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Begum Akhtar

About 25 years ago I had arranged a mehfil of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi at my residence. A few select friends were invited, amongst whom was the late Ramubhaya Date of Indore. The mehfil was fixed for 4.30 in the afternoon but Ramubhaya arrived a little before the lunch hour. There was nothing unusual in this. Ramubhaya had often arrived thus and joined us at the table. I always appreciate such a simple and informal attitude, and so I heartily welcomed Ramubhaya to lunch with us. We did full justice to the food. After lunch Ramubhaya helped himself to paan. Normally I do not eat paan or supari but on that day, after the excellent lunch, I accepted the patti prepared by him. He also gave one each to my wife and daughter and said, 'Look, an excellent meal like this must be followed by paan, and along with it you must try this "Akhtari". Phir maja dekho!'

He produced from a small bottle a number of pills covered with silver leaf and gave one to each of us. The pills, chewed with the paan, were wonderful in flavour and taste. I said. 'Ramubhaya, this little Akhtari of yours and our Faizabadi Akhtari seem to be equally delicious in sweetness and fragrance.' 'Aare yaar,' he retorted, 'It is your Faizabadi Akhtari after whom I have named these pills. I have listened to Begum Akhtar's singing countless times, and each time she so hypnotizes me that I take this pill with paan every ten or fifteen minutes just to keep the memory and aroma of her singing fresh in my mind.'

Since I heard Begum Akhtar sing 'Koyaliya mat karo pukar, lagi kalejava katar', that 'katar' has gone so deep that I will always remember her,' I said reminiscently. Only those who were fortunate enough to see and hear Begum Akhtar in person would understand the full meaning of these words. In 1914 at Faizabad, a village in U.P., a teenaged girl made her debut as a singer and took listeners by storm. Those who heard her acknowledged her to be a singer of great promise. And from that day on she came to be known as Akhtari Faizabadi.

In due course, age brought about changes in her voice and style. Maturity and experience lend grace to an artist's presentation and make it blossom forth in its full beauty. Begum Akhtar, no wonder, very soon reached the heights of fame and popularity. The one-time Akhtari Faizabadi now came to be known as Begum Akhtar. 'Real beauty can weather any storm', turned out to be very true in her case. During recitals whenever she reached a high note her voice would crack, but strangely enough this was considered by connoisseurs as the highlight of her recital. The audience would wait eagerly for that delicious crack in her voice.

There is virtually no difference between English lyrics, Marathi bhavgeets and Urdu ghazals. Eminent Urdu poets of yesteryear such as Mirza Ghalib, Daag, Jigar Muradabadi, Phani, Behejad Lucknowi Jaukh, Shakil Badayuni and Sahir Ludhianvi, and contemporary living poets like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, or Josh Malihabadi have written ghazals which are the hot favourites of discerning readers of Urdu poetry and knowledgeable listeners of ghazal singing. In order to become a successful bhavgeet or ghazal singer it is very necessary to select a lyric which is easy to understand, and has meaningful verses, with flashes of playful poetic imagination. Having come across such a piece of poetry the singer has to put it across musically in a suitable tune with a complete understanding of the poetry, in perfect diction and in an expressively emotional style. Begum Akhtar possessed all the qualities that are so vital for a good ghazal singer. The notes which she produced were so limpid, so hauntingly sweet, that the audience was immediately captivated. She had the uncanny knack of choosing the right kind of ghazal and adorning it in a befitting tune; she would render it so endearingly that her every note would grip the hearts of the audience.

At 15, she cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company - again one of the sister concerns of H.M.V. I did not have the good fortune to hear her when she was in her heyday. I first saw and met her in the year 1952. My friend Nawab Zahir Yar Jung of Hyderabad (a close relation of the late Nizam) was on a visit to Bombay and he was staying in Krishna Nivas on Marine Drive. The wealthy are famous for their vices or fads, but this artistocratic friend of mine had only one 'vice', and that was his passion for good music. Nawab Saheb was also exceptionally generous. He bestowed his wealth liberally on singers and musicians. During his two month stay jn Bombay it was my pleasant job to take a new outstanding talented artist to Nawab Saheb's residence every evening. It was part of his daily routine to enjoy the music of a newcomer for an hour or two, after which Begum Akhtar would invariably wind up the music session with a thumri, dadra or lilting ghazal. Nawab Saheb would then present each artist with Bidagi in the form of gold mohurs. Intoxicated by the sweet music the Nawab and I would then have a sumptuous Hyderabadi Nawabi style dinner at which Begum Akhtar would also join us.

The late Rai Bahadur Chunilal, one of the directors of Bombay Talkies, had a son who was passionately fond of music. One day our manager, Mr. H. C. Lal, came to me with the boy and told me to give him all possible musical guidance. I gave him a tanpura and told him to sing. He sang a ghazal and a thumri which had been broadcast by Begum Akhtar on the radio. These gave me ample indication of his musical talent. After that, for a few months, whenever we had the studio free he would come and would do his riyaz on the tanpura. Later the young boy enlisted in the army, but the rigours and discipline of military life clashed with his artistic nature, therefore he got out of the forces and accepted a job in All India Radio. While in Lucknow and Delhi he had opportunities to listen to various illustrious singers. It was in Lucknow that he met Begum Akhtar in person and developed a lasting friendship with her.

Whenever Begum Akhtar came to Bombay for programmes. she stayed at the Sea Green South Hotel on Marine Drive. It was my privilege and practice to be with her every evening during her stay. The music-mad son of Rai Bahadur Chunilal had by now turned his attention to films and had become a music director. During Begum Akhtar's stay in Bombay he also would come to the hotel to meet her. He chose many beautiful compositions sung by Begum Akhtar and gave them his own tunes in order to incorporate them in films. His artistic creativity found a new outlet in Begum Akhtar's ghazals and very soon he became a famous and popular music director. Dastan, Hakikat, Bahana, Mera Saya, Suhagan, Wo Kaun Thi, Bhai Bhai and Chirag were some of the films for which he wrote his superb music. This gifted person was none other than Madan Mohan, who passed away at an early age.

I got Begum Akhtar for recordings several times during her visits to Bombay . A very strange incident took place at one of the recording sessions. The Muslims are usually extremely fond of devotional songs - religious songs about Allah, Paigamber, Khwaja Saheb Ajmeri, Mecca, Medina or the Kaaba are always in great demand. Years ago a song, 'Deewana banana hai to deewana bana de', written by the well-known Urdu poet Behejad Lucknowi and recorded by Begum Akhtar, was a hit all over the country. She had not cut another religious record after that. Therefore, that evening, I pressed her to record a couple of naats (religious songs) and she agreed.

I always used to be under great tension during recording sessions, from the moment the artist entered the studio till the recording was successfully completed. It was always an ordeal for me, as I had to keep the artist in a pleasant mood and humour his or her whims. I had to be very observant of the likes and dislikes of these artists and arrange everything to their liking. Some loved perfumes, some liked fragrant flowers, some preferred to have maghai paans; some took delight in having knowledgeable listeners around, while others resented the presence of outsiders. One notable Gujarati singer had to be surrounded by a bevy of beautiful young girls while the recording was in progress. 'They produce electricity in me,' he said. He always brought a consignment of these 'batteries' with him. It was a very bothersome and taxing job to have to constantly cater to the demands of these artists and to keep them in a good mood. On this particular day Begum Akhtar was in excellent form. We had just completed the recording of two bewitching ghazals and were getting ready for the recording of naats, when my Punjabi boss walked in. 'Well, Begumsab, what is it you are recording now?' he asked casually. On being told that she was recording two naats, the officer said, with a knowledgeable air, 'Look here, Begumsab, we have recorded some really good naats sung by famous qawals like Ismail Azad Qawal and Usuf Azad Qawal of Bhendi Bazaar and these records sell like hot cakes. I suggest you also sing in the same style.' I was taken aback by his audacity. To suggest to an illustrious singer of national repute like Begum Akhtar that she should copy the manner and style of an ordinary qawal of Bhendi Bazaar was terribly insulting. Begum Akhtar was red and speechless with anger and indignation. She controlled herself, and pushing the harmornum away, lit a cigarette and began smoking furiously. I immediately saw that all hopes of further recording that evening had gone up in smoke. The officer went away after a while, not even aware of his blunder. Begum Akhtar was still red in the face and was puffing at her cigarette in an agitated manner. I said to her, 'Begumsab, we won't do any more recording today. I am as upset as you are. We will proceed with the recording tomorrow; please forget the incident and sing in your usual style.'

I do not know,' she said seething with anger and disgust, 'why Yeh Kudhon ke Badshah set foot inside the studio. How dare he make such silly and rude suggestions!' However, by the next morning she had regained her normal poise, and I met her at the hotel and brought her to complete the recording. Begum Akhtar recorded the naats in her usual captivating style.

My boss had absolutely no business to tender such uncalled-for advice to the great artist, but there was nothing I couId do about it. For a long time after, whenever Begum Akhtar came to our studios, she would ask me, 'Woh Kudhon ke Badshah kahan hai?' In 1970 I officially retired after 32 years of service, but the company prevailed upon me to go to Delhi on an important mission. In the archives department of the central office of All India Radio is a large collection of tapes and discs of eminent artists from all over India. I was deputed to select recordings of deceased artists to be used for commercial records.

During my absence a recording of Begum Akhtar was made in our studio. She usually had a tanpura, tabla, harmonium and sarangi to accompany her, but this time the recording was carried out with an orchestral accompaniment under the supervision of a music director from the films. When I heard the tape of the recording on my return to Bombay, my first reaction was decidedly unfavourable. I sincerely felt that Begum Akhtar had not sung with her usual abandon and free style. Her voice sounded restrained to me. After the astayee each antara was preceded by various instruments like the sitar or flute, in the style of a film song. Because of these musical interludes to which she was not at all used, her singing sounded rather artificial. The recording, therefore, was no more than ordinary. This was my reaction and I casually voiced it aloud. Someone who heard my remark repeated it to Begum Akhtar. We had been close friends for a long time and my unfavourable reaction to her recording made her miserable. So much so that she cancelled all her engagements for the day and sat in her room deep in gloom, lamenting her 'bad' performance. I came to know of this and, putting aside all work, I hurried to Sea Green South Hotel. She was lying in her room; she had not taken any food and her eyes were red and swollen with weeping. The moment she saw me she burst into tears. It was a tremendous shock to see her in this state. That a chance remark of mine should have caused her so much pain was unbearable to me. She had complete faith in my judgement and when she was told that I did not like her recording she had concluded that she had given a most wretched performance. I had thus unintentionally caused her a lot of anguish. The thought of this brought tears to my eyes also. Later, when we had both regained our composure, I explained that it was not her singing that had displeased me, but the fact that she had not been given a chance to sing in her normal unrestrained style and to display her talents. At last she was pacified; all doubts vanished from her mind and she was convinced that I had meant no offence to her. The atmosphere cleared as if by magic. Both of us then partook of food, but in spite of her regained tranquillity, she cancelled a musical sitting arranged for that night as she did not feel physically and mentally up to it. Such was the extreme sensitivity of her nature.

In the year 1971, on my return from a world tour, the company persuaded me to work for them again. I therefore had one more chance to record Begum Akhtar. This was the last recording made by her and on this occasion she excelled herself. After the recording she asked me mischievously, 'Do you think I sang well today?' In August 1974 I went to America. While there I got the sad news of her death in Ahmedabad. For days I was haunted by memories of the many recording sessions, the many mehfils we had enjoyed. Thoughts of our long association and friendship since 1951 brought tears to my eyes. I paid mute tribute to cherished memories of her which are all she left behind and offered my last salutation to her - 'Alwida...'


Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series
From: G.N. Joshi's "Down Melody Lane" (1984)

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