By Ayaz Amir
September 28, 2012
The only Begum Akhtar I was aware of, and here I feel like kicking myself for my imperfect education, was the queen of such old Ghazals as “Diwana banana hai tu, diwana bana dena...” Then last week, travelling the net, the addiction of our times, I stumbled across a concert performance of the Begum singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Aaye kuch abr kuch sharab aaye, uss ke baad aaye jo azaab aaye” and I have been in a trance ever since.
Others have sung this gem of a song but I do not exaggerate when I say that the Begum’s singing was a revelation. What Raag she sang it to I do not know – another of the imperfections with which life is stained – but the effect was devastating...heart-strings pulled until they would break. And I had always thought that Akhtari Bai was some kind of a serious being (some of her photos lend themselves to this impression). How wrong I was. During the concert every now and then a hint of a smile would appear on her lips and there would be a gleam in her eyes. Singing the song to perfection she was also a bit coquettish, ever so subtly though, unless I am imagining things.
If one had a fortune to blow, Begum Akhtar’s salon (Kotha) in bygone Lucknow would be the place to perform this rite of passage. I learnt more. She had lovers and, if the secret must be out, she drank. What else accounts for the naughtiness of her eyes? Like so many tawaifs (geishas, courtesans) there were ups and downs in her childhood, the father leaving the mother and so on, but she was blessed with the divine gift and her art transcended the various accidents of her life. In the end all else was forgotten. Only the legend and the accomplishment survive.
Noor Jahan had a gleam in her eyes too and she could be mischief personified but she never drank. I think she had too much vitality to need any other props. Which I suppose only proves that it takes all sorts in this world.
What is the ghazal, what is it meant to convey? I suppose feeling and longing and desire, the pain of the human condition, the yearning of the soul, the ardour of the lover, the ecstasy of the poet. The genre we are familiar with is quintessentially Urdu, a product of that great intermingling of cultures spanning several centuries and leading to the flowering of the unique culture of Delhi and Lucknow.
The poets came first and wrote their Diwans. But it was a long time before the right singers came along. Of modern ghazal singing the pioneer, the true path-breaker was the first maestro, the first superstar of the Indian screen, the one and only Kundan Lal Saigal. Shamshad Begum, a great singer in her own right, used to say that before Saigal male singers were given to crooning like women. Saigal opened new directions and others followed. In Mukesh and Kishore, in their early songs especially, Saigal’s influence can be felt although, to their credit, they went on to other things and developed distinctive styles of their own.
Muhammad Rafi sang differently. His range was different and higher but then Rafi, blessed of the saints, was in a class of his own. In the kingdom of song and music many deities hold sway, major and minor gods and goddesses, and that’s the whole fun of it, the infinite variety on display.
We’ve all experienced it, listening to someone divinely-inspired and saying to ourselves it can’t get better than this. And then listening to someone else and saying oh my God all over again. Saigal sounds better if you can also listen to Rafi. And Rafi sounds better if you can go back to K L Saigal. The same holds true for Noor Jahan and Lata Mangeshkar. The mellifluousness of each is enhanced by the sauce of the other. The same holds true for every kind of music. Too much of Beethoven and you want a change; too much of Wagner and a bit of Verdi is a relief. Dictatorship may work in politics. In the arts, especially music, there is no place for it.
But listen to two Begum Akhtar Ghazals – I have mentioned one; the other is “Kuch tu duniya ki inaayaat ne dil torh diya” – and I think the verdict is clear and beyond appeal: no one has sung the ghazal better than Saigal and Begum Akhtar. The styles are not the same and thank the heavens for that. Saigal had no formal training in classical music. He was the pupil of no ustad. His ear was faultless and he could render what raag he heard but proper training, under the guidance of a mentor, he had none. This shows in their respective styles. Saigal’s Ghazals are unforgettable, still as fresh and living as the day they were sung. But Begum Akhtar who had trained long and hard under various Ustads is I think, and forgive the opinion of a rank amateur, in point of classical technique the more consummate artist.
This is not to say Akhtari Bai had no feeling. She conveys feeling like no one else. But it is feeling and great classical form. Saigal has feeling and instinctive form. When as a wandering youth still in search of his destiny Saigal had come to Calcutta and a well-wisher persuaded the Bengali musician Ray Chand Boral to listen to him, Boral asked whether he could sing something in Raag Todi or Ramkali and Saigal is reported to have said, “Sorry, I don’t understand ragas. Just show me the tune and I sing.” Then sing anything you like, said Boral, and Saigal started singing something in Raag Asawari. (All this from a Saigal site on the internet)
Forty-five years later Boral did not remember whether Saigal had sung Asawari or not. But he remembered the effect it had on him: “Never before had I heard such melody from human throat. It was superhuman. Was he a Gandharva come to earth? No expression on his face. Not much movement of lips. Perfect control over breath. Perfect pauses. Clear pronunciation. I was spellbound.”
But then Saigal was exceptional. He was also an exceptional human being. Tales of his generosity and kindness abound. He earned a lot; he also gave away recklessly. There is a story of him and a friend coming out early from a Bombay diner, the evening probably not much to Saigal’s liking, and walking along the sea-front where they came across a fakir singing a ghazal of Ghalib’s. They sat down and listened and when it was over Saigal put his hand in his pocket and whatever was in it – 5,000 rupees, a great sum in those days – gave to the fakir. And when the friend asked whether he knew how much he had given, Saigal said, “Did Oopar Wala count the money when he gave it to me?”
The famous thumri “Babul Mora Naihar Choot Jaye” in Raaga Bhairavi, written by the 19th century Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, is a lament about his banishment from his beloved Lucknow (by the British after 1857). Saigal sings it in the film Street Singer. He sang it live, on set, not in the recording studio. Utterly moving, it leaves you transfixed. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi has also sung it. You listen to Saigal and say, this is it. Listen to the Pandit and something else comes out...as I said, the infinite variety of art.
But in the realm of the ghazal, the undisputed Malika is Begum Akhtar. And to think of having come to her best only now, after all these years. Curse such imperfect education. If this be not life indifferently lived, it is hard to give it any other name.
There is a part of the memory which is music-specific. Snatches of song and music come to one’s lips involuntarily...this is a common experience. For the last few days I feel caught in a strange kind of mood, all because of two Begum Akhtar Ghazals. And I am wondering where have I been?