Journey From Being the Tawaaif of Faizabad to Begum Akhtar

A film on the legendary queen of ghazals, Begum Akhtar is a collector’s item.

4 min read
Begum Akhtar’s life is the stuff of bestsellers. 

Begum Akhtar’s life was the stuff of bestsellers. She and her twin sister, Zohra, were born in Faizabad on 7 October 1914, to Mushtari Bai and a lawyer father. But the latter abandoned his wife and daughters in a few years. Unable to bear the pain of being thus deserted, the twins swallowed poison. Zohra died but Bibi (Akhtar) survived. Knowing no other profession, her mother soon initiated Bibi into singing.

But Bibi’s life continued to be an unhappy one, with physical abuse, both at the hands of teachers and patrons being quite a regular feature even before she turned 13. As a singer, however, she went from strength to strength, with the pain of her personal life imparting a moving element of melancholy to her voice; and she metamorphosed into the famous Akhtari Bai of Faizabad.
From Akhtari Bai to being Begum Akhtar.
From Akhtari Bai to being Begum Akhtar.
(Photo courtesy: Pinterest)
However, Nirmal Chander Dandriyal’s documentary on Begum Akhtar does not delve unduly into these unsavoury aspects of her life. Zikr Us Parivash Ka, produced by Sangeet Natak Akademi, opens in the gullies of Faizabad where the man on the street is completely unaware of who Begum Akhtar was.

The camera then moves to a palace in Faizabad, slowly taking in the grandeur of the place, before zeroing in on the grandson of a royal patron of the singer who recounts how the singer insisted on returning the land his grandfather had gifted her.

And then the camera withdraws from the palace, going backwards and out of its grand sphere… you now have the voice of the singer herself, from a radio recording narrating how she ran away from her first teacher who would insist on teaching her at three in the morning.

A mere child, she preferred to be out in the open, under the mango trees, amongst the birds and the bees. Through this brilliant juxtaposition of two sequences Dandriyal shows what little Bibi had to undergo to become the much-loved tawaaif of Faizabad.

The tawaaifs were empowered, independent women observes Saleem Kidwai, a historian whose unabashed love for the singer has made him collect the tiniest of Akhtar memorabilia that he can find.

But classical singer Shruti Sadolikar points out that it was not always so. In the beginning, at private mehfils, tawaaifs were not allowed to sit and had to stand through their entire performance.

That Akhtari Bai came out of such humiliating circumstances and performed in public spaces, garnering respect and admiration, was as much a triumph of her talent as of her determination to play by her own rule book.
Sarojini Naidu had a role to play in the making of Begum Akhtar. 
Sarojini Naidu had a role to play in the making of Begum Akhtar. 
(Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

And when poetess Sarojini Naidu asked her to stage a show, in aid of the victims of a Bihar earthquake, the stigma of the kotha got wiped out forever.

“This is the first time I was to go on stage and I was very nervous. I went on stage with shivering hands and cold feet but stayed there for two and a half hours, because the requests wouldn’t end,” laughs the singer in the radio interview in which she sportingly describes her singing as screeching.

With each passing year, her “screeching” became so increasingly popular that Megaphone Recording Co. had to import new machinery to meet the demands for her record, Deewana banana hai, toh deewana bana de. Soon the silver screen beckoned, both in Calcutta and Bombay. Mehboob Khan and Satyajit Ray were two stalwarts in whose films she appeared, apart from several others, before an Oxford-returned advocate courted her into matrimony.

Begum Akhtar got rid of the Bai tag after marrying Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi.
Begum Akhtar got rid of the Bai tag after marrying Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi.
(Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Becoming the wife of Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi finally got rid of the Bai tag as she now became known as Begum Akhtar. But that entailed a price, as she had to stop singing. When this began telling on her health, on her doctor’s advice, she made a comeback with a recording at All India Radio (she was the only artiste allowed to smoke on its premises).

Professor Kidwai relates that in this second phase of her singing career Abbasi influenced her to sing serious poetry. And she began singing at venues far removed from the mehfils of her youth. “Akhtar had tears streaming down her cheeks after singing for the cadets at Khadakwasla,” recalls Abbasi’s niece.

Studded with pathos-ridden songs that are played out against rich tones, Zikr Us Parivash Ka… is exquisitely filmed by cinematographer Ranjan Palit. Capturing the languid pace of the period, the beautifully lit scenes of this documentary make it a veritable collector’s item.

Zikr Us Parivash Ka… a documentary on Begum Akhtar
Directed by Nirmal Chander Dandriyal
Screened at Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya, Mumbai

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 21 March 2016. It’s being republished to mark the birth anniversary of Begum Akhtar.)

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