A begum's birthday
Today is Begum Akhtar's birthday
Today is Begum Akhtar's birthday.
My father, an air force officer, a young man in the 1950s, loved Begum Akhtar. That's why I smiled when I watched SNS Sastry's iconic documentary, I Am 20, in which a 20-year-old air force pilot describes himself with, "I love Begum Akhtar." My friend's father, of the same generation, also loved Begum Akhtar intensely.
It's hard to love Begum Akhtar when you are a kid, as H says, "I used to think, why do they say she is great? She is so nasal." One has to be a little grown up to taste the gorgeousness of her art. You come to it on your own, I think, not through an education in much else but life.
My father's favourite Begum Akhtar ghazal was Kaifi Azmi's "Bas ik jhijhak hai yahi, haal-e-dil sunane mein, ki tera zikr bhi aayega iss fasane mein" (I hesitate to speak of what I'm feeling/because your name must be a part of this revealing). In the last weeks of his life, when he was very sick, I tried to find the song for him but couldn't. He sang me a couplet in hospital, "Isi mein ishq ki kismat badal bhi sakti thi/jo waqt beet gaya, mujhko aazmane mein (Our love could have gone quite differently/in the time you spent in testing me).
Years later when I did find it, listening to it joined me to my father — not in the sense of his no longer being alive, but to the idea of him as a young man, or perhaps, the same age as I. It's like I suddenly understood him, myself and Begum Akhtar.
Many people have a memory of this suddenly, really hearing Begum Akhtar for the first time, when she became part of them. She was perhaps the first from the tawaif background to perform a public concert, not a private mehfil or in kotha, and bring that experience of shringara, poetic eroticism and sensuality, through live performance into the popular space, the everyday world.
She was beautiful, and gravitated towards films, but gave it up to focus on music. She wasn't a classical singer, but her ghazals were set to ragas, and in this, she bridged the emotional simplicity of a song with the emotional complexity of classical form, existing in that liminal space between high and popular art, where two worlds flow into each other, as our past and present flow into each other when life changes us. Perhaps, worlds should always be joined in this way, as mergers, not acquisitions.
Warm, velvet, umami, full of pain but also glamour, loss but also knowledge, her voice makes you taste the emotion that each word stands for. It doesn't make you weep, but makes you quiet, keeps you company as you journey deep into yourself. I love the idea of a woman artiste commanding this presence on our emotional stages. How different might our world be today if there were more?
Last month, in Lucknow, I visited her mazaar, once a mango orchard, now a congested colony, with friends who have lovingly refurbished it. We sat under an almost full moon, a suitably incomplete one. My friend sang her ghazal, "Ulti ho gayi sab tadbeerein." I felt happy at the thought of this broken song still sitting in the heart of a new city.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning, Mumbai-based film-maker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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