Volume: 6, No: 07 ; July-2012
The dilapidated Pasand Bagh still serves as a reminder of an unforgettable woman – Begum Akhtar.
Driving through the convoluted alleys of Saadatganj, an important business hub of the Nawabs, you have to diligently hunt for Pasand Bagh. The area was once central but now it is nothing more than an obscure extremity of Lucknow. Once there; you immediately wonder where the bagh is for the name so overtly suggests its presence. Well, it’s grudgingly lost in the jaws of time.
Somebody directs you to a lane and you realise it has a dead end. All that is visible is a rusted corrugated metal gate, shut in your face. Just as self-doubt begins to irk if the lane is the lane, it dawns that the misleading gate isn’t actually locked. One is tempted to peep in, as one last effort before aborting the quest. And it comes more as a relief than as a pleasant surprise, but certainly well worth all the trouble taken especially for the thirsty music loving historian. For, entering the gate, the mazar confronts you… the grave of Begum Akhtar.
Begum Akhtar was born Akhtari Bai Faizabadi in Faizabad in 1914 in a traditional family where professional musicians were looked down upon. Her musical journey began at her enterprising uncle’s initiative because of whom she got to train under Ustad Imdad Khan, the great sarangi exponent and later under Ata Mohammed Khan. Her burning desire for music led her to distant Calcutta with her mother to further hone her natural talents under the tutelage of great stalwarts like Mohammad Khan and Abdul Waheed Khan. Finally she became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan Sahib, which gave her the final sheen.
For the uninitiated (are there any?) Begum Akhtar was synonymous with ghazal, khayal and thumri gaayiki. She immortalized her own definitive style of singing, a style that few have been able to match. She was a spontaneous performer who sang whatever the audience requested for, branding each composition with her inimitable style. The Begum has nearly four hundred songs to her credit and was a regular performer on All India Radio and she usually composed her own ghazals with most of her compositions being raga-based.
She took the music world by storm with her maiden performance at the tender age of fifteen. The renowned poetess Sarojini Naidu had once immensely appreciated her recital at one of her first concerts organized for charity. This gave young Akhtari Bai all the confidence she needed to continue performing. Before she knew it, performing became a lifelong addiction. Soon, she made her first gramophone record carrying her ghazals, dadras and thumris and the storm raring inside her got an outlet.
With the advent of the talkies era in India, Begum Akhtar acted in some Hindi movies in the Thirties. Like all other contemporaries, she rendered her songs herself in all her films.
Soon, she moved back to Lucknow and married barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi in 1944. She got a new name, Begum Akhtar as part and parcel of a new life. After the alliance, she disappeared from the scene for five long years. All that we know about her during this hiatus is from what her disciple Shanti Hiranand writes, “She enjoyed being Begum Abbasi for some time and flitted around the city as fit for an aristocrat’s wife.” However, her infatuation with the glamorous title did not last too long, and she soon found herself yearning for her only subterfuge. At the same time, she lost her mother which further heightened the restlessness brewing within. She fell seriously ill and ultimately physicians compelled Barrister Abbasi to relent and allow Begum Akhtar to take to music again.
So, in 1949, she returned to the recording studios, the Lucknow Radio Station and soon after, to stage performances. She continued performing right to the end of her life. She finally breathed her last soon after her last performance in Ahmedabad and was brought down to Lucknow and buried in Pasand Bagh.
With that one burial, we buried a life much larger than life. Imagine a woman who lived like a queen who ruled over the hearts of all her fans her entire life. She would shower gifts on all around her, to the extent that she would give away, there and then, even a shawl or a diamond if somebody would casually pay her a complement.
She loved her students like her children. ‘Ammi’, as she was so fondly called, epitomizes all that she meant to them. All her life, through thick and thin, she taught music to all who cared to learn from her, for not a single penny at all.
A liberated soul that she was, she lived royally in her ‘kothi’ on Havelok Road in the city. She was extremely fond of perfumes and she would rave about it for days if somebody happened to gift one to her. Such was her simplicity. She won hearts wherever she went, including the pilots who flew her to various parts of the country for her numerous concerts and the ordinary people. In fact, there was a man who would sell lemons claiming them to be grown in her garden. He would scribble her name everywhere, from doors to roads. He was one die-hard fan who boosted her popularity immensely in the city.
Today, the compound around her tomb stands encroached. Near her tomb, in two make-shift shanties live some people. “Humein Begum Sahib ki bahu ne rakha tha maqbare pe seva ke liye,” they say. They have never been paid for the job and they are indifferent. “Hum to mazdoori karte hain.”
And amidst all this you suddenly realize that the place is hauntingly barren, maybe because her voice doesn’t reverberate in the ambiance when she practices…….maybe inside.
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