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Begum Akhtar’s death anniversary falls tomorrow. She passed away on October 30, 1974. Born as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, she was noticed on Calcutta stage just by chance. It seemed that the main singers had not arrived. Some one had to fill the gap to pacify the restive audience. The Begum was presented on the stage. She sang, she crooned, she conquered.

When the Begum stopped singing, and there was deafening applause from the Calcutta audience, the singing prodigy received a tap on her shoulder. She looked round. She found an elderly lady patting her. She invited her to her residence. That lady was none else than Sarojini Naidu, then regarded as Nightingale of India and who became UP’s first governor after independence.
During her initial singing days, Akhtari’s voice used to crack when she sang a note on a high pitch. This was noticed in several of her songs. The discs are still there to testify to this characteristic of hers. But that crack in the voice too had a melodic charm. It fascinated the listeners.It became a part of her singing style.
One of her earliest hits was Behzad Lakhnavi’s, ‘‘Diwana banana hai to deewana bana de’ That was the Begum which the Calcutta audience had applauded. That was the Begum whom Sarojni Naidu had adored. That was the Begum who had mesmerized the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of Rampur and so many Rajas and Maharajas in whose courts she was invited to sing.’Do you have any special preference on the dining table?’ asked the Nizam – so goes the story. She replied, ‘Yes Your Exalted Highness I would like to have Annanas ka murabba (Pine-apple murabba)’. The same was served to her at once.Initially she sang for the Megaphone gramophone company. And her records would sell like hot cakes. She sang all varieties as she wanted to capture the hearts of all variety of music lovers having different likes and dislikes.
Among the songs of her earlier days there was that bumper hit which Satyajit Ray used in one of his films too: ‘Koyaliya mat kar pukar, karejwa laage kataar’ Just savor the lyrics. When she says ,’Karejwa laage kataar’, the listener feels the pain of the ‘kataar’ too because for him the Begum is the sweet Koyaliya rendering the melody. There was another song of the Begum of those days: ‘Chha rahi kaari ghata, jiya mora lehrae hai ..sun ri koyal tu baawri tu kyon malhaar gaye hai..’ And then there was that naughty attack on admirers: ‘Muft hue badnaam sanwariya tere liye’.
In later years, when she was still Akhtari Bai, she rendered that ravishing song which delights listeners even today: ‘Un ankhon ka aalam gulabi gulabi, mere dil ka aalam sharabi bharabi…Khuda ke liye apni nazron ko roko, tamanna hui jaa rahi hai jawaabi’. I also relish that number by her, ‘Us ne jab tyori badal ke baat ki, lut gai duniya mere jazbaat ki..’ You must have heard that song too: ‘Na socha na samjha na seekha na jaana, mujhe aa gaya khudbakhud dil lagana’.
Begum Akhtar’s voice changed with age but the depth that it acquired, erasing the shrillness of the youthful era had its own unique charm in songs like ‘Voh jo hum mein tum mein qarar thaa tumhe yaad ho ke naa yad ho’. Generally people never miss recalling the Shakeel Badayuni ghazal that the Begum sang so effectively on the three-minute 78 RPM disc of the HMV: ‘Ai muhabbat tere anjaam pe rona aya, jaane kyon aaj tere naam pe rona aya…Jab hua zikra zamane mein muhabbat ka Shakeel, mujh ko apne dil-e-nakaam pe rona aya’. I had personally met Begum Akhtar during one of her visits to Allahabad when she stayed in Barnetts. I had seen her act in Mehboob Production’s film ‘Roti’. She was a young girl then. Her hero was Chandra Mohan. She carried herself with sheer grace in that movie, not for once yielding to the demands of the times. When I saw her in Barnetts in late sixties or early seventies – before she passed away – she appeared to be grace personified, a poem moving about in human form. I can never forget that image.And then came the end—sudden, unexpected end. Could there be a better and greater death for an artiste than to die almost while singing ? The Begum had gone for a stage show in Ahmedabad in late October 1974. Little did the people there realize that it was going to be her last performance. The Begum passed away amidst glory on Oct 30.. But her legend lives.


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