After the last rotation of the 78-rpm record, the singer spoke out her name, “Main hoon Akhtari Bai Faizalabadi” (7 October 1914 – 30 October 1974). This ‘Bai’ blossomed into the celebrated Begum Akhtar who is hailed among the last of the great tawaif singers.
A young lawyer, Asghar Hussain, took a fancy to Mushtari and made her his second wife. He sired two daughters by her — Zohra and Bibbi (Akhtar) — but soon abandoned the three of them. While Zohra died as a child, Bibbi grew up showing a rare talent and passion for music and was trained by the best musicians of her time to become a legend well within her lifetime. She did a small stint in films, but classical music was her first love and she immortalised every couplet she sang.
Two years before the Partition, she married Lucknow barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi at the pinnacle of her fame and was renamed Begum Akhtar. However, as a price for marrying into the elite class, she was not allowed to sing anymore, and her health started deteriorating.
About five years later, she became grievously ill and her doctor recommended she return to music. And then, it was concert after concert till her dying day, virtually.
As coins were released at the opening of her birth centenary celebrations and Shobha Mudgal and her disciple Rita Ganguly gave memorial concerts, music lovers in the city shared memories of her. Singer-actor Kamal Tewari recalled her concert thus, “I was in college, in the sixties, when I got a chance to hear the Begum live at an improvised stage in the Cricket Stadium in Sector 16. I had grown up hearing her ghazals and thumris as my father and uncles were great fans of hers. I had also heard about her beauty. But, when she came on the stage, she seemed like an ordinary, short, dusky woman with a solitaire glistening on her nose and a silk tobacco pouch. I was a trifle disappointed. But, when she started singing, she transformed into the most beautiful woman on earth.” Such was her glory as an artiste.
The Begum sang compositions of great Urdu poets such as Ghalib or Momin and also of contemporaries like Shakil Jalandhari and Shakil Badayuni. Poets specially wrote ghazals for her.
City music buff Madhur Kapila recalled an interesting anecdote of how her singing gave a break to the late Sudarshan Faakir whom we remember for ‘Yeh kagaz ki kashti…’ and many other songs.
Madhur said, “Faakir was a programme producer with the All India Radio at Jalandhar and the Begum had come there for the annual concert. He showed her his ghazal in the afternoon and lo, she composed it and sang it by the evening. It was on everyone’s lips.” The ghazal was: Hum to samjhe thhe ki barsaat mein barsegi sharaab, Aayi barsat to barsaat ne dil todh diya (I had thought the monsoon would rain wine, but when monsoon came it broke my heart). Tewari added, “Whatever she sang was great. One cannot say anything was ordinary.”
Playing her ghazal, Ai mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya, (O’ love I weep at your outcome) in his Panchkula home, former bureaucrat-turned-writer recounted, “I was in college when she came to sing a ghazal at a mehfil in my parents’ home. I was as enraptured as the others. When I lit a cigarette, the Begum jested and blessed me saying, ‘Bitwa, tumhara jam bhara rahe, cirgat sulagti rahe.’ And so it is about 35 years later!”
A blessing indeed for he is still bouncing with life!!
(The writer is a prominent art and culture critic.)