In New Delhi one night
As Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.
But the audience, hushed, did not stir.
The microphone was dead but she went on
Singing, and her voice
Was coming from far away …
— Agha Shahid Ali
HER voice was steeped with romance, pain and longing. It was a perfect match for a genre that speaks of love in both universal and subjective tones. When she sang it was with passion and a nuanced understanding of what she was singing. Although the ghazal has a history of being associated with tarnannum (musical rendition) because of its inherent rhythmic structure, and was performed by everyone, from poets to courtesans to mendicants, to Begum Akhtar goes the credit of elevating ghazal singing to the realm of classical music.
Born in Faizabad in 1914 into a family of singers she showed promise at an early age and was trained to develop her talents under the tutelage of notable ustads of her time. She thrived and blossomed into a beautiful, accomplished woman performing at princely courts for private audiences, and also in the new but popular medium of cinema. In the 1930s, courtesans were high-powered women who were in control of their lives and the choices they made. They were wealthy, owned property and gave back to society by their nurture of the arts. As the Indian freedom movement gained momentum, change was fast and furious. With princely courts likely to be absorbed in the newly-emerging nation states, lifestyles of the elite were bound to change. High-statured single women felt the pressure to get married and settle into a mundane domestic life. Begum Akhtar married the reputed barrister from Lucknow, Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi, in 1945 and embraced domesticity as best as she could.
After marriage she stopped singing for a while. But she could not bear to be separated from her love for music. Her husband gently guided her return to public performance and gave her the space to explore her genius. Begum Akhtar’s presence transformed not only Lucknow’s musical soirees but evoked a national appreciation of the ghazal as a musical genre. Her repertoire of ghazals included the great classical poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Momin Khan Momin and Dagh Dihlavi, as well as contemporaries such as Jigar Moradabadi and Hafeez Jallundhari. When poets offered her ghazals at performances, she often composed a dhun (melody) on the spot and sang it with her inimitable zest.
What was so unique in Akhtar’s gayiki and why does it continue to be relevant? What strikes us most, apart from the power of her voice, is the minimal musical enhancement that she preferred. She did not drown the words with musical ornamentation; she made them sparkle with her rendition. She performed in a semi-classical mode based on her thorough knowledge of the rules of classical music but applied to enhance the musical rendering of the poem.
Ghazals were, as I have mentioned above, meant for performance. The sonic thread that binds the verses in the form of radif and qafiya gives it a special musical quality. But there is a space between the poem and its rendition that is tapped when a singer like Begum Akhtar gives it voice. I want to reflect on her version of Mir Taqi Mir’s well-known ghazal, ‘Ulti ho gayin sab tadbeeren kuch na dava ne kaam kiya / Dekha is bimari-e dil ne akhir kaam tamam kiya’ (All my plans were overturned, no medicine worked; This sickness of the heart [love] killed me in the end, as I told you it would).
This is a long ghazal of 15 she’rs, and does not focus on any one particular theme. It is in Mir’s favourite meter in which the role of the musical beat is much more marked than in most, and the range of permissible variations is much greater. Its basic line consists of 15 long syllables with the beat falling on the first, third, fifth and so on. The effect is strikingly beautiful. Begum Akhtar has sung verse number one, two, four, 10 and 15. The selection of verses is careful in that they actually appear to cohere into a theme. The theme is an existential question: Do we have free will in this world? Can we interfere with the order of things? The finale is the poet-lover’s rejection of ‘religion’ (deen-o mazhab) and embracing the universal creed of love.
The enunciation of ghazal verses plays a very important role in the enhancement of meaning and reception by the audience. The prolonging of syllables and insertion of pauses can produce dramatic results. Listening to Begum Akhtar’s rendition, I observed how she prolonged the long vowels. For example, in the first she’r, she prolongs ulti, tadbeeren and kaam. She brings subtle variations in the enunciation each time she repeats the word. If I were to recite the same she’r, I would not prolong tadbeeren or kaam but put emphasis on sab (all). I would also conform to the metrical beat. My engagement of the space between the poem and its articulation would be noticeably different.
I searched to see if other notable ghazal singers had tried a different tack on this ghazal and was pleasantly surprised by Mehdi Hasan’s rendition. (I have not been a big fan of Mehdi Hasan’s overkill in rendering ghazals. He tends to engage with vocal pyrotechnics in ghazal performance, often distancing the listener from the beauty of the words themselves.) Hasan has not made an astute selection of she’rs from the ghazal; he has sung the first four she’rs and omitted the maqta or the final she’r, which in the case of Begum Akhtar’s choice is a befitting closure. Nonetheless, it is worth listening to his version. He emphasises ulti ho gayen with a charming lilt, almost making it the leitmotif of the ghazal.
A student in my class on the classical Urdu ghazal was perplexed by the transformation of the poetry from the written poem on a page, whose every word was scrutinised to uncover the layers of meaning, to the golden, sound enriched musical rendition. There is a world of difference between listening and reading a ghazal. How important is the poetry itself in ghazal singing? Is the audience paying attention to the words or the singing? It is hard to generalise how the listener receives the ghazal in a performance because the audience is made up of people with varied levels of understanding of the language and the tradition. We must remember, though, that meanings are amplified in singing. The ambiance of a musical performance produces a different mood for the appreciation of the words/lyrics.
Ghazal gayiki, as pioneered by Begum Akhtar, sought to reinforce a connection between the singing and the ghazal. In selecting the verses to be sung and in her nuanced rendition, she offered her subtle interpretation of the poetry. Begum Akhtar’s choice of five she’rs from Mir’s ghazal creates a theme; it evokes in the listeners a passionate empathy with the poet-protagonist and the singer.
We live at a time when Western popular culture is changing the way our youth relates to music, making it practically impossible to cultivate a taste for the nuanced listening experience of ghazal-based gayaki. It will be up to the film and recording industries to play a role in preserving this piece of the cultural fabric, and for impresarios to provide artists opportunities to perform. The ghazal and gayaki are perfectly matched at the hands of a performer such as Begum Akhtar. We are fortunate to have her recordings, serving as an enduring demonstration of how the human voice, when combined with inspired poetry, can reach new heights of passionate expression.