The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Aaj yaad tum behisaab aaye
R.L. Pathak

MEMORIES of melody queen Begum Akhtar come alive on October 7, the day of her birth anniversary.

October 7 is the birth anniversary of melody queen Begum Akhtar
October 7 is the birth anniversary of melody queen Begum Akhtar

‘Bibi’, as she was called affectionately had deeply endeared herself to a large number of people. Begum Akhtar became a legend in her lifetime. From her early days, she ‘fell in love with music and dance’ and practised difficult khayals, thumri and dadra.

Begum’s house in Faizabad, where she was born, was not big and the family did not have resources enough to give it a facelift or rebuild it. In the words of her mother, they could not even "afford a pair of silver earrings for her". She was six years’ old then and would sing with her friends to the beats of a drum or dholak, whatever came handy. That’s when people realised her singing potential.

‘Bibi’ was very fond of doing things different from the other children of her age and looked for some opportunity or the other to surprise everyone with her funny antics. She was so naughty that one day she even succeeded in "scissoring" the flowing hair of her teacher who was sitting on a chair and proudly took the "gift" home.


In those days, a theatre company visited Faizabad and there was one Chanda in the troupe, who was extremely beautiful and had an enchanting voice. Though Begum Akhtar was not allowed to attend such programmes, she enticed her caretaker Amanat to take her to the show, so great was her love for music.

Her first ustad was Patna’s Imdad Khan. After some time, the family shifted to Kolkata, where Begum Akhtar started attending music programmes with regularity. She became very famous. Some megaphone recording companies even recorded her songs. She sang for one hour at a music conference held in aid of the Bihar Earthquake Fund in 1934. The lyrics of her first ghazal were thus:

"Toone but har jai kuchh aisi ada payee

Takta hai teri soorat har ek tamashayee."

By now she had become so famous that she was even offered roles in films. In 1937, she acted in films like Ek din ki badshahat, Mumtaz, Roti etc. She even provided background music in films like Ramneti, Ehsan, Naach Rang. She played a role in Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Jalsa Ghar.

Somehow, she felt that films were not her destiny. Soon she joined the Kairana Gharana where she had Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan train her suitably in light classical music.

Though she was born in Faizabad, she finally settled in Lucknow and married Qazi Ishtiaq Ahmed Abhasi. After marriage she shied away from music programmes but resumed her singing, later.

She sang ghazals of Shakeel Badayuni and Jigar Muradabadi, Anand Narain Mulla and Faiz and in doing so she elevated ghazal gayakee to a high pedestal. She even sang ghazals of Meer, Sauda, Ghalib, Momin, Daag with equal interest and dedication and continued to sing up to the age of 60. .

Begum Akhtar suffered a stroke in 1973 and perhaps had a foreboding that her end was near. She reflected this feeling even through her ghazal:

"Soz-e-gham Firaq

Na raas aayega mujhe

Le ja meri hayaat bhi

Apni khushi ke saath."

Begum Akhtar even transcended the country’s barriers and toured Afghanistan, erstwhile Soviet Union (now Russia) and Pakistan and regaled the audiences there.

She had mastered khayal, thumri, dadra and ghazal and received innumerable awards — both national and international.

She was India’s Padma Shree ‘nightingale’, and though the bulbul has shed her earthy "garb", recollections of her artful singing still enliven souls.

On her birth anniversary, one can only say in all sincerity and humility: "Aaj yaad tum behisaab aaye".

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