The birth centenary celebration of the legendary Begum Akhtar, organised by the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, was held recently at NCPA’s Experimental Theatre. Thoughtfully conceived, curated and conducted by the well-known vocalist Shubha Mudgal and the tabla exponent and composer Aneesh Pradhan, the event brought out some significant aspects of Begum Akhtar’s musical personality and versatility.
Introductory background of the daylong programme by Shubha Mudgal made it clear that there would be no performances because there was no voice that could match Begum Akhtar. There were learned panellists invited instead, to analyse the nuances of her gayaki, to deliberate upon the tradition of Marsiakhwani, Soz and Naat supported by some rare recordings of Begum Akhtar and to discuss the present status of ghazal gayaki and its content. The celebration also treated the audience to some rare video clippings, interviews and archival recordings of her mesmerising music.
The first session was with panellists Vidushi Shanti Heeranand, Vidushi Reeta Ganguli, both Begum Akhter’s disciples, and Pandit Arvind Parikh. Few knew that Begum Akhtar had taken sitar lessons from Pt. Arvind Parikh. Once asked by him whether she practised the lessons when she went to Lucknow, she replied, “In the initial stage a student should practise only in front of the Guru so that the he can correct her”. This was a profound statement coming from a musician who had sound grooming in classical vocal music. Renowned ghazal singers Bhupendar and Ghanshyam Vasvani joined Heeranand and Gangulito analyse the ghazal gayaki of Begum Akhtar. Shanti Heeranand talked about the aesthetics and sophistication of her ghazal gayaki, while Reeta Ganguli compared her thumri with haiku, which could tell a lot in very small statements. Bhupinder and Ghanshyam discussed the salient features of her gayaki.
The next session had Yatindra Mishra, the Hindi poet who belongs to the royal family of Ayodhya, sharing interesting anecdotes of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi as the aristocratic court singer who regularly performed in the Ayodhya Durbar between 1935 and 1943 during festivals such as Holi and Dussera. Yatindra talked about the kind of songs she sang at the Ayodhya Durbar from ‘Mubaaraqbaadi’ to ‘Salaam’ and also narrated how she would walk along with the taaziya on the streets of Ayodhya, singing Marsiya on the fifth day of Muharram.
Madhu Trivedi, historian and research scholar on Awadhi culture, talked about the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Awadh and how Begum Akhtar symbolised it. She elaborated upon Soz, Naat and Marsia-Khwani and about the heartrending interpretation of these songs by her. Shubha substantiated her statement by playing the rare recordings of Soz, Naat and Marsiakhwani in Begum Akhtar’s soul stirring voice.
The most interesting session was the discussion on writing and musical rendering of ghazals, past and present, with renowned Urdu poet Javed Akhtar, who regaled the audience with his observations supported by Urdu couplets.
Manjari Sinha, “Begum beckons,” in The Hindu, May 21, 2015. Accessed on June 8, 2015, at: http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/begum-beckons/article7231533.ece
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