By Ashfaq A Khan :
A Walk down the Memory Lane:
Be-khudi badhti chali hai,raaz ki baatein karo:”
Shaher-e-Khamoshan – Pasand Bagh,Garhi-Peer Khan,Thakurganj,Lucknow is the eternal abode of Malika-e-Ghazal,Padam Shree, Begum Akhtar. Here she rests in peace besides her mother, Mushtari Bai Faizabadi, a renowned Mehfil singer by profession & a Der-e-Daar Tawaif by heredity. It was on the 7th. October 1914, in an humble house in the Nakhas locality of Faizabad, Mushtari after separation from her husband Civil Judge Asghar Ali, gave birth to twin daughters: Akhtari & Anwari. Anwari died at a very young age, suspected to have been poisoned.This modest double storied ancestral house, the birth place of Begum Akhtar, which had a pukka well in its front compound, is no more and in its place has come up a commercial setup. It was during Mushtari’s lifetime, perhaps, pre-independence, that she built her new residence in Reidganj in close proximity to the Faizabad’s historic Gulab Bari on the main road joining Sahabganj which still stands ,after changing numerous ownerships, to tell many a tale.
This house is fondly remembered by the locals, to have been the later day residence of Mushtari & Akhtari ,from where on the night of 9th Muharram every year Mushtari took out her ceremonial Tazia procession which was the city’s highlight and a major event. Where ever Mushtari & Akhtari would be, this mother and daughter duo, would religiously ensure their return to their hometown, suspending all musical soirees and celebrations. The mourning month of Moharram was strictly followed with full respect and honour. In true reverence of the Karbala tragedy they lead their Tazia procession dressed in mourning black, reciting Noahas (dirges) en route, in their in inimitable style and soul stirring voices. The procession would pass through the Chowk and it drew a huge mass following, irrespective of religion, cast, creed or gender. Administration made special arrangements for this procession and participated in the best of their spirits. It was an epitome of the true Ganga-Jamni ethos prevalent in the twin cities of Faizabad & Ayodhya.
Although the celebrity founders of this Tazia procession are no more but the tradition continues. Various Anjumans and like minded citizens join hands to keep the event going without a break and Mushtari Ka Tazia till today maintains its popularity and fame. The grandeur, the reverence and the faith has not diminished with the passage of time. The procession takes the same route, with many Anjumans & Noaha Committees participating with same devotion and spirit ,drawing a mammoth crowd. This event has completed successfully without any interruption, over seven decades since it began….a practice and a custom to be proud of. It is a night to remember the founder duo Mushtari & Akhtari’s effort ,to start this fine ritual of faith & the citizens of Faizabad to maintain the continuity and dignity of the occasion….!!
Mushtari was the second wife of the reputed Civil Judge, Asghar Ali of Lucknow. Her husband came from a well known family of Awadh, a great connoisseur of Urdu Poetry and an ardent lover of classical ghazals & Mujra- Mehfils. Unfortunately the marriage of Mushtari with Asghar Ali did not last for long despite the love and devotion ….they so dearly shared. She separated from her husband due to her non acceptance and social rejection in her husband’s conservative family. The stigma of being a Tawaif could not be erased and her conscience would never permit her to accept a secondary status. She in a pregnant stage, left Lucknow to settle happily in her ancestral home of Faizabad. It was here that Akhtari was born,grew up and received her initial schooling in the Church of North India, Mission School,Angoori Bagh,Faizabad. Akhtari had a half brother Akhtar Husain in Lucknow, son of Asghar Ali from his first wife who later rose to become the District Judge , sadly not much is known about him.
Incidentally,Akhtari, happened to be my late mother. Begum Aman Ullah Khan nee Muqaddar Fatima’s school mate and a close friend. I do remember my childhood days when my Nana Ismail Khan visited us in Lucknow, on Moharram and for Chellum, he always ensured to visit Bibbi- Bittia (Akhtari) in China Bazar or at Havelock Road ,and she with love and respect addressed him as Ismail Mamu. Pleasantries and gifts were exchanged with her and her mother Mushtari……old bonds and friends, left behind in Faizabad remembered, nostalgically, often followed by homely meals over aromatic hookah puffs.
Mushtari had an ambition to educate her only surviving offspring– Akhtari and get her married in a decent family to live a respectful life of a housewife, unlike hers. Contrary to this Akhtari showed very little interest in her studies and dropped out of junior school (Class IVth or Vth) to pursue her love for singing & music. Seeing her inclination towards performing arts, the members of her maternal family convinced her mother Mushtari to groom her as a singer and mould her in her own life style.
To acquire the rudiments of music, Mushtari who had temporarily moved to Gaya- Bihar around 1921, sent Akhtari at a tender age of 7 to her first guru… Sarangi Nawaz Ustad Imdad Ali Khan of Patna,for the initial “Taleem of Saaz aur Awaaz”. With changing circumstances, in 1923 the family of mother and daughter, shifted back to her home town Faizabad and Akhtari was formally inducted as a disciple in the true Guru-Shishya tradition to Ustad Atta Mohammed Khan of Patiala,Tanras Gharana. Under the expert tutelage of Khan Saheb she learnt ,Khayal, Thumri, Dadra ,Chaiti & Ghazal Gayaki, honed her skills to rise much above her contemporaries, mastering the finer nuances and developing her own inimitable style of rendetion. For wider acclaim and greener pastures, mother and daughter along with their Guru Ustad Atta Mohammed Khan decided to migrate to Calcutta in 1927 and settled in a rented house on Ripon Street.
Her debut concert was by accidental fortune in Alfred Theater -Calcutta in 1934, where encouraged by her Guru and mentor, Ustad Atta Mohammed Khan, she began her first live stage performance with a Ghazal:
Tum na hote harjai kuch aisi ada payee
Takta hai teri aur ek tamashayee
she held her audience spell bound and enthralled, among the august connoisseurs of Hindustani Light Classical Music present, was also the Nightingale of India, Ms Sarojini Naidu to give her a standing ovation and gift her a khadi silk saree. Calcutta offered her the opportunities to win new laurels every day, and by the Grace of God, here she won acclaim and recognition as an artist of National repute. Whichever field she entered she achieved success. Her name and fame preceded her performances. In 1935 she cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company of Dum Dum Calcutta. In the same year her first Hindi feature film “Ek Din Ka Badshah” was also released .Mehboob Khan cast her as a heroine in “Roti” in 1942 ….the film was an instant box office hit. Concerts, Private Shows & Mehfils, Stage, Theatre, Recording and even Acting and Films, no discipline of performing arts was left untouched by her luster and Midas touch. Her name and fame followed her, folk, semi classical, classical hindustani music & ghazal rose to pinnacles of respectability and she commanded a hysteric fan following. She conquered Calcutta, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kashmir, Bombay by her voice and style of singing. In a short period she became an iconic figure in the singing world…..Akhtari Bai Faizabadi was a name to reckon with….and her name guaranteed wholesome and excellent entertainment.
At the zenith of her singing career Akhtari decided to settle down, in her loving Awadh. Her ancestral hometown of Faizabad could no more be her choice, she had outgrown its spectrum. She needed a far more wider canvass, to portray her art and the acclaim she had so rightfully earned. What could be better than …Lucknow…the cultural and vibrant capital of Awadh with all conveniences and luxuries to offer. It has been a city down ages where tahzeeb, sheerin sukhan and sheerin zuban is nurtured in every hearth and home and where nazakat and nafasat flows in ever vein.It had its own charm ,the splendor of Nawabi culture …sophisticated etiquettes, courtly manners, and above all the abode of nobility of north India to appreciate and patronize her andaaz aur ada ,her ghazal and thumri.
To settle ,Mushtari guided Akhtari to purchase real estate property in the better part of Lucknow away from the old city surroundings .A decent house was purchased in the Cheena Bazar locality of Lalbagh an upmarket residential area. With a high class salon in mind neccessary alterations and facade upliftment done to suit the character of the proposed business. Lavish furnishings and luxurious effects provided with chandeliers and expensive carpets to bring back the by gone aura of yester years of nawabi elegance .No effort was left to provide exclusive ambience and comfort to the esteemed visitors. Aesthetically it was a venue suiting the highest echelon of the Lucknow Society with a special priority given to privacy and personalized service. This house was christened as Akhtar Manzil and in a very short period became a landmark of the city.
In late 1930s & 40s ” Akhtar Manzil” the double storied well appointed mansion in the China Bazaar ,(Quinton Road ) area rose to prominence being the residence of Akhtari and a venue for exclusive music soirees, where only the gentry of the highest social order visited for the exclusive mehfils of entertainment. Patrons to this salon comprised the nobility and the royalty of Awadh and far beyond. Moved by the beauty & charm of Akhtari & his love for music,urdu poetry & regal etiquette,Nawab of Rampur,H.H.Raza Ali Khan could not restrain himself from gracing these mehfils and becoming a frequent visitor of Akhtar Manzil, like many other Maharajas, Rajas,Nawabs and Talluqedars of that period. His visits and intimacy gradually led him into a liason with Akhtari and the ultimate “Mutah” proposal. Akhtari became the resident singer of the Rampur Estate on a princely salary of Rs.2000 per month with all other luxuries and lavish expenses taken care of. For a Bohemian who had ambitions far greater than the restricted court life of Rampur the appointment could not last long. Getting bored with the routines of the estate and the monotony of life she aspired for her lost freedom. She ultimately decided to abandon and escape the Nawab’s company and return to her beloved Lucknow.
To divert herself from Rampur interests she turned her attention and attraction towards young Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi Esq.,( a recent widower)a scion of the Talluqedar family of Kakori, which also had close connections with the Nizam of Hyderabad & was the uncle of Begum Hamida Habibullah. His had been the home of political stalwarts like Khalliqus Zaman . Mr Abbassi was a leading lawyer of Lucknow commanding popularity and respect due to his professional supremacy and social standing. He had his education in England and was a Bar-at-Law from the Inner Temple. His debonair looks and polished manners ultimately struck the cupid’s arrow and Akhtari after a short & secret courtship married her prince charming Ishtiaq Saheb in a simple “Nikah”ceremony in Lucknow in 1945.To a great extent to bring together Akhtari & Ishtiaq Saheb,Ms. Sayeeda Abbas Raza (later married Meer Mushtaq Ahmad once a Congress Mayor of Delhi)was responsible. Sayeeda hailing from a highly respected aristocracy of Awadh, worked for AIR Lucknow as an Urdu News Reader . Infact the Nikah ceremony was attended by her and her husband,the moulvi,the bride & the groom along with just one domestic attendant Gulab and the venue was Abbassi Saheb’s Office on Clyde Road,the present Rana Pratap Marg in Syed Ali Zaheer’s residential premises.The marriage changed Akhtari Bai’s status to Begum Abbassi in person & Begum Akhtar for the her loving fans.
Naam Akhtar tha,woh Begum, Abbassi, ki thi
Tarranum unsey tha,woh Malika-e-Tarranum thi:
Akhtar Manzil still stands proudly on the junction of J.C.Bose Marg,opposite the Nishat Hospital to tell many a magnificent tale of Begum Akhtar and her name to fame in Hindustani Music. Infact it is a heritage edifice worthy of preservation for the cause of Music and Awadhi Culture. Unfortunately its ownership changed hands,with it came down the proud nomenclature marble slab of Akhtar Manzil scripted& inscribed in Calligraphic Urdu. Name plates of Chatterjee family members, the present owners, can be found from the gate to the side walls.There happens to be no trace of Akhtar Manzil on the building. In recognition of Padam Shree & Padam Bhushan of Begum Akhtar it is time to honour her and offer respect to this historical residence, lest it gets devoured by the passage of time and is distorted beyond recognition in the name of development. Begum Akhtar Trust in England under the aegies of Dr.Mohla and other Indian Associations in honour of Begum Akhtar along with NGO’s should make an effort to aquire this heritage property and dedicate it to the nation…..as a musuem of artefacts and memories connected with Begum Akhtar.
After her marriage Akhtari shifted to Mateen Manzil in Nayagaon, residence of Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbassi’s father,just across Ehsan Manzil the ancestral paternal home , till he purchased a new haveli for his Begum, on No.1.Havelock Road. In the true spirit of muslim wife, she aspired to transform herself from a public figure to a private individual….a transition from Shama-e-Mehfil Baiji to Parda-Nasheen Shareef Zadi…….from Akhtari Bai to Begum Abbasi to Begum Akhtar .
To achieve this proud status, the price of respectability had to be paid, she gave up music, public performances and her concert career. These were the sacrifices, to justify her marriage and to follow Islamic tenets of a muslim house wife. The transition in her life style along with the sad demise of her mother Mushtari Bai in 1951 caused havoc in her personal life pushing her into an abyss of depression & melancholia. She could not bear for long this trauma of getting sucked in to the vortex of catastrophe. Her willful separation from her life’s love of music and public entertainment was diagnosed the only cause of her emotional imbalance and physical illness. Finally on the advice of the attending doctors she returned gracefully to indulge in what she reveled most. Her understanding and ever loving husband Ishtiaq Abbasi stood by her side in this hour of crisis and persuaded her to once again resume her Radio programmes and concert performances. The first after the break was for AIR Lucknow her ever favourite platform. She started her second inning with greater dedication and absolute devotion. There was a shower of blessings from her true admirers….the sub-continent of urdu speaking and hindustani music of India, Pakistan, and the Middle East embraced her performances with applause and she once again attained her exceptional status. Governments & Foundations bestowed her with honours and awards.Her ada & andaz represented Lucknow’s Nawabi oppulence, she sang with perfect understanding of the lyrics and added much more to the words in her recitals—she was now Mallika-e-Tarranum & Mallika-e-Ghazal and the heart throb of the millions. Honoured by the country’s top honour Padma Shri in 1968, & the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy award in 1972 she continued her achievements in her life time and after demise in 1975 was once again posthumously awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. She also won acclaim and honours in Karachi Pakistan in 1961, Kabul Afghanistan in 1963 and in the erstwhile USSR in 1967.
“Tu hai sar-e- bahar, koi dastaan,hai ajeeb alam-e-anjuman
Yeh nigah-e-naaz jabeen jabeen,yeh sukut-e-naz sukhan sukhan,
Woh tabbasum pe lab-e-nazni,woh bahar-e-paikare dil nasheen
Wahi adh kali-si, kali kali,wahi taazgi-e-chaman,chaman chaman:”
I had the fortune of attending her last public concert in October 1974 in Mumbai, if I can remember correctly; it was held in Patkar Hall on the Marine Lines. As ever the show went house full with an elite attendance and Begum Saheba was in her best form obliging the requests of her loving audience, but strain and fatigue was clearly visible on her. The show was organized by the Cancer Patients Aid Society to raise funds where Begum performed gratis & in which she was presented many souvenirs and mementoes by the patrons. As a true philanthropist, at the end of the show she auctioned all the gifts & arte-facts among the audience in the hall and the handsome amount thus raised donated to the Cancer Patients Aid Society, India House, Fort Bombay. Through this gesture I got one souvenir of an ornate drift-wood table lamp autographed in urdu on the donor card, by Begum Sahiba which is in my treasured collection , keeping her memories ever fresh. Little she knew that with this performance she was bidding goodbye to Bombay and a farewell to her overwhelming fan following of this metropolis.
Ab tumse rukhsat hoti hoon,Sambhalo saaz-e-ghazal,
Naya tarana chedo,mere naghmon ko neend aati hai:
After Mumbai it was Ahmedabad her next stoppage for a show which had already been booked house full. Neelam Gamadia had organized this performance of Begum Akhtar in Ahmedabad for which Begum Sahiba had a firm commitment.
She certainly was not in the best of health on the night of 27th October 1974 when she graced the stage. She thanked the audience for their loving welcome and applause and began her performance with her old favourites….ghazals & thumries. During the performance in the auditorium walked in Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan – Tiger Pataudi another passionate fan of hers. In the best of the courtly manners which had been ingrained in her blood from childhood, she stood up in courtesy and extended her adaabs (salutations) to the erstwhile Nawab of Pataudi and the scion of the Bhopal royalty. This was grace and mannerism personified. Function went without any undue incident, although she did not look very comfortable and her usual jolly self…..her last thumri in her classic voice was……
Sowai nindiya jagaye ……O Ram
It was nearly the end of the show, when while singing she fainted and collapsed on the stage. She was immediately given medical aid and shifted to her hotel…she was diagnosed to have suffered a severe heart stroke and advised medication & complete bed rest by the doctors. The organizers, her fans, her accompanying troupe members were at all times beside her giving the best available attention and waiting for improvement to take her back to her loving Lucknow. All were helpless and after battling with life on the night of 30th October 1974 in Ahmedabad she gave up the struggle and breathed her last…far far away from her beloved husband Ishtiaq Abbasi waiting for her in Lucknow.
While the arrangements were being made to take her remains to Lucknow the dead body was given a the ritual ablutions (ghusal) according to the religious customs by the Muslim Girls Orphanage of Ahmedabad. The coffin after great deal of ordeal and with many disappointments was air freighted by Air from Ahmedabad to Delhi and then on to Kanpur from where it was transported by road to #1.Havelock Road, Lucknow. As per her wishes Begum Akhtar was laid to rest next to her mother Mushtari in Pasand Bagh,Thakurganj. Her loving husband Ishtiaq Abbassi could not bear her loss for long and bid adieu to this world to join his beloved Akhtar….he lies buried in his private family graveyard in Amausi in the vicinity of the present Chaudhary Charan Singh International Airport.
Naam bhi leta hai ek jahan-e-rang-e-boo;
Doston us naubahar-e- naaz ki batein karo;
Subah honey tak usi andaaz ki batein karo: