Begum Akhtar: A courtesan, a devotee of Lord Krishna, Mallika-e-Ghazal and an enigma

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There haven’t been many like Begum Akhtar, and history has not been very kind to those who have succeeded. Often, the details of their life, their personal and professional difficulties go unmentioned. But sooner or later someone writes or talks about them in all their richness, and we can bask in their reflected glory.

Begum Akhtar’s life can be divided into two phases – one when she was known as Akhtari Bai and the second when she assumed the now famous name Begum Akhtar. Before her marriage to lawyer Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, Akhtari Bai, though famous, faced many obstacles despite her unique and stunning voice which complimented her beauty. She, like many other courtesans of the time, encountered censorship and hid her true identity, as a performer for a marginalized group in society. Born to Mushtari, who was also a courtesan, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, Akhtari Bai had a keen ear for music and is said to have given her first public performance at the age of 15. India Film Company to star in a film called Ek Din Ka Badshah, and then starred in about 8-9 films in the 1930s-40s, including Mehboob Khan’s Roti, for which she composed and sang all six songs herself.

Akhtari also worked with All India Radio, and as she grew older her voice became deeper, containing all the pain and beauty of the world as she saw it. Her charming ghazals (she is said to have 400 songs to her credit) were mostly composed and sung by her. From “Diwana Banana Hai” to “Mere Humnafas”, Begum Akhtar has often sung about love, trouble and its enchantment. In “Mere Humnafas” she says at one point:

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Simple Humnafas
Mother Humnawa
Mujhe dost ban ke
Dagha na de

Mujhe dar hai is a simple charagar
Ye chiraagh tu hee bujhaa na de

“My sweet friend, my dear companion, do not betray me after becoming my friend. I fear that you, my scout and my healer, you alone will one day extinguish the light of our bond. In all but four lines, Begum Akhtar succinctly conveys all that needs to be said about the relationship, its anxieties, and its anticipations.

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Over the years, Begum Akhtar began to perform in larger venues, entertaining huge crowds with her skill and grace. According to Akhtar’s disciple, Rita Ganguly, Begum Akhtar smoked and drank. “She quit drinking for two years after returning from Haj, but started again,” Rita told the Telegraph in an earlier interview. Loving ‘simple arhar dal’ and devotee of Lord Krishna, Akhtar led a life of solitude, Ganguly revealed. Born in pre-independent India in 1914, Akhtar died in 1974, nearly three decades after India’s independence. As a woman who lived her young life under British rule and away from its shackles in her final years as an adult, Begum’s personality and what we know of her captures the nuances of being an Indian woman. – a woman who worked hard for the success she deserved. But Begum also represents this Desi woman of today who, despite her talent and gifts, often has to bow to several pressures from society, one of which is to get married. In her case, it was apparently to hide her origins in order to get more work, and in modern Indian households, because ‘kya kahenge diary.’

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