By the time she was 13, Akhtar's father had abandoned her, her twin sister had died of poisoning and she had suffered sexual abuse that resulted in pregnancy.
For Begum Akhtar, also known as the Mallika-e-Ghazal (The Queen Ghazals), it was a series of personal tragedies that formed the basis of her legendary vocal performances. Her magic lay in not merely expressing this pain, love and hope, but translating these emotions in ways that future generations would empathise with and understand.
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Rita Ganguly, a student of the great Begum, once said that her soulful voice emerged from the depths and years of “loneliness, pain, suppression and silence”. Her unforgettable voice took to the masses, the various forms of semi-classical and classical Hindustani music like the ghazal, thumri and dadra that were once restricted to private mehfils (audiences).
For the only artist allowed to smoke in the premises of the All India Radio’s recording studios, it was music which had literally kept her alive amidst a series of personal tragedies until it finally consumed her. Posthumously awarded the Padma Bhushan, Begum Akhtar espoused a unique spirit in her voice which inspired legends like Pandit Jasraj to become a singer as a six-year-old and Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmi-American poet, to pick up the pen.
Born on 7 October 1914, in Faizabad, Akhtar probably endured more heartaches than most of us do in a lifetime. Her lawyer father, Asghar Hussain, abandoned his wife, Mushtari, a small-time tawaif (courtesan, a profession Akhtar would don till her eventual marriage) and his two children – Akhtar and Zohra (twin sisters) when they were only four years old. After consuming poisoned sweets, both sisters were rushed to the hospital, but Zohra tragically didn’t make it.
In the midst of the devastating loss of a twin sister, it was music that offered Akhar refuge. While her mother insisted that she learn conventional Hindustani Classical Music, it was in other forms like the ghazal or thumri where she could truly express herself. Unfortunately, like many female singers of the time, she also endured a lot of physical abuse at the hands of her masters.
“Worse, Bibbi, or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi as she was by then known, was raped by a raja of one of the states of Bihar who was a patron of classical music. She gave birth to a girl, Shamima. Mushtari, determined that her daughter would not face the world as an unwed mother, pretended the baby was her own and Shamima became Akhtar’s sister. The singer stood by this story until her death,” says this 2008 profile in Mint.
All these events happened by the time she reached 13 years of age. However, her musical gift grew from strength to strength. She performed for the first time in front of an audience at a concert for the victims of 1934 Nepal-Bihar Earthquake, where Sarojini Naidu heaped praise on her singing talents. Akhtar even had a short stint in the film industry till the early 1940s, but left because her mother would have none of it.
“But Akhtari Bai managed to escape the matriarchal hold by arranging a marriage for herself into high society. She did this knowing that the price of respectability was a life in purdah, giving up the arts and individual freedom,” writes Mehru Jaffer for Women’s Feature Service.
For eight years, she gave up music. However, following multiple miscarriages and the death of her mother, she was devastated both mentally and physically. Doctors felt that it was only music that would give her an outlet for this grief, and soon she returned to music.
This gave her a second lease of life, and it was during this phase that she got into singing serious poetry. She even shifted her audiences from largely private mehfils to the public venues and eventually the All India Radio, which broadcasted her voice through vast swathes of this country.
Having mesmerised audiences through the length and breadth of India with her unforgettable performances, she eventually passed away on 30 October 1974, suffering a heart attack during a performance in Ahmedabad at the age of just 60.
It is noted critic Raghava Menon who best captures the essence of her greatness.
“Akhtar was constantly caught up in a male-dominated world. She could never escape, even in the middle class, for there were inescapable social stigmas. But, it seems to me, she had an understanding of the predicament of the human being, and she used her life as a source of understanding of the masses who have looked for things, searched for things, gone on a journey to discover things and, in some cases, come back empty handed, finally realising that the important thing is the journey. She seemed like that to me. She was a remarkable, highly evolved woman,” he once said.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)