How the legendary Begum Akhtar influenced the life and poetry of Agha Shahid Ali

The poet was instrumental in popularising ghazals in the West. Begum Akhtar brought him closer to the form.
Published June 19, 2019

Agha Shahid Ali’s verses are an archive of longing, a place where memory is a homeland.

As a self-proclaimed exile, Shahid, as Ali is usually known, spent most of his adult life longing for the vale of Kashmir, mapping the United States through a nostalgist’s eyes and searching for “Routes of Evanescence”.

The triad of “memory, nostalgia and longing” played an integral part in his poems and the diverse metaphors through which he bore his memories were a result of his secular upbringing, the multiple cultures and geographies he experienced, and three languages spoken at his home — Urdu, Kashmiri and English.

But rather than viewing the ambivalence as a dilemma, Shahid espoused the multicultural identity with open arms, weaving verses that merged the mannerisms and sensibilities of all the worlds around him.

Under a spell

Born in New Delhi on February 4, 1949, Shahid migrated to the US in 1976 and taught at multiple universities and colleges until his death on December 8, 2001.

He published seven volumes of poetry, edited an anthology of ghazals in English called Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English and translated the verses of Faiz Ahmad Faiz in The Rebel’s Silhouette.

Shahid’s most celebrated accomplishment was his ingenious experiment with the English ghazal, which encapsulated his struggle to establish (with all complexities and formal demands) an Urdu/Persian literary tradition in the English language and collection of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals, published posthumously.

His love for ghazals was amplified by the people around him such as his father Agha Ashraf Ali, the eminent Kashmiri educationist, and the legendary singer Begum Akhtar, whose ghazals influenced how he perceived and understood the form.

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His first meeting with Begum Akhtar was in the late 1960s in New Delhi. However, one of Shahid’s most cherished memories was driving Begum Akhtar around Srinagar in his father’s car.

Agha Iqbal Ali, Shahid’s brother, remembers that “one fine day sometime in April, 1969 — it was raining — there was a phone call from Begum Akhtar. We didn’t know her personally but she said wanted to come to our house.” He recalled that her flight was cancelled and she ended up staying at their house in Rajbagh.

Late at night, she ran out of cigarettes. “Both of us drove her in our Fiat to Amira Kadal to buy Capstans,” he said, emphasising, “she only smoked Capstan cigarettes”.

It is a vivid memory which resurfaces in Shahid’s poem “I Dream I Am the Only Passenger on Flight 423 to Srinagar”:

Her picture: she smiles: she lights a Capstan.
Sharp in flame, her face dissolves in smoke.

Shahid told the writer Amitav Ghosh in Brooklyn that as a teenager, he couldn’t bear to be away from Begum Akhtar and that “in other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love — but I don’t know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her”.

But Shahid knew her only for a few years — from the late 1960s until her death in 1974 — and Begum Akhtar is an ephemeral figure, always evanescent in Shahid’s poems.

In “Snow on the Desert”, he recalls a moment from one of her performances at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi in 1971, at the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War:

It was, like this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard, a time
to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,
a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all
that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.

The true subject

“The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved.”
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Alun Lewis, Burma (now Myanmar), circa 1943.

During his time in New Delhi in the early 1970s, Shahid never missed an opportunity to go to Begum Akhtar’s concerts along with his friend, historian and translator Saleem Kidwai — who had introduced him to her.

Whenever she would come to the city, Shahid and Kidwai would go to listen to her. He would sit right next to Begum Akhtar, recording the concert on his Phillips tape recorder.

“When in an audience with Begum Akhtar,” the poet Kaifi Azmi had said, “you not only get to hear ghazals but also to see one.”

It was her influence at that early stage in his career during the 1970s that brought him closer to the intricacies of the ghazals.

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Shahid studied the silences, interjections and repetitions in her music, which helped him imbibe the element of nakhra (affectation), the wit and the Urdu sensibilities and mannerisms in his ghazals.

By doing so, he shaped his ghazals into a dense contemporary form where he used the sensibilities of ghazal gayiki (singing) such as onomatopes and the art of mazmun affrini (theme creation).

When Begum Akhtar died on October 30, 1974, Shahid was in New Delhi along with Kidwai, who recalled the day with a heavy heart: “From the airport we decided to come to Lucknow. I think the ticket was 300-400 rupees. We had to borrow the money so that we could join the funeral.”

He meticulously narrated how both of them had stayed up all night, and how at one point, Shahid went to one of the bedrooms and started writing an elegy, which was later published as “In Memory of Begum Akhtar”. In the poem, he wrote:

Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow,
sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you.
She wears her grief, a moon-soaked white,
corners the sky into disbelief.

Not only did Begum Akhtar’s effervescent personality and singing bring Shahid closer to ghazals, but she also brought him in contact with one of the pioneers of the form — Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose ghazals Shahid had internalised at home while listening to his father sing.

Though Faiz had stayed at Shahid’s house in Srinagar before Partition, it was a rare Begum Akhtar tape recording that brought the two together.

Shahid wrote to the Pakistani poet in 1982 for permission to translate his poems. Faiz was at that time exiled by General Zia-ul-Haq and, in the words of Edward Said, had “found a welcome of sorts in the ruins of Beirut”.

In the letter Shahid reminded him that he had stayed at his home in Kashmir, and tempted him with [a] rare recording of Begum Akhtar singing his ghazals.

Within a month, Faiz replied saying, “you’re welcome to do whatever you want with my poems, but send me the tape”.

Thus, the grand translation project began which culminated with the publication of The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Works.

Soon after, Shahid would publish his seminal essay “The Ghazal in America: May I?” which would change the landscape of ghazal writing in America forever.

This article originally appeared on and has been reproduced with permission. This article is a part of Saha Sutra.