Reminiscing Begum Akhtar
Stellar l Rs 695 l pp 357
This book is the outcome of a labour of love — Jyoti Sabharwal interviewed the most renowned disciple of Begum Akhtar, Rita Ganguly over five years to put this work together.
Each page of this absorbing memoir vibrates with intimations of the genius of a legendary actress-singer, who was adored for her soulful singing in every possible genre — from khayal, thumri, dadra, kajri, chaiti to ghazal. And it has turned out to be perhaps the most authentic document on the life and times of Begum, after 34 years of her demise. Several salacious and inaccurate quickies did appear over the years.
Ae Mohabbat… is a tour-de-force of authenticity, for it depicts Begum Akhtar with a knowing sympathy. The flourish of delight and anticipation that enriches the reading experience comes from Jyoti Sabharwal’s delicate sense of pacing and her exquisite turn of phrase. It is also evident that a lot of effort has gone into the translation of the many Urdu couplets that are part of this book.
Rita Ganguly was not only Begum’s disciple for eight long years (Ganguly had eight gurus before she reached Begum — Mallika-e-Thumri Siddeshwari Devi, Kathak maestro Shambhu Maharaj and the Diva of Modern Dance, Martha Graham), but also performed with her and in the process became her close confidante. Many intimate details of her life have hence been quoted verbatim in Begum’s voice. The book thus comes clean on a lot of controversies surrounding this enigmatic musician both in terms of stupendous success and dismal failure. What’s outstanding about the book is that Ganguly could distance herself and analyse her ustad so objectively, considering that she has kept her name alive for the last three decades.
It is very difficult to be dispassionate about your gurus, as you put them on a pedestal and deify them. In the process, we forget that they are vulnerable human beings with their moments of pain, anguish and loneliness. Begum was severely gripped by a sense of deep melancholia given her miserable childhood and a non-existence youth. She gave her first maiden performance at the age of 11 and was raped at the age of 12 by a raja, a great patron of arts. She sublimated her personal grief and trauma in music and went onto become Mallika-e-Ghazal and her rendition, Ae Mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya vibrated the entire Indian subcontinent. And it is her soulful singing and that peculiar khanak, the crack in her voice which made her renditions so inimitable. Nobody sang ghazals the way she could, and made the shayars famous overnight.
Moreover she elevated the genre by singing it on the most prestigious platform of All India Radio’s National Programmes, thus bringing it into the fold of classical singing. This is the first book to analyse Begum’s style and technique; the chapter, Benign Spell of Begum’s Music, delves extensively into all aspects of her singing.
The Begum is no more but her legend lives. As Jigar Moradabadi said, “Humko mita sakey yeh zamane mein dum nahin, Hum se zamana khud hai, zamane se hum nahin”. (Time doesn’t have the nerve to wipe me out, Time owes its existance to me, I don’t owe existence to time).