Decoding Begum Akhtar…

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Shubha Mudgal

The genius and distinctive artistry of celebrated musicians is best experienced through their work. Music speaks for itself, touching and moving the hearts of listeners in ways that sound trite if verbalized, but for the student of music, not only is the genius of an artiste to be experienced and enjoyed but also studied, examined and re-examined in minute detail. It is with the dual purpose of providing the opportunity to both experience and study the magic of Begum Akhtar’s unique voice and singing style that the National Center for

Performing Arts makes available 18 compositions recorded during a private concert hosted by businessman and patron Khatau Vallabhdas at his residence in Walkeshwar, Mumbai, in the year 1952. Although Begum Akhtar recorded prolifically from the time she turned sixteen years of age, and her studio recordings are valuable documents of her inimitable artistry, a recording made in the intimate setting of a chamber concert performed at the home of a connoisseur and patron, provides an invaluable glimpse into the ambience in which music was made and heard some sixty-three years ago. In 1952, when this recording was captured on tape during a live concert, Begum Akhtar (1914-1974) would have been thirty-eight years old, highly acclaimed and sought after as the reigning queen of ghazal, and also considered a leading exponent of thumri and dadra. Performing for an adoring audience, as is evident from the abundantly audible appreciation, the great singer offers a rich repertoire of bol-banao thumri, dadra, hori, chaiti and several ghazals by master poets in the course of the evening. The recording of this mehfil which continued for more than three hours, is replete with many invaluable gems from Begum Akhtar’s repertoire, her girlish giggle, her waah for her accompanying musicians, the smile in her voice as she receives fulsome praise, and of course, the rousing appreciation she receives from her fascinated listeners throughout the concert.

Although Begum Akhtar was an outstanding exponent of the thumri-dadra and ghazal forms, she is best remembered for her unique rendering of ghazals in a musical style that relied heavily on her training in Hindustani classical music from ustads including Abdul Wahid Khan of the Kirana gharana, and Ata Mohammad Khan of the Patiala gharana. Contemporary ghazal gayaki has no doubt distanced itself from classical music and leans more towards melodies based on chordal structures and movements. But in the past the rendering of Urdu poetry either relied on the tarannum style, or on raag-based melodies. The inclusion of the notation of a ghazal (jo ke naam haq na liya bhalaa, vo jiya to kya, na jiya to kya) in raag Des and taal Pashto by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in his mammoth compendium of Hindustani classical compositions titled Kramik Pustak Maalikaa (first published in the early part of the 20th century) suggests that ghazals formed part of raagdaari sangeet repertoire. Begum Akhtar’s rendering of ghazal too rested on a foundation that was steeped in raagdaari music on the one hand, and a deeply intrinsic understanding of Urdu shaayari. In the seven ghazals that form part of this collection, her classic raag-based style of ghazal gayaki is amply evident, as is her consummate intimacy with the literary form of ghazal.

“Har jafaa har sitam gavaara hai, Itnaa keh do ke tu hamara hai…”comes from the pen of Shakeel Badayuni (1916-1970), a poet whose ghazals (including her signature “Ae mohabbat tere anjaam pe ronaa aya”) Begum Akhtar immortalised. This particular ghazal is rendered in a style that was favoured by hereditary women performers who sometimes danced and performed abhinaya to ghazals. The first line of the couplet is sung loosely over the rhythm maintained on the tabla with an eight matra span of the Keherwa taal.Pitched near the taar shadja, Begum Akhtar’s achingly beautiful voice with its expressive yearning, spreads out the words of the first line of each couplet without pinning them to the theka. But the second line of the sher releases the tension created in the previous line with its return to the melodic refrain, further heightened by the tabla playing the theka in double time, with variations and patterns appropriate for accompaniment to dance.

In this mehfil Begum Akhtar presented as many as three ghazals written by Shakeel Badayuni. Her rendering of Shakeel’s “Aankhon se door subah ke taare chale gaye, neend aa gayi to gham ke nazare chale gaye” in a Mishra Gara based melody set to the six matra Dadra taal, receives a tremendous response from the audience. The 17 minute long rendition provides several pointers for aspiring ghazal singers. Maintaining the dignified restraint typical of both Urdu poetry and her style of presentation, Begum Akhtar never lets the element of elaboration come in the way of the prosodic scheme of the poetry. Each misraa is presented only as many times and with just enough subtle variations as to make the listener wait in eager anticipation for the next misraa. Occasionally, fleeting insertions of phrases from other raags like Kafi, Patdeep, and Khamaj are ushered in tantalisingly and aesthetically for brief moments. Before revealing the misraa-o-oolaa and the misraa-o- saanii Begum Akhtar sings quicksilver phrases in aakaar that create a lovely aamad for each misraa. Tabla and sarangi accompaniment for this ghazal is exemplary, brilliant, brief and restrained. The swaying gait of the theka enhances the beher of the poetry creating a superb backdrop on which the singer places each misraa. Unfortunately, no information is available regarding the accompanists for this mehfil.

Ghame-e-ashiqui se kehdo rah-e-aam tak na pahunche, mujhe khauf hai ye tohmat mere naam tak na pahunche is composed in a text book interpretation of raag Kedar replete with the characteristic meend from dhaivat and pancham to shuddha madhyam. Once again, the accompanying musicians skillfully steal opportunities between couplets to embellish both melody and rhythm, and are rewarded with appreciation from Begum Akhtar herself as well as from members of the audience.

The two ghazals by Jigar Moradabadi (1890 -1961) included in this collection are “woh ada-e-dilbari ho, ke nawa-e-aashiqana, jo dilon ko fateh kar le, wohi fateh-e-zamaana” and “ Is ishq ke hathon se hargiz na mafar dekha, utani hi badi hasrat jitana hi udhar dekha”. The former is loosely based on the melodic foundation of the Kanhada family of raags and set to the Keherwa taal. Skilfully enhancing Jigar sahab’s words with the added dimension of music, Begum Akhtar judiciously selects certain words to elaborate upon. For example, in the couplet “ teri doori-o-huzoori se hai kuch ajeeb aalam, abhi zindagi haqeeqat, abhi zindagi fasaana” she elaborates on the word “doori”, in a manner that leaves the listener experiencing distance and space, as well as the sense of being far away and yet so near, stated in the couplet.

Begum Akhtar presents the second Jigar Moradabadi ghazal “Is ishq ke hathon se hargiz na mafar dekha..” in raag Mishra Tilang set to the Keherwa taal. The tabla accompaniment once again complements the singer’s artistry beautifully, at times enhancing the excitement, at other times creating a sense of anticipation, and even falling silent on occasion when the singer presents the first line only to join in seamlessly with the taal as the second line of the couplet is introduced by the singer. Sounds of the singer’s laughter, the audience’s appreciation and even snatches of conversation, possibly between the singer and members of the audience can be heard, presenting an aural picture of the leisurely, informal and yet intensely charged ambience of the chamber concert or mehfil.

“Wo dil mein hain magar dil ki pareeshani nahin jati..” in Mishra Bhairavi set to the Keherwa taal shares some common elements with the six other ghazals included in this collection. Each of the ghazals is loosely based on a raag, but the singer prevaricates towards other raags with the ease that only an artiste well versed and trained in the raagdari system can accomplish. All the ghazal compositions follow a sthayi-antara pattern, with the first and second lines of the opening couplet usually sharing identical melodies and forming the sthayi. The first line of each of the subsequent couplets forms the antara, and is often rendered floating over the rhythm, while the second line of the couplets repeats the melody in the sthayi. The use of laggi is frequently employed in between couplets, and towards the end of each ghazal presentation.

Of the two bol banao thumri compositions presented in the concert, “Dehke bina naheen chain suratiya” is a familiar and often-rendered thumri composition in raag Khamaj. But the other, “Tosay laagi preet” is rendered in Mishra Chandrakauns, an unusual choice of raag for a thumri composition since most thumri compositions are based on raags such as Khamaj, Kafi, Des, Tilang, Bhairavi, Pilu and Gara. The occasional use of pancham and komal nishad, strongly reminiscent of the characteristic phrase employed in Jogkauns, (a raag from the Kauns family introduced by Jagannathbuwa Purohit “Gunidas” sometime around the 1940s) may suggest to some listeners that the composition is based on Jogkauns. But the total omission of shuddha gandhaar and the infrequent but musically significant insertion of shudhha rishabh if considered in conjunction with the previously mentioned use of pancham and komal nishad would point to an interpretation of Chandrakauns ( ) favoured by some exponents of the Agra gharana. Given the fact that one does not usually hear bol banaao thumri compositions in Chandrakauns, could this perhaps be a more recent composition, or an experiment by Begum Akhtar herself in attempting to present a thumri in an unconventional raag like Chandrakauns? She focuses most of the elaboration in this thumri on the bol “laagi” and the elaboration is more reminiscent of the khayal style than on the bol banaanaa or play of words from the song text considered characteristic of thumri gayaki.

Displaying yet another departure from convention, she presents the familiar “Dekhe bina naheen chain suratiya”, with distinct traits of raag Gara, instead of the classic Khamaj thumri mode followed by other performers. Khamaj reappears in the bol banaao around the pancham, but only fleetingly and not before she inserts several flourishes with the distinct flavour of raag Rageshri. The well-known Khamaj thumri rendered in the 16 matra Jat taal, is reincarnated as a Gara thumri possibly early on in the performance, but remains replete with the expressive longing and yearning that the song text demands. With the mukhda pinned up high at taar shadja and beyond in the characteristic dha ni Sa, dha ni re phrase of Gara, this interpretation of the thumri could well leave a singer out of breath, but reaching up to komal gandhar in the taar saptak, the consummate artiste is able to hold her own. With the mukhda itself placed so high in the octave, she does not spare much time for the antara, stating the lyrics of the antara only once before returning to the mukhda and moving on to the laggi section of the presentation.

Begum Akhtar presented some of her signature pieces at this concert, and among them is her popular dadra “Chaa rahi kaali ghata”. There is a delicious languor in the pace she sets for the dadra, and the lilting gait established by the tabla complements the song text “Jiya mora lehraye hai”, reminding one of the swaying movement of the jhoola traditionally installed during the monsoon in North India. Since this is a dadra inextricably associated with Begum Akhtar, there are several renditions of it that have been recorded in her voice. In many of these renditions the antara is sung in the upper octave and usually in the classic ma pa ni sa movement towards taar shadja typical of raag Des. However, in this rendition, she situates much of the elaboration in the lower and middle parts of the octave, possibly because she chose a key that was higher than the key she usually selected for this composition. This by no means takes away from the rendition, which is as expressive and poignant as any of the other versions.

“Piya ke aawan ki laagi beriyaa” is a charming dadra in the Purabi dialect rendered in the 14 matra Deepchandi taal. Abandoning the raag-based elaboration utilised in her thumri and ghazal renditions, Begum Akhtar adopts a kehen or utterance that borrows from folk music. The insertion of an Urdu verse to complement the simple but charming song-text was conventional practice among thumri singers of the past, but this practice is rarely followed by present day thumri exponents. This rendition provides an example of this practice.

Another delightful dadra borrowing from folk music of Uttar Pradesh is the popular “Sundar sari mori maike mein mayl bhayi” in Dadra taal. In a brief and attractive rendition, expressively rendered, Begum Akhtar provides a glimpse into her familiarity with the folk traditions of the Gangetic plains. She abstains from any complex raag-based elaboration in this rendition, but states the song text with a flair that delights her listeners immensely.

In yet another simple dadra adapted from folk music “Mori o preet lagi ehi raat, Hum gawanwaa naaheen jaab”, she gives voice to a young bride reluctant to leave her maternal home, who refuses to go to her husband’s home for the “gauna” ritual that marks the consummation of marriage once a child bride comes of age. Shades of raag Shivaranjani add an element of poignance in the rendition, and once again, the insertion of Urdu couplets to complement the song-text is employed.

Another dadra “Pat raakho na raakho tohaar marji”, is similarly rendered in Keherwa taal, but with ample traces of raag Shivaranjani, this time without the inclusion of any Urdu couplets or Brajbhasha dohas. “Aaye balam karam more jaage” also favours folk music and is rendered as a relatively faster paced Dadra. The famous catch in Begum Akhtar’s voice that stole many hearts is clearly evident in this rendition, especially as she lets her voice soar high. The playful “Hamaar kahi maano Raja ji” also points to the association between thumri and the folk music of Uttar Pradesh. Accompaniment on the tabla enlivens the short rendition by shifting between Dadra and Keherwa taals.

Seasonal songs forms such as hori and chaiti form an integral part of Purab ang thumri repertoire. Begum Akhtar provides her audience with an example of chaiti by very briefly presenting “Sovat nindiya jagaaye ho Rama” based on raag Jogiya and in the 16 matra Addha taal. The three and a half minute rendition provides a sampling that briefly states the sthayi and antara, but does not include any substantial elaboration. The hori “Kesariya angiya rang daaro” in Keherwa taal is presented with all the playful coquettishness appropriate for such a celebratory piece. And yet the singer creates ample space for elaboration, both melodic and rhythmic.

These 18 tracks extracted from the recording of a longer mehfil provide a magnificent glimpse into the world of Begum Akhtar, her charismatic personality and inimitable music to which homage is being paid by her many admirers and followers on the occasion of her centenary.

Glossary (inputs from Aneesh Pradhan):

aakaar – lit. the vowel ‘aa’. In musical parlance, it refers to the use of the vowel ‘aa’ for melodic improvisation and elaboration.

aamad – point of entry

abhinaya – mime dance

ang – In Hindustani music, this refers to ‘type’.

antara – the second part of a melodic composition in Hindustani vocal or instrumental music

beher – meter

bol – word

bol-banao thumri – a subcategory of the thumri form that is sung at a slow speed, allowing for melodic elaboration that is not strictly bound to the taal framework

chaiti – a seasonal song form sung during Chaitra, the first month of the Hindu calendar

dadra – a form of vocal music from the Hindustani system, closely associated with thumri, but it is distinct from the latter in its pace, longer song-text and manner of elaboration. Like thumri, dadras are composed in particular raags, but performers can exercise liberty in moving out of the original raag without compromising the aesthetic of the composition.
dhaivat – the sixth swar of the octave

doha – couplet

gandhaar – the third swar of the octave

gayaki – vocal style

gharana – literally household, but in musical parlance signifies individual musical styles pursued by hereditary musicians, their progeny and disciples

ghazal – a poetic form, originally in Persian and Urdu, but presently seen in many languages like Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. It is also considered as a form of vocal music from the Hindustani system, when composed to raag and taal.

hori – a song-form describing Holi, the festival of colours, and the exploits of the mythological figure Krishna, his friends and consorts. Also called holi, this song-form is found in folk music of northern India, but variants exist in Hindustani classical music repertoire that include similar imagery in the song-text, but are elaborated upon according to the parameters of raag and taal.

jhoola – rope swing

kehen – utterance

khayal – a form of Hindustani vocal music composed in a particular raag and taal. The song-text has two parts called sthayi and antara.

komal – When used as a prefix to the name of a swar, it refers to the flattened version of that swar.

laggi – rhythmic section in tabla accompaniment to thumri, dadra and allied forms madhyam – fourth swar in the octave

matra – lit. amount. A count or unit of time in a taal ordinarily considered synonymous with the English term ‘beat’. However, matra refers not just to the beat but also the space between the two beats. It is the duration of space between consecutive matras that determines the tempo.

meend – gradual unbroken glide from one to the other swar

mehfil – performance, normally used in the context of a chamber concert

misraa – individual line of the couplet misraa-o-oolaa – first line of the couplet misraa-o-saanii – second line of the couplet

mukhda – literally translated to mean face or countenance. In musical parlance, it refers to the first line of the composition.

nishad – seventh swar of the octave. pancham – fifth note of the octave

raag – term denoting the melodic framework of art music in India. Briefly, every raag is said to create a mood with the help of specific swars that are used in a predetermined manner but are open to elaboration and spontaneous improvisation, provided the ground rules of the raag are not broken. Forms of music have evolved over centuries to encapsulate the seed-idea of every raag, and each of these forms has its grammar, rules and conventions, which allow or restrict the freedom of interpreting the raag.

raagdaari sangeet – system of music based on the principles of raag

rishabh – the second swar of the octave

saptak – scale of seven swars

sarangi – a fretless bowed instrument with a skin-top sound board, used to accompany vocal music but also featured as a solo instrument

shaayari – poetry

shadja – the first swar of the octave

sher – couplet

shuddha – pure or perfect. When used as a prefix to the name of a swar, it refers to the natural swar.

sthayi – the first part of a melodic composition in Hindustani vocal music

taal – term denoting the cyclical pattern of rhythm in Indian music represented by mnemonic syllables that can be reproduced on various drums

swar – refers to a note

taar – upper octave

tabla – a pair of upright twin hand drums primarily used in northern India to accompany vocal and instrumental music and Kathak performances. It also possesses a rich solo repertoire.

tarannum – a melodic template for reciting Urdu poetry

theka – universally accepted sequence of strokes that demarcate the framework of the taal thumri – a form of vocal music that originally incorporated dance and gesture. Thumri song-
texts speak of romance, union and separation of lovers, and also incorporate the sensuous and erotic.

ustad – teacher

waah – word used to express appreciation


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Twentieth-century Indian Music.” The World of Music (2001): 97-137

Ollikkala, Robert Charles. Concerning Begum Akhtar:”Queen of Ghazal”. University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1996.

Kidwai, Saleem. “Zikr us Parivash Ka’: Begum Akhtar” in Oldenburg Veena (ed.). Shaam e
Awadh: Writings on Awadh. Penguin Books. Gurgaon. 2007.
Hiranand, Shanti. Begum Akhtar: the story of my ammi. Viva Books. New Delhi. 2005. Ganguly, Rita. AE MOHABBAT… Reminiscing Begum Akhtar. Stellar Publishers Pvt
Ltd. Delhi. 2013.

Mukherjee, Sutapa. Begum Akhtar: The Queen of Ghazal (Rupa Charitavali). 2005

Manuel, Peter. “Ii. The Popularization and Transformation of the Light-Classical Urdu
Ghazal-Song.” Gender, genre, and power in South Asian expressive traditions (1994)

Manuel, Peter Lamarche. “The Light-Classical Urdu Ghazal-Song.” University of California,

Shubha Mudgal, ” Decoding Begum Akhtar…,” in DNA India, April 19, 2015. Accessed on April 19, 2015, at:

The item above written by Shubha Mudgal and published in DNA India on April 19, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on April 19, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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