Begum Akhtar

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On April 18, 2015, the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, had organized a day- long programme to celebrate the birth centenary of the legendary singer Begum Akhtar. The event was supported by 'The Ministry of Culture, Government of India'.The sessions curated by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan included eminent panelists like Javed Akhtar, Arvind Parikh, Shanti Hiranand, Rita Ganguly, Bhupinder Singh, Ghansham Vaswani, Yatindra Mishra and Madhu Trivedi.On this momentous occasion NCPA offered to music lovers eighteen tracks performed by Begum Akhtar at a live concert hosted by Khatau Vallabhdas at his residence in Walkeshwar, Mumbai in 1957. These tracks can be downloaded free of charge from the following link: Extensive notes by Shubha Mudgal are provided below.


  • Begum Akhtar: Notes for audio tracks by Shubha Mudgal

    Tracks available on:

  • The genius and distinctive artistry of celebrated musicians is best experienced through

    their work. Music speaks for itself, touching and moving the hearts of listeners in ways that

    sound trite if verbalized, but for the student of music, not only is the genius of an artiste to

    be experienced and enjoyed but also studied, examined and re-examined in minute detail.

    It is with the dual purpose of providing the opportunity to both experience and study the

    magic of Begum Akhtars unique voice and singing style that the National Center for the

    Performing Arts makes available eighteen compositions recorded during a private concert

    hosted by businessman and patron Khatau Vallabhdas at his residence in Walkeshwar,

    Mumbai, in the year 1957. Although Begum Akhtar recorded prolifically and her studio

    recordings are valuable documents of her inimitable artistry, a recording made in the

    intimate setting of a chamber concert performed at the home of a connoisseur and patron,

    Figure 1: Entrance to Khatau Vallabhdas's residence at Walkeshwar, Mumbai

    Photo Courtesy: Kishore Merchant

  • provides an invaluable glimpse into the ambience in which music was made and heard

    some sixty-three years ago. In 1957, when this recording was captured on tape during a

    live concert, Begum Akhtar (1914-1974) would have been thirty-eight years old, highly

    acclaimed and sought after as the reigning queen of ghazal, and also considered a leading

    exponent of thumri and dadra. Performing for an adoring audience, as is evident from the

    abundantly audible appreciation, the great singer offers a rich repertoire of bol-banao

    thumri, dadra, hori, chaiti and several ghazals by master poets in the course of the

    evening. The recording of this mehfil which continued for more than three hours, is replete

    with many invaluable gems from Begum Akhtars repertoire, her girlish giggle, her waah for

    her accompanying musicians, the smile in her voice as she receives fulsome praise, and

    of course, the rousing appreciation she receives from her fascinated listeners throughout

    the concert.

    Although Begum Akhtar was an outstanding exponent of the thumri-dadra and ghazal

    forms, she is best remembered for her unique rendering of ghazals in a musical style that

    relied heavily on her training in Hindustani classical music from ustads including Abdul

    Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana, and Ata Mohammad Khan of the Patiala gharana.

    Contemporary ghazal gayaki has undoubtedly distanced itself from classical music and

    leans more towards melodies based on chordal structures and movements. But in the past

    the rendering of Urdu poetry either relied on the tarannum style, or on raag-based

    melodies. The inclusion of the notation of a ghazal (jo ke naam haq na liya bhala, vo jiya to

    kya, na jiya to kya) in raag Des and taal Pashto by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in his

    mammoth compendium of Hindustani classical compositions titled Kramik Pustak Malikaa

    (first published in the early part of the twentieth century) suggests that ghazals formed part

    of raagdari sangeet repertoire. Begum Akhtars rendering of ghazal too rested on a

    foundation that was steeped in raagdari music on the one hand, and a deeply intrinsic

    understanding of Urdu shayari. In the seven ghazals that form part of this collection, her

    classic raag-based style of ghazal gayaki is amply evident, as is her consummate intimacy

    with the literary form of ghazal.

    Har jafa har sitam gavara hai, Itna keh do ke tu hamara haicomes from the pen of

    Shakeel Badayuni (1916-1970), a poet whose ghazals (including her signature Ae

    mohabbat tere anjam pe rona aya) Begum Akhtar immortalised. This particular ghazal is

    rendered in a style that was favoured by hereditary women performers who sometimes

    danced and performed abhinaya to ghazals. The first line of the couplet is sung loosely

  • over the rhythm maintained on the tabla with an eight matra span of the Keherwa taal.

    Pitched near the taar shadja, Begum Akhtars achingly beautiful voice with its expressive

    yearning, lays out the words of the first line of each couplet without pinning them to the

    theka. But the second line of the sher releases the tension created in the previous line with

    its return to the melodic refrain, further heightened by the tabla playing the theka in double

    time, with variations and patterns appropriate for accompaniment to dance.

    In this mehfil Begum Akhtar presented as many as three ghazals written by Shakeel

    Badayuni. Her rendering of Shakeels Ankhon se dur subah ke taare chale gaye, neend

    aa gayi to gham ke nazare chale gaye in a Mishra Gara based melody set to the six matra

    Dadra taal, receives a tremendous response from the audience. The 17 minute long

    rendition provides several pointers for aspiring ghazal singers. Maintaining the dignified

    restraint typical of both Urdu poetry and her style of presentation, Begum Akhtar never lets

    the element of elaboration come in the way of the prosodic scheme of the poetry. Each

    misraa is presented only as many times and with just enough subtle variations as to make

    the listener wait in eager anticipation for the next misraa. Occasionally, fleeting insertions

    of phrases from other raags like Kafi, Patdeep, and Khamaj are ushered in tantalisingly

    and aesthetically for brief moments. Before revealing the misraa-o-oolaa and the misraa-o-

    saanii Begum Akhtar sings quicksilver phrases in aakaar that create a lovely aamad for

    each misraa. Tabla and sarangi accompaniment for this ghazal is exemplary, brilliant, brief

    and restrained. The swaying gait of the theka enhances the beher of the poetry creating a

    superb backdrop on which the singer places each misraa. Unfortunately, no information is

    available regarding the accompanists for this mehfil.

    Ghame-e-ashiqui se kehdo rah-e-aam tak na pahunche, mujhe khauf hai ye tohmat mere

    naam tak na pahunche is composed in a text book interpretation of raag Kedar replete with

    the characteristic meend from dhaivat and pancham to shuddha madhyam. Once again,

    the accompanying musicians skillfully steal opportunities between couplets to embellish

    both melody and rhythm, and are rewarded with appreciation from Begum Akhtar herself

    as well as from members of the audience.

    The two ghazals by Jigar Moradabadi (1890 -1961) included in this collection are woh

    ada-e-dilbari ho, ke nawa-e-ashiqana, jo dilon ko fateh kar le, wohi fateh-e-zamana and

    Is ishq ke hathon se hargiz na mafar dekha, utani hi badi hasrat jitana hi udhar dekha.

    The former is loosely based on the melodic foundation of the Kanhada family of raags and

  • set to the Keherwa taal. Skilfully enhancing Jigar sahabs words with the added dimension

    of music, Begum Akhtar judiciously selects specific words for elaboration. For example, in

    the couplet teri doori-o-huzoori se hai kuch ajeeb aalam, abhi zindagi haqeeqat, abhi

    zindagi fasaana she elaborates on the word doori, in a manner that leaves the listener

    experiencing distance and space, as well as the sense of being far away and yet so near,

    stated in the couplet.

    Begum Akhtar presents the second Jigar Moradabadi ghazal Is ishq ke hathon se hargiz

    na mafar dekha.. in raag Mishra Tilang with traces of its parent raag Khamaj in Keherwa

    taal. The tabla accompaniment once again complements the singers artistry beautifully, at

    times enhancing the excitement, at other times creating a sense of anticipation, and even

    falling silent on occasion when the singer presents the first line only to join in seamlessly

    with the taal as the second line of the couplet is introduced by the singer. Sounds of the

    singers laughter, the audiences appreciation and even snatches of conversation, possibly

    between the singer and members of the audience can be heard, presenting an aural

    picture of the leisurely, informal and yet intensely charged ambience of the chamber

    concert or mehfil.

    Ghazal, thumri, dadra and allied forms are often described as being shabda-pradhaan

    forms which accord primacy to song text. To adorn song text with music and more

    specifically, the art of complex elaboration typical of raagdari music must then pose a

    challenge for singers of these lyric-driven forms. Begum Akhtars rendition of Faiz Ahmad

    Faizs Dono jahan teri mohabbat mein haar ke, wo jaa raha hai koi shab-e-gham guzaar

    ke set against the warp and weft of Mishra Bhiaravi and the six matra Dadra, can only be

    described appropriately by quoting Agha Shahid Ali when he says unlike other ghazal

    singers, who clothed words till they can't be seen, she stripped them to a resplendent

    nudity. If she clothes them at all, it was in transparent muslins, like the Dacca gauzes:

    woven air, running water, evening dew. Each syllable and every word of the ghazal

    remains burnished by her voice, never muddied or smudged by excessive use of musical


    Wo dil mein hain magar dil ki pareeshani nahin jati.. in Mishra Bhairavi set to the

    Keherwa taal shares some common elements with the six other ghazals included in this

    collection. Each of the ghazals is loosely based on a raag, but the singer prevaricates

    towards other raags w