From the archives: Begum Akhtar, queen of melody

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From the archives: Begum Akhtar, queen of melody

From the archives: Begum Akhtar, queen of melody
© Provided by India Today Music can be a powerful form of communication. And Begum Akhtar, in my opinion, was one of the first effective communicators. Sixty years ago, she realised the power of the medium and its ability to convey a message. Hernotes carried a rare pathos which she zealously guarded as a stamp of her inimitable style and identity.

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Today, at a time when classical music has fewer and fewer takers,Akhtar continues to be a rage. It has been 34 years since she passed away, but her recordings are still best-sellers. While poets recitedghazals, she brought them to the classical stage and made classical music accessible to the common man.She remains immortal for the sheer aestheticism of her vocal style.

The reason why Akhtar’s music has endured is simple: she knew how to communicate with her audience. She was as careful in choosing the lyrics of her renderings as she was in delivering them in terms of dictionand tonalilty. Having mastered the art of simplicity, she derived great satisfaction from the fact that her audiences expected nothing short of perfection from her. There was a personal rapport that Akhtar managed to achieve with each member of her audience, almost as if she was singing exclusively for an individual listener. I once asked her how she looked so beautiful on the stage. She replied,”Main unko dekhti been (I see the Lord while singing)”. That was the level of bhakn’ in her music— and life. She was a true Sufi.

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Akhtar was born in 1914 in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. Her musical training began under Atta Ahmed Khan of Patiala. She not only learnt classical music but also the semi-classical forms like ghazals, bhajans, thumris and dadras. A broad-minded person who shunned the shackles of tradition, she believed in the empowerment of women. I happened to be taking lessons from the thumri queen, Sidheshwari Devi. But one day, Ammi (as I fondly addressed her) approached Devi and asked her if she could have me as her disciple. Once Devi agreed, she took me under her wings.

There and then, the ganda band (tying of the thread) ceremony was performed, with Devi making me wear her own Banaras silk sarifor for the ritual. The ganda band ceremony was the preserve of male students in those days, but that day, the tradition was broken. Akhtar was a reformer who was well ahead of her times. I remember the day when she took me to Cuttack to meet the famous guru of Indore, Ustad Amir Khan, so that he could train me in voice culture. It is unthinkable today for a guru to think of the all-round development of his or her students. She believed in promoting her shishyas.

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I also remember how on a concert trip to Srinagar, she told me that I will be giving a solo performance on stage. I was stunned. She also told me not to sing from her repertory. I was speechless. All through the concert, she sat behind me. It was her unique way of promoting her students.

Akhtar was a secularist and a nationalist. After she received the Padma Shri, a few maulvis came to meet her. As she was a state awardee, the maulvis thought she was close to the government and could put in a word for their cause. They complained that their masjid at Barabanki had been taken over by Hindus, who were performing puja at the site. Ammi heard them and asked to be excused. “After all, it isibadat (prayers) that is being held there,” she said. Even during 1971, she would urge neighbours to switch off the lights at night. And when she heard the National Anthem on the radio, she would stand up. She was a true patriot.

Q: What was Begum Akhtar’s real name?

Akhtaribai Faizalbadi

Q: When did she give her first performance?

When she was 15 years old.

Q: For which company did she cut her first record?

Meghaphone Record company.

Q: Which was the first movie she acted in?

Mumtaz Begum in 1934

Q: She stopped performing for five years after marriage. How did she start again?

She fell ill and music was prescribed as the only remedy.

The author, a renowned theatre artiste and singer, was a disciple of Begum Akhtar

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