In the guru-shishya tradition, the guru ties a sacred thread around his disciple's wrist, initiating him into the formal relationship. However, this was predominantly a male tradition. Legend goes that Begum Akhtar was the first music guru to introduce this tradition with her female students.
Danish Husain and Vidya Shah
This, and many such rare anecdotes from her life will be showcased on stage as part of Akhtari, a tribute to the doyen of ghazal, dadra and thumri genres of Indian classical music. Conceptualised by Vidya Shah, a singer, and student of Shanti Hiranand — Akhtar's seniormost disciple — and Urdu story teller Danish Husain, the show attempts to bring alive the life and times of the ghazal queen, who passed away in 1974.
Akhtari will be performed as part of Stage42 festival. The show, which premiered in July 2013 at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, will be performed in Mumbai for the first time on February 25. Shah, who conceptualised the show as part of the celebrations of the Begum's birth centenary year, which was in 2014, says she wanted to pay a sensitive and poignant tribute to the lady who has always fascinated her. "She was a very charismatic performer. The fact that even after so many years, people remember her music and love her proves that she was a diva," smiles the singer.
Shah felt that since the artiste's life had several interesting aspects, it would be apt to get a storyteller on board to weave in those aspects, along with her contribution as a singer. In 2012, Shah approached Husain, a fellow performer and friend. "I wasn't a fan of Begum Akhtar's music. But that was before I started researching her life and music. Gradually, I started understanding and appreciating the nuances of her music. Now, I listen to her music often," says Husain.
He and Shah are univocal when they say that the Begum's life and music are very much relevant in today's times. "Excellence is relevant in any time period," the former states simply, while Shah believes that there is a lot to be said about the sepia world. "Look at Indian film music today. What we celebrate as popular music today borrows heavily from folk, classical and spiritual traditions of music," she says.
The vocalist also thinks it's important to look at the life of such a legend in terms of cultural history. "It is because of incredible women like her that, today, I can sing a certain kind of repertoire without any social baggage and can express myself fearlessly through my music," she adds. As a parting shot, we ask Shah if it's true that Begum Akhtar was a strict teacher, and if so, was her guru strict with her as well? "Well, we're products of the oral tradition and part of it is a little bit of tyranny," she laughs and adds, "Till the time we're not scolded, we don't come on track!"
Akhtari will be performed on February 25 at 8.30 pm at NCPA Experimental Theatre. Tickets available on Insider.in