dilruba | دلربا | meaning, a woman who steals hearts.

In this 10-part series, Dastaan-e-Dilrubai, Shreya Ila Anasuya narrates the histories of Indian women who delighted and moved people with their skills in singing, dancing, acting, and writing — bearing witness to their power.

With art by Satwik Gade.

Read more from the series here.

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The audio begins with a few thwacks of the tabla, the strains of the sarangi, the sounds of people talking in the background. A deep, robust voice speaks in a thickly Punjabi accent. “Khan sahab, ijaazat hai…” She starts singing the alaap, and immediately the audience breaks into praise. “Waah waah, waah waah,” they go. “Haaye ram, bekal jiya… o bekal jiya ho tumrey kaaran…” she starts to sing, accompanied by the beat and intonation of the instruments.

The singer is Mukhtar Begum, dead years before I was born, and the mehfil long over. But in this audio that survives, the legendary singer and actress is still alive, conversing with her audience, coughing, and singing. Bekal jiya tumrey kaaran. Because of you, the heart is restless.

This audio, uploaded to the generous expanse of the world wide web from the archives of Pakistani writer Lutfullah Khan, is particularly welcome because it is mercifully free of narrative. You can tune in and simply listen to an intensely gifted artist do what she did best, unlike written and oral accounts that try to freeze her as first the paramour and then the wife of famous dramatist and writer Agha Hashr Kashmiri.

One such account is by celebrated Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who visited Kashmiri in Mukhtar’s salon in Amritsar. Manto, known for his provocative short fiction, is a young man when he meets Kashmiri. As a school boy, he had been drawn to Kashmiri’s plays, and had even set up a short-lived drama club with the intention of staging one of them.

Manto’s account of Kashmiri sets up the latter as a sort of macho powerhouse — the young writer knows Kashmiri only by reputation, as a man who can take one look at an actress and have her follow him to a deserted place. A man who has never fallen in love… until he meets the celebrated courtesan Mukhtar, that is. Manto himself has seen Mukhtar in the city — dressed in the latest fashions, he says, going along with her fellow courtesans to the dargah of Zahira Pir.

Manto seems amused by Kashmiri’s love for Mukhtar, a woman he does not find haseen, or beautiful. He writes about Kashmiri forgoing alcohol because of his love for Mukhtar, reciting lines from a play because she asks him to do so, even though he was refusing to do so just moments before. What is unsaid is that Kashmiri is over 20 years her senior, but the punchline and the refrain of Manto’s anecdote is, “Budhaape ka ishq bahot zaalim hota hai.” (“Love in old age is very cruel.”)

mukhtar-begum

Another account is a Radio Pakistan interview of Mukhtar. At this point she is 50, and Kashmiri is long dead. Every single question in the interview is about him. The only question the host asks her that is remotely about herself is what her late husband thought of her skills as an artist. In that interview she is articulate, and generous about her husband’s body of work. But there is an entirely unacknowledged clue to her own legacy in the same interview, and in another one by Lutfullah Khan, in which she is much older, struggling to speak, and often has Khan finish her sentences for her. About her own talents she is much more reticent, only saying, “Ye aapki meherbaani hai” (“You are very kind”) when Khan praises her contributions to the arts.

This legacy is her own long career as a singer and an actress. She was born in Amritsar in 1901, and trained in Hindustani classical vocal music, first by Mian Meherbaan Khan and then by Ustad Aashiq Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana. This training and her talent as a vocalist led to great success that lasted throughout her life and saw her perform in the last of the princely states, like some of her most successful contemporaries. These included Hyderabad, where the Nizam was so moved by her singing that he wanted to crown her, and Alwar, where although her veil slipped during a performance, she was permitted to continue.

She met Kashmiri when she went to Calcutta in the 1920s, and following her success in theatre and films in the city, and the beginning of her relationship with Kashmiri, her entire family moved to the city. Here she not only starred in the Parsi theatre but in various talkie films alongside Jahanara Kajjan and Akhtaribai Faizabadi, who would later be known as the legendary singer Begum Akhtar. After Kashmiri’s passing in 1935, Veejay Sai writes that she started her own film company, Mukhtar Films. She later moved to Lahore, where she lived until her death in 1982.

Another part of Mukhtar Begum’s fabulous legacy is the careers of the young women whom she mentored and whose talents she nurtured. These include her adopted daughter Rani, who was born to Kashmiri’s chauffeur. Although Rani could not sing, Mukhtar ensured she was trained well in dance, and had a career in films. The popular Pakistani singer Naseem Begum was a pupil of Mukhtar’s, and credits her teacher with all the success she has achieved. Mukhtar also met a young, starry-eyed girl called Allah Rakhi Wasai in Calcutta. She not only mentored her and introduced her to people in the theatre and film worlds, she renamed her Noor Jehan (“Light of the World”). Mukhtar also brought up her half-sister, a woman who continues to amaze and delight audiences, as one of the last great ghazal performers of her time. That woman’s name is Farida Khanum.

I can’t help but wonder how, and how much would be different about his account if Manto’s protagonist had been Mukhtar and not her husband. She was not just a young tawaif that an older playwright was besotted by — she was his creative collaborator in life and after his death, and beyond that, she was an artist of surpassing power. Not only did she build a life around practice and performance, she passed on these gifts to those younger than her, who continue to move and change a world that desperately needs this magic.

As the world reels from the spread of a pandemic and is forced to reckon with the breakdown of its known systems, perhaps those of us who have the means to do so can seek a quiet moment to find this music, and let it change us.

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