Listening to Mir Taqi Mir’s Ghazal ‘Ulti Ho Gaeein Sab Tadbeerain/Kutch Na Dawa Nei Kaam Kiya’ composed by music composer Khayyam, my mind travels back to late 1960s when this beautiful number was released. One can notice strong vocals in lower notes entering into softer tones on higher notes to remain tuneful. Emotions and expressions are dominating factor in this Ghazal. As a matter of fact, it was the style of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi while performing a Ghazal or a Geet, who later turned as Begum Akhtar. Similarly, I travel back in time in 1969 on Ghalib’s centenary when Ghalib’s Ghazals were released in a Long Play record composed by Khayyam with Akhtari Bai Faizabadi’s singing ‘Yei Na Thi Hamari Qismet Keh Visaal-e-Yaar Hota’ based on Raag Bihaag. The other Ghazals in this album were rendered by Muhammad Rafi. In this Ghazal, Khayyam used Sitar interludes whereas he had opted for Sarangi in the former. Ghazal ‘Woh Jo Hum Main Tum Main Qarar Tha Tumhain Yaad Ho Keh Na Yaad Ho’ with soothing Sarangi and Santoor interludes makes Begum Akhtar’s rendering memorable. This is again Khayyam’s composition. This composition is in seven-beat rhythmic pattern. The Ghazal that won kudos for Akhtari was ‘Aei Muhabbat Tere Anjaam Pei Rona Aaya/Jane Kyun Aaj Tere Naam Pei Rona Aaya’ by Shakeel Bidayuni. Even after seventy years of its recording, it is a very largely heard Ghazal. Normally her rendering had instrumental support of Tanpura, harmonium and Tabla.Akhtari’s teachers With passage of time, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi became a well-known Indian singer of classical music, famous for her renditions of the Ghazal, Dadra, and Thumri genres. She had learnt tricks and traits of classical music from many great teachers including Ustad Imdad Khan, the great Sarangi exponent from Patna followed by Atta Mohammed Khan of Patiala. She then went on to learn from Mohammad Khan and Abdul Waheed Khan of Lahore before finally becoming the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan. Akhtari had started performing at the age of fifteen, picked by the famous poet Sarojini Naidu during a concert which was organised in the aid of victims of the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. Her likeness and praise motivated the girl to pursue a career as a singer. Her versatility can be judged from her rendering of ‘Thumri Saiyyan Gaye Pardais, Ab Kaise Katain Meri Sooni Sajariya’ with strong vocals in Raag Pilu. Many other examples can be quoted.Some popular numbers Narendra Kusnur comments on October 25th, 2017 that if there is a voice that defined pathos, dard (pain), deepness, gehraai (depth), technique, taiyyari (expertness), Akhtari Bai Faizabadi was definitely somewhere on top, globally. Her Ghazal by Shakeel Bidayuni ‘Mere Humnafas Mere Humnava’ vouches for this observation. Initially hooked to Pop music, Naredra’s equations changed after listening to Alhtari. Tull and Floyd were put on hold and he would listen to Akhtari even after his roommate Kant slept. His roommate took all his cassettes with him when he left for another job, leaving Narendra orphaned. For the next five years, her songs would only appear as earworms in the recesses of his mind. One day, at Rhythm House, Mumbai, he picked up a double compilation. The surprise was that many compositions were credited to the great Khayyam.Some old favourite numbers that captivated Akhtari’s fans since decades are Mirza Ghalib’s ‘Dil Hi Tou Hai Na Sang-o-Khisht’ and the real discovery were her rendition of Sudarshan Faakir’s ‘Kuch Tou Duniya Ki Inaayaat Ne Dil Tore Diya’, ‘Ishq Mein Ghairat-e-Jazbaat Ne Rone Na Diya’ and ‘Apunon Ke Sitam Hamse Bataaye Nahin Jaate’. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Ghazals ‘Aaye Kutch Abr Kutch Sharaab Aaye’ and ‘Donon Jahaan Teri Mohabbat Mein Haar Kei’ and light classical repertoire like ‘Deewana Banaana Hai Tou’ and ‘Hamari Atariya’ exhibit Akhtari’s timbre, texture, throw, tonality; totality. She shall remain known for her soulful, poignant, and melancholy melodies. There are around four hundred songs by Begum Akhtar available in music archives. The number ‘Hum Pachtaei Sajanwa’ is a typical Master Madan style tune. The song ‘Chala Ho Pardesia Naina Lagei’ is a mujra style number. In those days, usually Antra used to be rendered without rhythm and it came when Asthai re-appeared. It is amazing to witness the range of vocals of Begum Akhtar. Another Mujra style number is ‘Nakami-e-Ishq Ya Kahmyabi’ which explores Begum Akhtar’s voice, especially when her vocal chords break on every Sur of the Taan and re-joins immediately; a sign of proper Riazat; in vocals that sometimes sound brittle and sometimes soft as desired by the lyrical demand. Site Hindusthan Record Vintage Glory comments on this style of music as ‘Begum Akhtar’s name itself brings back the golden era of Urdu Ghazals. Ghazals are a genre of Urdu poetry primarily couplets sung in a melody that turns the poetry into a melodious song. Ghazals were primarily a courtesan’s genre. Begum Akhtar was one of the first lady Ghazal singers from India who popularised this cherished music form of the maharajahs out of the courtrooms among the masses. Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, also known as Begum Akhtar was given the title of Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals). She was among the early female singers to give public concert, and break away from singing in mehfils or private gatherings. Her supreme artistry in light classical music had its moorings in the tradition of pure classicism. She chose her repertoire in primarily classical modes: a variety of Raags, ranging from simple to complex’.Difficult childhood, marriage and legacy Akhtari has always been special for her music lovers. She was born on October 7, 1914 in Bhadarsa, Faizabad, Utter Pardesh, India to Asghar Hussain and his second wife Mushtari. She died on October 30, 1974 in Ahmadabad at the age of sixty. Her music however still rings in our ears and resounds in our hearts. She had a twin sister who later died of poisoning at the age of four. Her father was a lawyer who had disowned the family when the girls were very young and never acknowledged their existence. So Akhtari had a very tragic childhood. Her mother had to earn the bread for her children. Wikipedia reports that Begum Akhtar had a very traumatic and tragic early life. As a little girl she was molested by her music teacher and raped as a teenager. She became pregnant following the rape and gave birth to a daughter who she presented to the society as her sister in an attempt to escape the stigma faced by unwed mothers. Miseries followed her throughout her early years, and singing offered her solace from life’s injustices and tragedies. She married a Lucknow-based barrister, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, in 1945. She could not sing for a few years after marriage due to her husband’s restrictions. However, she managed to remain active till the very end of her life.Film Line Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, later known as Begum Akhtar was a pretty young girl with a melodious voice. It was but natural that she was offered work in film line in 1930s, an era of talkies. In 1933, she appeared in films like ‘Aik Din Ka Badshah’ and ‘Nal Damayanti’ in 1933. Like other actresses such as Roshan Ara Begum of that era, she sang her songs herself in all her films but music remained her first love. Some other movies she appeared in and sang for during this time are ‘Mumtaz Beghum’ (1934), ‘Ameena’ (1934), ‘Roop Kumari’ (1934), and ‘Jawaani Ka Nasha’ (1935).Film ‘Roti’Her success as an actress cum singer attracted the attention of famous producer-director Mehboob Khan who asked her to act in his upcoming film ‘Roti’, released in 1942. It was originally supposed to feature six of her ghazals but unfortunately three or four of the ghazals were withdrawn from the film following altercations between the producer and director. Since Director Mehboob Khan remade this film as blockbuster ‘Mother India’ later on, many critics rate ‘Roti’ as a better version. The theme of both films was the tussle between capitalism and communism. Music for Roti was given by Anil Biswas and for Mother India by Naushad Ali. The movie Roti had Chandramohan, Sheikh Mukhtar, Sitara, Ashraf Khan, Kaayam Ali, Jamshedji, Mishra and in a very rare appearance, Malika-e-Gazal Begum Akhtar, who was known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (she appeared in only 5 films, the last being Satyajit Ray’s Jalasaghar). Like great musicals there were 14 songs in Roti. 2 solos by Asraf Khan, 6 solos by Begum Akhtar, 3 solos by Sitara. One song was of Ashraf Khan with Chorus, one was with Ashraf and Anil Biswas, and one total Chorus song (Meghraj Aaye). All the ghazals are available on Megaphone gramophone records. Begum Akhtar, meanwhile, left Bombay and returned to Lucknow.Story of RotiSudhir Kapoor narrates the story of Roti as ‘The 1942 directorial venture ‘Roti’ is an exemplary production, and stands out as a very unique film even to this day. Created in a very theatrical style, it is the story of an imaginary country, where the economy of the urban lifestyle is juxtaposed against the barter system economy of the tribal folks in the forest. Sheikh Mukhtar (Baalam in the movie) and Sitara Devi (Kinaari in the movie) play the lead roles in this movie, as the couple from the tribal clan. The city slickers are played by Chandramohan (Seth Lakshmi Das) and Akhtari Bai Faizabaadi. The story is very interestingly built up; the small biplane carrying Seth Lakshmi Das and Darling crashes in the forest. They are rescued by Baalam, and there is a set of very interesting episodes about the first meeting of these two cultures. However, Seth Lakshmi Das is very eager to get back to his business but is not finding any means of transport to get out of that forest. One night he steals two buffalos, Changu and Mangu that belong to Baalam, and leaves the village on them, with the help of Kinaari and another local villager. In his naïve and simplistic way, Baalam follows the rich man to the city to recover his animals, only to discover that he will now have to pay money to get back his animals. What follows is an intense confrontation between the two value systems and economies, with an idealistic ending. The tribal couple returns to their forest with the animals, but the rich protagonist and his consort die a death of hunger and thirst in a desert, even as they are travelling in a car loaded with gold ingots’.A summary of Begum Akhtar’s stint in films is ‘King of the Day’ (1933), ‘Mumtaz Begum, Ameena, Roop Kumari’ in 1934, ‘Jawani Ka Nasha’ in 1935, Director Pesi Karani’s ‘Naseeb Ka Chakkar’ in 1936, and Director A. M. Kham’s ‘Anaar Bala’ in 1940, Director Mehboob Khan’s ‘Roti’ in 1942 and Director Satyajeet Ray’s ‘Jalsa Ghar’ in 1958.Return to music as full time occupationAfter witnessing Gohar Jaan and Malak Jaan opting for music as their career, she decided to forsake the glamour of the film world for a career in Indian classical music. Her supreme artistry in light classical music had its moorings in the tradition of pure classicism.AwardsAkhtari Bai Faizabadi was honored by the government of India with the prestigious award Padma Shri in 1968. She was also the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1972. She was also awarded the Padma Bhushan after her death in 1975. According to media reports, during her last concert in Balaramapuram near Thiruvananthapuram, 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 and felt unwell. The stress she put herself under resulted in her falling ill and she was rushed to the hospital. Her tomb was a mango orchard within her home, ‘Pasanda Bagh’ in Thakurganj area, of Lucknow. She was buried alongside her mother, Mushtari Sahiba. However, over the years, much of the garden has been lost to the growing city, and the tomb has fallen due to poor maintenance. The marble graves enclosed in a red brick enclosure, were restored in 2012, along with their marble inlay. Attempts are on to convert her home built in 1936 in China Bazaar, Lucknow into a museum.Begum Akhtar’s disciples include Shanti Hiranand, who later received Padma Shri and wrote a biography Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi (2005). Art critic S. Kalidas directed a documentary on her titled Hai Akhtari.Published in Daily Times, June 15th 2018.