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Since 1st March, 1999
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Ae Mohabbat... Reminiscing Begum Akhtar By Rita Ganguly, with Jyoti Sabharwal, Stellar, Rs 695

Those who doubt that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction can turn to Begum Akhtar’s life. Coming back from the doors of death, being raped, loving repeatedly and disastrously, miscarrying seven times (the first one attributed to the watching of a celluloid Hamlet), being stripped almost to her last penny by her illegitimate daughter whom the world knew as her sister, are only a few of the experiences that life had in store for her.

Being poisoned at three along with one’s twin sister is not the ideal way one expects to begin life’s journey. But in the case of little Bibbi, it was probably just the morning showing the day. Her twin died before a doctor could see them, but Bibbi recovered almost by a miracle. This, too, was perhaps prescient for the singer who could flash her brilliant smile and send audiences into raptures with her music even when her life was a wreck.

Begum Akhtar’s life lies caught somewhere between all her names: Bibbi, Akhtari Sayyed, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, Begum Ishtiaque Ahmed Abbasi and finally, Begum Akhtar (not to mention Ammi, the name used by her shagirdas, like the author, Rita Ganguly). Bibbi, the child of the deserted Mushtari Bai, did well in school and had an eye for flashy clothes and jewellery. Akhtari Bai Faizabadi was born out of her mother’s desperation to make ends meet in an alien town, but she went on to become a most wanted actress and tawaif in no time. But Akhtari Bai was also a child-woman leading a most harrowing, and somewhat split, life. On the one hand, she was pursued by theatre companies and artistically-inclined, wealthy men of leisure. On the other hand, she was on the verge of losing her equilibrium after being raped by the raja of a Bihari state which left her with more than an emotional scar. A girl was born in such secrecy that no one ever guessed that she was not her sister, as Mushtari would have everyone believe.

The troubles were compounded by her love for Moazzam Jah of Hyderabad which ended in disappointment (he claimed to love her deeply, but confessed that he could only make her his mistress). Next came a whirlwind affair with Wali Khan, the brother of the groom at a wedding where Akhtari was invited to perform. This culminated in marriage, but one that nearly put paid to her singing career. The marriage ended, and the music came back, thanks to the launch of AIR Lucknow. A renewed acquaintance with Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, the son of the Nawab of Kakori, in Lucknow led to marriage — the first stabilizing influence in a life spent looking for a father-figure. But she was already a temperamental person gripped by periods of deep melancholy eased only by heavy drinking and smoking.

There is enough in Begum Akhtar’s life to make people wonder if a single person has lived it. Rita Ganguly, even with the help of her publisher, overreaches her grasp by trying to be both the narrator and a character in the story. Details of the author’s life, before it crosses with Begum Akhtar’s, stick out in an unseemly way. The chronology is mostly vague, the prose is terrible and infelicitous at times, spellings are not standardized, and the quotations from the Urdu and Bengali poetry (and their translations) are often embarrassingly wrong. This is not to belittle Ganguly’s scholarship, but to point out that the material gathered could have been organized better, to provide greater insights into a lost culture. The ‘classical’ world is ill-represented, so there is no way of knowing how it responded to a singer who enjoyed such immense popularity without going through a systematic talim, and was accepted as a khayaliya even after she had embraced ghazals and the harmonium.

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