Begum Akhtar, originally known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, was an Indian classical singer and a pioneer in Ghazal, Dadra and Thumri. Born at the Faridabad district of Uttar Pradesh, Begum Akhtar did not have a blissful childhood.
Akhtari Bai or Begum Akhtar, were three siblings, who were disclaimed by their advocate father along with their mother.
At the age of seven, Akhtari Bai, started getting attracted to music. She was deeply moved by the music of a theatre group artist, Chandra Bai. Seeing her growing interest in music, her uncle sent her to Patna’s musical exponent Ustad Imdad Khan. She also learnt music from Patiala’s Ata Mohammad Khan.
After some struggle in life, her mother shifted to Calcutta (presently Kolkata) along with her three daughters. Even after shifting to Kolkata, she continued her music classes and started learning from Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and Ustad Jhande Khan.
She gave her first ever public performance at a concert in 1929. She was only 15 at that time.
First Appreciation from Naidu:
In the year 1934, Bihar suffered the deadliest earthquakes of all times which left thousands killed and destroyed properties worth a million. A concert was organised to raise fund, to help the state and the victims. Akhtari Bai sang in the concert and her talent was appreciated and acknowledged by Sarojini Naidu. This inspired her to work hard towards learning music.
Association with East India Film Company:
Her talent and good looks paved the way for her to excel in movies and Hindustani classical music. She also did act in a number of films during the initial 1930s. In 1933, East India Film Company, provided her the opportunity to work in movies like, ‘Ek Din Ki Badshahat’ and ‘Nal Damayanti’.
She also acted in other movies of East India Company like, ‘Ameena’ and ‘Mumtaz Begum’ in 1934 and ‘Jawani Ka Nasha’ and ‘Naseeb Ka Chakkar’ in 1935.
East India Company based in Calcutta was one of the biggest production houses during the era. It is said that, Akhtari Bai started working with East India Company at a salary of Rs 700 which was later increased to Rs 2,000. The amount was considered to be quite a fortune back at that time.
Association With Theatre:
Akhtari Bai preferred stage performances as well. She has been a constant stage artist in the initial years of her career. Her first show on stage was ‘Nayi Dulhan’ which was an instant success among the audiences.
The beautiful actress along with her mesmerising voice enchanted the audiences. She worked with theatre groups like Corianthian, with whom she did mythic theatre shows like, ‘Sita’, ‘Nal Damayanti’ etc. As work pressure increased by the passing years, she chose to do less stage shows owing to excessive exhaustion of her voice.
Association with Mehboob Khan:
In the early 1940s, she shifted back to Lucknow from Calcutta. One of the most successful directors of that era, Mehboob Khan, paid her a visit to Lucknow and proposed her to play the main lead in his movie ‘Roti’, which released in the year 1942. Chandramohan, Sheikh Mukhtar, Sitara devi and Ashraf Khan were her co-stars in the movie.
She also sang six songs for the movie composed by the legendary Amit Biswas. However, four of those tracks out of the six weren’t included in the movie. ‘Chaar Dino Ki Jawaani’, ‘Phir Faasle Bahaar Aayi’, ‘Ulajh Gaye Nainawa’ were some of the appreciated tracks by Akhtari Bai which were included in the film.
The omitted tracks were later released in a separate album by Megaphone Record Company.
In 1945, she married barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and became Begum Akhtari from Akhtari Bai. After her marriage, she denied several offers proposed to her and stopped singing entirely for five years. Within the tenure of five years, her health conditions declined and she was medically advised to re-consume her music.
In 1949, she returned to singing and sang three ghazals and a dadra at the Lucknow Radio Station. It is said, that after returning from the studio, Begum Akhtar felt genuinely happy and wept out of happiness.
In 1953, music director Madan Mohan somehow made her agree to record two songs for him in his upcoming movies. She sang two most successful and hit tracks for him, ‘Aye Ishq Mujhe Aur Kuch Yaad Nahi Hai’ from ‘Daana Paani’ in 1953 and ‘Humein Dil Mein Basaa Bhi Lo’ from ‘Ehsaan’ in 1954. The tracks became hugely popular after their releases. She also was the background score composer for the movie ‘Ehsaan’ in 1954.
In 1958, she also agreed to play a cameo in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Jalsaghar’, which eventually marked her last presence on screen.
Ghazals from Private Albums:
She released many private albums along with musical maestros of the industry. Some of the noted and hit tracks would be, ‘Ab To Yahin Hain Dil Se’, ‘Bujhi Hui Shama Dhuan’ and ‘Cha Rahi Kali Ghata’ from the album ‘Begum Akhtar-Deedar-E-Ghazal’.
‘Abhi Josh-E-Baharan Dekhna Hai’ , ‘Ashqon Mein Koi Husn Paaya’, ‘Daaman Pe Hai Sadqe’, ‘Dabdaba Aayi Yeh Aankhein’ from the album ‘Yeh Aankhon Ki Aalam’ and ‘Ae Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya’ from ‘Ghazal Ka Safar’ and ‘Barsan Laagin Saawan Boondiyaan’ from the album ‘Varsha Ritu’ deserve special mention.
Begum Akhtar kept on attending concerts and public shows until her last day. Her last concert had been in Ahmedabad. Dissatisfied with the performance at Ahmedabad, she raised the pitch of her voice to higher notes. Soon after that, she felt unwell and was rushed to hospital. She took her last breath on 30th of October 1974 in Ahmedabad.
Begum Akhtar received the Padmashree Award in 1968 followed by the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1972 and the Padmabhushan in 1975.