Khan asked the organizers to give a chance to his little pupil Bibbi to present a few songs at the concert. Young Bibbi was initially very nervous as she was asked to face such a huge audience for the first time, but succeeded in enthralling the audiences by singing four Ghazals and five Dadras at a stretch receiving a thunderous ovation. The nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu who was present at the concert came to her and said “when I came to the conference I wanted to stay  for just a while, but your music captivated me and forced me to stay till the end”. Bibbi has left an impression on her first audiences as they were moved by her voice and this was the day that marked her journey to fame. The next morning newspapers were full of her praises. “What made it more thrilling was to receive a Khadi sari from the nightingale herself as a token of appreciation”, said Begum Akhtar once in an interview. 


Akhtari’s  first Ghazal record ("Wo asire-dame-bala hun jise chain tak bhi na aa sake") released by Gramophone Records Company comprised of a melodious collection of Ghazals which became a huge success, followed by cores of thumris, dadras  releases that  made her popular over time. Sound training in khayals and ragas especially taught by Ustad Wahid khan sahib of Lahore, made her singing multi-dimensional as she innovatively sang the same Thumris, Dadras and Ghazals in different ragas at different occasions as per the her mood. Her repertoire included ragas like Kalawati, Deshkar, Chandrakauns, Kalingda, Kaunshi kanhada, chayanat, Des, Narayani,  that she blended with both  the Punjab and Poorabang Thumri’s of which she became a leading exponent.


In 1930's, Young Akhtari was fascinated by the  glamour of cinema and chose to act  in few Hindi films like the ‘Ek Din Ki Badshahat’, ‘Ameena’ (1934), ‘Mumtaz Begum’ (1934), ‘Jawaani Ka Nasha’ (1935), ‘Naseeb Ka Chakkar’ (1935). She also got an opportunity to showcase her melodious voice for the films ‘Ehsaan’, ‘Daana Pani’ and Satyajit Ray’s  film ‘Jalsaghar’ and Mehboob Khan’s film titled ‘Roti’.


In the year 1945 Akhtari married Barrister Ishtiaq  Ahmed Abbasi and became Begum Akhtar. Due to family restrictions, she chose to settle down in the domestic households and gave up music nearly for a span of five years.  This acted detrimental to her health and music became the only medicine for her life. In the year 1949, her husband understood her plight and passion for music, encouraging her to return back to pursue singing.


Begum Akhtar had an endless reservoir of Ghazals as she developed a deep understanding of literary nuances of Ghazals by great Urdu poets like Ghalib, Jigar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Shakkel Badauni and Hasrat  Jaipuri that were introduced to  her by her husband Abbasi Sahib, who was a Barrister by profession but a connoisseur of music and Urdu Poetry. Her come back performances started with the Lucknow Radio station  and the  cultured Mehfils (informal musical gatherings) and Mushayaras (gathering of renowned poets) in Lucknow, that gave her the most pleasant environment and true connoisseurs of her art.


Begum Akhtar was India’s most refined Ghazal performer, who was honored by the titles like; Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals). She bestowed an inimitable style of singing and performed mostly self-composed masterpieces like “Woh Jo Humme Tumme Quarar Tha” and the Dadras like “Hamri Atarya Pe Aao Sanwarya Deikha Deikhi Balam Hui Jaey” and “Cha Rahi Kari Ghata, Jiya Mora Laharaye Hai” and many more, that drew  large audiences in her packed concert schedules as she travelled around the globe to sing for her music lovers be it India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, U.S.S.R, crossing all physical boundaries and making her the pride of India. Begum Akhtar was honored by the Padma Sri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her outstanding contribution to Indian music.


Despite her falling health Begum Akhtar kept enthralling her audiences with her music with a challenging spirit as she said once “I am not afraid of death. My ambition is to die while singing beautifully” and so true was this to happened, on October 22, 1974,when the world was listening to her  live performance  on the All India Radio Sangeet Sammelan Concert in Ahmedabad, she  raised her pitch, and felt a  strain in her voice, and was within a few moments  rushed  to the  hospital, where she breathed her last on 30 October 1974 leaving her connoisseurs stunned, forlorn and heartbroken!


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