she hadn’t died 41 years ago, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi aka Begum Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi aka Begum Akhtar, would have turned 101 on October 7.
People may remember her from the 1942 film Roti, which became the fifth highest grossing film of the year. But Akhtar was a legend in the world of Hindustani classical music and ghazal, and was known for her renditions of thumris and dadra. So much so that she was honoured with the title of Mallika-E-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazal), and the Padma Shri (fourth highest civilian award in the country) and the Padma Bhushan (third highest civilian award) posthumously by the Indian government.
Last year on her birth anniversary, her dearest disciple, renowned singer Rita Ganguly, toured the country and the world to honour her guru (teacher). She will close the tour on the same date next month in Delhi at an event featuring artists and poets from both sides of the border. Interestingly, Ganguly skipped the Middle East, leaving the celebrations of her teacher’s birth centenary to her own disciple Jogiraj Sikdar. Sikdar, with his theatre group and choir Malhaar, is presenting Haaye Akhtari, today and tomorrow at Madinat Jumeirah. Based on anecdotes related to him by Ganguly, Haaye Akhtari tells the story of how a young girl named Bibbi came to be one of the best singers of the country.
“Haaye Akhtari depicts the pain and loneliness that honed Begum Akhtar’s singing,” Sikdar told tabloid!. “It was something that Ritaji said to me a long time ago when I used to perform with her, that led to this show. As her disciple, it was one of my duties to drop her home after a concert. One night I dropped her at Mandi House where she used to stay when performing in Delhi. After making sure that everything was ok, I left her, but had to return as I had forgotten something. As I approached the front door, I could hear an answering machine playing and her weeping. Her daughter had left a message wishing her ‘Happy Birthday’. When I questioned why she was crying, she replied ‘Ammi [Begum Akhtar] always said if you embrace your loneliness, you shall never be heart-broken. And she was absolutely right’.
“That struck my heart. Despite the fact that her house was full of bouquets from well-wishers, there were loving messages on the answering machine, and she had just returned from a successful show, she was completely alone. We spent the night talking about Begum Akhtar and Ritaji’s life as her disciple. Today, what you will see on stage are some of those anecdotes. If you see most successful artists in the world have somewhere in their life experienced pain and acute loneliness, which took their art to an entirely different level”.
Even though the play is based majorly on his conversations with Ganguly, Sikdar hasn’t relied entirely on them. Malhaar has been researching Begum Akhtar for the last six-seven months. From the actors to the theatrical director to the music and dance composers, they have all been delving into the life of the legend.
All her life Akhtar tried to inculcate the taasir [intensity] needed for soulful singing. Life’s blows made this easier. Raped during her preteens, she was coerced by her mother into living with her daughter as a sister. Later, even when she tried hard to become a mother — she had seven miscarriages — she couldn’t. Broken and in a soured marriage, she embraced her loneliness and let it flow in her singing.
“She may have been famous as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, but the most famous she’s been is as Begum Akhtar. That’s why the play delves into the relationship between suffering and an artist’s success,” said Sanjeev Dixit, the theatrical director of Haaye Akhtari. “How I interpreted it, as I wrote the script, is that the play is about the taasir, which is critical to singing. Taasir could mean a lot of things. Akhtari’s ustad [teacher] told her it was soulful singing, but it represents intensity, expression, a way of executing something and the impression something leaves on someone. That’s what art is essentially about — the impression it leaves on the audience”.
There are two actresses that play Akhtar on stage, yet Dixit feels it would be “folly” to present her as a live character.
“We see a young Bibbi and Akhtari till the point she is Begum Abbasi. But there’s no ‘Begum Akhtar’. That last phase of her life, I prefer the audience to only hear her in songs or represented in dance. What’s interesting is we talk of women being oppressed at the time. Yet you have the likes of Begum Akhtar and Jaddan Bai. I mean these were extremely liberated women. The more you learn the more you want to get into it, and most of the time it you won’t find this in cinema or history books. We don’t really know what these women were at this time of turmoil. Obviously royalty and courts were dying, world wars were happening, which had their own indirect influence, India was becoming independent. We’ve seen these times have had such a huge cultural impact on our lives, our music, our art”.
Moreover, Haaye Akhtari is not just a play. Sometimes there will be no characters on stage and the story will be told through light and sound effects and a slide show depicting her life. A live orchestra comprising traditional instruments such as tabla (percussion), flute, harmonium and the rarely seen sarangi (an ancient string instrument) are accompanied by guitar and the keyboard. Professionally trained classical singers will join Sikdar and the music composer Somdatta Basu.
Language seems to have played the only big challenge for most of the crew. Dixit, who hails from an English theatre background, had to translate his English script to Urdu, and actors and singers had to learn the nuances and emphases of the language to get the diction right.
“I’m no Urduphile,” said Dixit. “And so I felt because I’m entrusted with something that’s not in my comfort zone, I better do something good with it. But once I was in, I realised there’s a magic about Begum Akhtar that one can’t keep away from”.Cast and crew
Arif Bhaldar is a Dubai-based theatre enthusiast. He has directed, scripted and acted in several plays. He plays the narrator and multiple male characters in Haaye Akhtari.
“This is my first production with Malhaar. I grew up listening to legendary singers as my father was extremely fond of classical music and ghazals. So it seemed natural to be part of a show on Begum Akhtar. What gives me pleasure as an artist is the toggling between being a narrator and each character I play. The only challenge for me is to perfect my lines and characterisation because I’ve had a very short time to do it. As Urdu is my language I’ve made minor changes to the script, which the directors and writer have been very accommodating about”.
Suchismita Majumdar is an 11-year-old Grade five student in Dubai who plays Bibbi or the young Begum Akhtar.
“My music teacher Jogiraj Sikdar asked me to play the role of Bibbi. I knew who Begum Akhtar is because I’ve been learning music for the last three years, but I became familiar with her work only after doing this play. I did not do any special preparation. I only followed my teacher’s instructions”.
Majumdar, who will be sitting for exams this week, is not missing school for rehearsal or singing practice.
“When I return from school I finish all my homework, reading and revision. Then I come for rehearsal and revise a little before going to bed. Yes, it can be tiring but it’s a good thing, so I manage. I am quite happy”.
Svetlana Mishra is an Indian TV actress who has been part of soaps such as Balika Badhu and Mata Ki Chowki and shows such as Savdhaan India and Fear Files. She plays Akhtari’s mother Mushtari Bai.
“I moved to Dubai seven months ago after marriage and was looking for a group that did Hindi plays. I came in contact with Sanjeev through Facebook. This is my first play in Dubai. When I read the script I found Mushtari’s character offered a wide scope for acting as she goes through many emotions. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Begum Akhtar before the play because I’ve always enjoyed western and contemporary Indian music. I googled her. I saw documentaries on her and read about her. The only challenge, if you can call it that, was the language and diction. I’ve never learnt Urdu but with help from Arif sir and Sanjeev, I’ve managed.”
Disha Joseph is a 25-year-old actress who plays Akhtari from age 13 to her mid-40s. She has been part of Dubai’s Short & Sweet Festivals and worked on short film productions with Sanjeev Dixit.
“This is my first full-length play after six years. My major challenge was the language. I’m South Indian. Hindi is not a problem, but to get the diction right was tough. I knew of Begum Akhtar because of Dedh Ishqiya and the song Hamari Attariya. But through the production I’ve come to know her rather than of her. We watched a lot of documentaries on her to adapt her mannerisms. She had this catchphrase when she faced any problem ‘Haaye Allah ab kya hoga?’ [Oh God what will happen now?]. Interestingly I too [react] similarly in such situations. Also I found out that when Begum Akhtar recited poetry she did it with a dead pan face. You detect the pain only in her voice. So, it’s the songs that carry forward the story on stage. It’s 60 years of her life and obviously we can’t include it all”.
Vaishali Maisarkar is a choreographer and actress who has been associated with Malhaar from its first show. A trained Kathak exponent, she played Draupadi in their last production of the same name. She has choreographed and performed the songs for Haaye Akhtari.
“As a choreographer I try and learn, both as a performer and as a teacher, in each of my projects. With Haaye Akhtari, the dancers with me realised they had to emote more rather than concentrate just on the ada [grace]. Expression is an integral part of ghazals, thumri and dadra. Kathak is a unique art form because it has both Hindu and Muslim influences. When it came to ghazals I had to execute the moving style of darbar dancing, which was adopted by courtesans at the time.”
Somdatta Basu left a well-paying job in human resources to pursue her passion in music. Today she is a music teacher and runs her own institute. Basu has composed the songs in the play, keeping the original compositions by Begum Akhtar intact. Incidentally, her guru Shipra Bose was also a disciple of Begum Akhtar.
“It made me very happy when Jogi came to me with the project because we are celebrating the birth centenary of our guru’s guru. Being music director led to a lot of experimentation and was a little bit challenging because Malhaar is a choir and these are not choir songs. Obviously we can’t be audacious and change her original compositions. But I have composed a few taranas and dances in the play. Plus, it was very difficult to choose from her songs as there are so many. So we first did the script and related the songs to the storyline. The script depicts the struggles she faced in her life and how she matured with these struggles. Her singing too changed with that, which was important to keep in mind while singing”.Don’t miss it
Haaye Akhtari will be held at Madinat Jumeirah on Friday, September 18, and Saturday, September 19. Tickets are priced Dh75 (bronze), Dh100 (silver), Dh200 (gold) and Dh350 (platinum). Call 04-3666546 or 055-1013652. #Source: The Gulf News, By Manjari Saxena