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Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, also known as Begum Akhtar (7 October 1914 – 30 October 1974), was a well known Indian singer of Ghazal, and Dadra, and Thumri genres of Hindustani classical music.
She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for vocal music, and was awarded Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan (posthumously) by Govt. of India. She was given the title of Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals).
Begum Akhtar was born in Bada Darwaza, Town Bhadarsa, Bharatkund, Faizabad District, Uttar Pradesh. Her father, Asghar Hussain, a young lawyer who fell in love with her mother Mushtari and made her his second wife, subsequently disowned her and his twin daughters Zohra and Bibbi (Akhtar).
Akhtar was barely seven when she was captivated by the music of Chandra Bai, an artist attached to a touring theatre group. However at her uncle's insistence she was sent to train under Ustad Imdad Khan, the great sarangi exponent from Patna, and later under Ata Mohammed Khan of Patiala. Later, she travelled to Calcutta with her mother and learnt music from classical stalwarts like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan of Lahore, and finally she became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan.
Her first public performance was at the age of fifteen. The famous poetess, Sarojini Naidu, appreciated her singing during a concert which was organised in the aid of victims of the 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake. This encouraged her to continue singing ghazals with more enthusiasm. She cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company, at that time. A number of gramophone records were released carrying her ghazals, dadras, thumris, etc. She was amongst the early female singers to give public concert, and break away from singing in mehfils or private gatherings, and in time came to be known as Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazal).
Begum Akhtar's good looks and sensitive voice made her an ideal candidate for a film career in her early years. When she heard great musicians like Gauhar Jaan and Malak Jan, however, she decided to forsake the glamour of the film world for a career in Indian classical music. Her supreme artistry in light classical music had its moorings in the tradition of pure classicism. She chose her repertoire in primarily classical modes: a variety of raags, ranging from simple to complex. After the advent of talkie era in India, Beghum Akhtar acted in a few Hindi movies in the 1930s. East India Film Company of Calcutta approached her to act in "King for a Day" (alias Ek Din Ka Badshah) and Nal Damayanti in 1933.
Like others of that era, she sang her songs herself in all her films. She continued acting in the following years. Subsequently Beghum Akhtar moved back to Lucknow where she was approached by the famous producer-director Mehboob Khan, as a result of which she acted in Roti which was released in 1942 and whose music was composed by maestro Anil Biswas."Roti" contained six of her ghazals but unfortunately due to some trouble between producer and director, Mehboob Khan subsequently deleted three or four ghazals from the film. All the ghazals are available on Megaphone gramophone records. Begum Akhtar, meanwhile, left Bombay and returned to Lucknow.
In 1945, Akhtaribai married a Lucknow-based barrister, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, and became known as Begum Akhtar. However, after marriage, due to her husband's restrictions, she could not sing for almost five years and subsequently, she fell ill, that is when her return to music was prescribed as a befitting remedy, and in 1949 she returned to the recording studios. She sang three ghazals and a dadra at Lucknow All India Radio station. She wept afterwards and returned to singing in concerts, a practice that lasted until her death. Though, she sang publicly in Lucknow, except for women's only concert in aid of the war, which was held in 1962.
Her voice matured with time, adding richness and depth. She sang ghazals and other light classical pieces, singing them in her inimitable style. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit. She was a regular performer on All India Radio. She usually composed her own ghazals and most of her compositions were raag based. She sang the timeless Bengali classical song "Jochona Koreche Aari"
During her last concert in Ahmedabad she raised the pitch of her voice as she felt that her singing had not been as good as she had wanted it to be and she felt unwell. The additional demand and stress that she put herself under resulted in her falling ill and was rushed to the hospital.
She died on 30 October 1974 in the arms of Nilam Gamadia, her friend, who invited her to Ahmedabad, which has become her final performance.
Her tomb was built in a mango orchard within her home, ‘Pasanda Bagh’ in Thakurganj area, of Lucknow. She was buried alongside her mother, Mushtari Sahiba. However, over the years, much of the garden of lost to the growing city, and the tomb fell into disrepair. The marble graves enclosed in a red brick enclosure, were restored in 2012, along with their pietra dura style marble inlay. Attempts are on to convert her home built in 1936 in China bazaar, Lucknow into a museum.
Amongst her disciples include Shanti Hiranand, who herself later received Padma Shri and wrote, a biography Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi (2005). Art critic, S. Kalidas directed a documentary on her titled, Hai Akhtari.
Awards and recognition
1968: Padma Shri
1972: Sangeet Natak Akademi Award
1975: Padma Bhushan (posthumously)