This is the month when Lucknow gets blown over by intense memories of Begum Akhtar, who sang love songs like none other. Each October brings with it a bittersweet memory of one of the city’s most illustrious citizens. Begum Akhtar was both born and died in October. She was born in district Faizabad in 1914 and may have died in Ahmedabad in 1974 after singing until 3 am at a concert, but Lucknow is where Begum Akhtar made a home.
She came to live in the city in 1943 and very soon became the toast of the town.
After her death she was brought back to Lucknow to be buried here beside Mushtari Bai, her mother.
Although still enjoyed by many, time has perhaps pushed Begum Akhtar’s music into the background and until only recently her grave was lost to wild grass, visited mostly by cattle and other stray animals. Then, the Begum’s most beloved disciple, Shanti Hiranand, historian Saleem Kidwai and Madhavi Kuckreja (founder of Sanatkada, a local NGO) got together to clear up the grave and build a marble tomb where musical soirees are held since 2012.
The memorial is found at the end of a complex network of labyrinthine lanes and bylanes in the heat and dust of the densely populated part of the old city. Yet more and more admirers of Begum Akhtar seek it out and frequent the place to light candles and incense sticks now.
In 2014 Sanatkada organised a public celebration of the 100th birth anniversary of Begum Akhtar as part of its annual cultural festival held in the city every February. In her memory, New Delhi’s Sangeet Natak Akademi produced Zikr Us Parivash Ka, a docmentary by Nirmal Chandra on the angel-faced nightingale, and Akhtari, a musical tribute by vocalist Vidya Shah in which Danish Hussain, a story-teller, unfolds the tale of Begum Akhtar in the dastangoi style, a lost form of story-telling in the Urdu language.
It is crucial to keep alive the memory of Begum Akhtar because of the significant role played by her in the collective historical experience of our times. Begum Akhtar belongs to the last group of professional women called tawaif, or courtesans. The traditonal institution of the tawaif reached its peak in the early 19th century when society looked upon these women as the ultimate in sophistication.
The tawaif was so well-versed in all things fine in life like fashion, poetry, song, dance and the art of conversation that she was hired by those who could afford her to give lessons in the art of living.
The word tawaif is derived from tawaf, or circumambulate, after the nomadic lifestyle adopted by these professional women who chose to live in different cities, depending on where life was most lucrative for them. At that time, the tawaifs were the only women in public life who were economically independent of the patriarch.
After 1857, when the British colonised South Asia, including the region of which Lucknow was the glitteringly affluent capital, the tawaif was reduced to a common prostitute. She was seen as a mass entertainer and not as an individual artiste.
By the time Begum Akhtar was born in 1914, the tawaif had fallen on bad times. For this reason Mushtari Bai, a single mother, wanted her to study in an English-medium school. But, ever since she was a teenager, Begum Akhtar wanted only to sing. The film industry chased her but it was not acting nor dancing, only singing that she wanted to do.
Although trained in classical Hindustani music, Begum Akhtar loved the teasing tone of folk music. She took the rustic lyrics of a thumri and a dadra and composed them into songs in sophisticated ragas. This way she attracted the ordinary citizen to the beauty of both folk music and classical music.
Later, she chose the very complex and sophisticated verses of poets like Mirza Ghalib and translated them in her singing for ordinary listeners. Just this contribution of hers to music and to poetry is enough to want to commemorate Begum Akhtar forever.
There are two homes where Begum Akhtar lived in Lucknow. The first one, from 1936, is where she lived with her mother. That house still stands and it will be a favour to history if the premises are declared a heritage property and used as a museum or a school of music, or both.