Begum Akhtar: Her Journey From a Courtesan to ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’

Begum Akhtar’s journey from a courtesan or ‘tawaif’ to ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’, like her music, is hued with melancholy.

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A soulful singer whose voice enthralled audiences for over nine decades, Begum Akhtar’s journey from a courtesan or tawaif to 'Mallika-e-Ghazal' is hued, like her music, with melancholy.

Akhtar was born to a courtesan named Mushtari Begum in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, but was abandoned by her father, Asghar Hussain, soon after her birth. Bibi, as she was known then, lost her twin sister Zohra and was sexually abused both by her ustad and patron even before she had turned 13.

Aktar loved music since she was a child. Her mother decided to have her professionally trained and thus, Bibi studied under many ustads.

Young Bibi.
(Photo Courtesy:
Ishrat-e-qatra har dar’ya mein fanaa ho jaana,Dard ka hadd se guzarna hai dawa ho jaana…

This famous couplet by Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib beautifully captures Akhtar’s life.

Finding solace in singing, Bibi metamorphosed into the famous Akhtaribai Faizabadi.

When she was just 15, Akhtaribai performed at a concert for the victims of the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake and was praised by Sarojini Naidu, who was present at the event.

Her life completely changed after that.

Although a maestro in ghazal and thumri, Akhtaribai even acted in movies like Nasib ka chakkar’ (1936), ‘Roti’ (1942), ‘Jalsaghar’ (1958) among others.

Begum Akhtar.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)
In 1945, Akhtaribai became Begum Akhtar after she married Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi.

Her climbing the social ladder and shifting from mehfils to shows at All India Radio was a subject of much public speculation.

Nobody knows for sure why the ghazal maestro gave up music for eight years. However, after many miscarriages and her mother’s death, a devastated Akhtar found succour in music once again.

Akhtar’s soulful music earned her the title of ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’.
Begum Akhtar.
(Photo Courtesy:

Music was close to Akhtar’s heart till the very end.

She passed away in Ahmedabad on 30 October 1974 after her last concert where she performed despite ill-health.

She was awarded Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award. The legendary singer was posthumously conferred Padma Bhushan as well.

Begum Akhtar shall forever be hailed as ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’.

(With inputs from

(This video has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Begum Akhtar’s birth anniversary on 7 October. It was originally published in 2019.)

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Topics:  Begum Akhtar   Ghazal   Mallika-e-Ghazal 

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