Evoking Begum Akhtar: A new collection, like most literature about the ghazal singer, fetishises her life and pathos

Begum Akhtar is held up as an example of a derided and ultimately extinguished culture, which becomes nostalgically (and therefore safely) recreated, and fetishised precisely because it is lost.

Shreya Ila Anasuya June 10, 2021 14:24:27 IST
Evoking Begum Akhtar: A new collection, like most literature about the ghazal singer, fetishises her life and pathos

There are those whose full, complex lives become flattened by their own legends.

The singer Begum Akhtar – with her positioning in history as a ghazal singer of unsurpassed mastery, who flourished in the mid-20th century, and as someone whose context easily appealed to those who fetishise a certain kind of Lucknowi culture – is one such person.

In a new English translation of a Hindi collection curated by Yatindra Mishra, this problematic hagiography is immediately obvious in the introduction.

Mishra, whose own aristocratic roots mean that his family played host (and patron) to the great singer in her heyday as a courtesan performer in various princely states, speaks about Akhtar in a way that has become typical of those who eulogise her. In fact, many of us have spoken of her as a singular entity – which she undoubtedly was, just not in the way that she is regularly positioned in.

According to Mishra, until Begum Akhtar, “the ghazal was only something that was read.” This is patently untrue. The ghazal had been sung before her, and there is a history of courtesan performers who sang not only the forms associated with what was condescendingly classified into ‘semi-classical’ music – thumri, dadra, hori, chaiti – dozens of well known singers before Akhtar were masters of the ghazal form.

The truth, as Mishra knows it well, is slightly more complex. It is precisely because Akhtar came from a lineage of professional performers that she was trained in music from an early age. Her prodigious talent cannot be understood divorced from this context. Neither can her reinvention from a courtesan performer to a concert singer who was accepted and well respected in classical music circles.

In glorifying and glamorising the pain and pathos Akhtar made people feel with her expertise in ghazal performance, we miss an important point. There were many who inherited the legacy she did, from a matrilineal line of performers that nurtured forms of music that were then taken away from them as a new nation came into being.

The reason she is remembered in the particular way she is now is not just because of her music. It is because she is held up as an example of a derided and ultimately extinguished culture, which becomes nostalgically (and therefore safely) recreated, and fetishised precisely because it is lost.

Her beauty and elegance, and her popularity with eminent men like Kaifi Azmi can be safely referred to because she has become the Pavlovian public performer – at once ‘seductive’ and ‘respectable’.

In her persona, the Victorian dichotomy of the wife in the house/the courtesan in the salon becomes resolved in the same way that fictional courtesans in certain Bombay films become safe to access from the distance of the cinema screen. Mukul Kesavan has written about the trope of the cinematic tawaif in general, and Regula Burkhardt Qureshi has written specifically about Akhtar herself, examining the ways in which this nostalgia is evoked.

In the first essay that begins this collection, historian Saleem Kidwai compares Akhtar not to many of her peers and contemporaries, and not even her famous predecessors (like Gauhar Jaan), but the fictional courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada. The comparison is astute, for they are fetishised exactly in the same way.

Saleem Kidwai is in many ways the best person with whom to begin any anthology responding to Begum Akhtar’s life and work. This essay was originally published in an anthology about Lucknow edited by historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg. Kidwai knew Akhtar as a young man, and along with poet Agha Shahid Ali, was part of her close circle. The two called themselves her acolytes and she found the description hilarious.

One of the most popular images of the singer is her flanked by a young Kidwai and Ali, all three smiling broadly into the camera. It is surprising then, that an excerpt from Ali’s extraordinary poem written in the wake of Akhtar’s death, originally quoted in Kidwai’s essay, has been unceremoniously omitted from this book.

Kidwai’s essay introduces the context that is needed to understand Akhtar, especially because it is from somebody who witnessed her at the height of her acceptance by the Indian music establishment.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of most of the other pieces included in the collection. I am personally invested in both Begum Akhtar’s music and her legacy, as a long-time fan and a researcher, but I found it difficult to get through the book. Biographical details are repeated ad nauseam. In two essays this is alright, in five it becomes grating.

Evoking Begum Akhtar A new collection like most literature about the ghazal singer fetishises her life and pathos

Some are purely biographical, tracing some aspect of her long and eventful career without going into historiography, or context-setting in the way Kidwai (or Sheila Dhar, the author of the second essay) manage to do.

Some have nothing to do with the singer’s life or work, but are personal anecdotes about her impact on the writer’s own life. Of these I found singer and writer Shubha Mudgal’s piece, which finishes the collection, the most refreshing. Instead of engaging in speculation about her life or repeating the same four or five surface-level details that so many of the other essays do, she takes a musician’s interest in Akhtar’s technique that goes deeper than simply talking about the famous patti, or break, that is so prized about Akhtar’s singing.

There is also a lovely interview with Shanti Hiranand, one of Akhtar’s pupils who went on to become a well-regarded classical singer herself.

Unfortunately, despite some of these gems, on the whole, the collection is disappointing. Had the editorial lens been one of genuine engagement rather than icon-making and speculation, and had it been a little less concerned with bald biological details and more with context-setting, perhaps this book would have read entirely differently.

There is one farcical “imaginary interview” with Akhtar in which the interviewer, Narendra Saini, writes “I wanted to ask her about her simplicity because I had also seen her dressed to the hilt.” The interview itself is titled A conversation with the Empress of Pain. In another essay, Pravin Jha writes, “When Akhtari Bai Faizabadi gave up music after marriage, her body too turned limp.” Later on Jha speculates “What seems more probable is that family problems like a still-born baby may have given rise to depression, and music was the therapy to pull her out of it.” The tone and form of these pieces reads like gossip at best and fetishistic voyeurism at worst.

Sushobhit Saktawat writes that “She has the same stature amongst women ghazal singers that Mehdi Hassan has among men.” Another similarly extraordinary sentence is by Mishra, who while writing of Akhtar’s soirees in Ayodhya, says upon hearing that Begum wore the peshvaaz while she performed: “I would be surprised every time I heard this and would wonder how a courtesan in common parlance whose job was to entertain through singing and dancing could be present somewhere with such grace and poise.” Apparently success may only be measured in strict gendered categories, and only non-courtesans can be expected to have “grace” and “poise”.

Later in the book, Hiranand’s interview is immediately followed by one with Rita Ganguly, another of Akhtar’s pupils who also wrote a book about her. Ganguly’s book about Akhtar contains passages so voyeuristic that in a more ethical publishing culture it would have perhaps not seen the light of day. But in India, we have our own ways of making deities and icons out of beloved public figures. In the process, such checks and balances are collateral damage.

In her book, Ganguly talks about private details of Akhtar’s life without any of the compassion or sensitivity that someone like Kidwai or Ali showed in their written responses to Akhtar’s impact on their lives. Part of this are unverifiable details about her reproductive history that are then repeated verbatim, and most often in insensitive ways. These too are ways to fetishise a woman who cannot speak for herself anymore, her medical history and the history of sexual violence against her written about in ways that no survivor deserves.

Kidwai speaks about Akhtar’s struggles with addiction without making simplistic or voyeuristic connections between events in her life and substance abuse. In simpler words, he treats her like a person.

Kidwai’s essay is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the woman behind the icon. In one small respect, it is dated – he begins by talking about her forgotten cenotaph, which Kidwai and Akhtar’s famous pupil Shanti Hiranand have since restored with support from a trust in Lucknow. This careful work of restoration is smaller in scale and takes time, but is well worth doing, not only when it comes to the material legacy of Akhtar’s life, but also the ways in which we evoke and remember her.

What we really need in order to understand Akhtar’s life and times is a skilful biography. The one written by Hiranand is useful, but incomplete, and inevitably shaped by Hiranand’s own unique perspective as a singer and pupil.

In conversations and interviews with me, Saleem Kidwai has said that he will not write a book about Begum Akhtar. Kidwai is among the few people working today that knew her well in her lifetime. He is also someone who has done rigorous historical work into the lives of professional women singers in northern India. He has translated the only known memoir left to us by a hereditary woman singer from northern India/Pakistan (Malka Pukhraj’s Song Sung True). One hopes against hope that he will write that book, for it will be the one that Begum Akhtar deserves.

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