Always Being Born
AE MOHABBAT… Reminiscing Begum Akhtar
Rita Ganguly with Jyoti Sabharwal
ISBN: 978-81-904559-3-0
PP 379, B&W Pix 68, Rs 695
From the setting dusk of the fading royalties of Awadh, where Akhtari was born in 1914, to the glamour and clamour of theatre in Calcutta and films in Bombay! From the eloquent exuberance and die-hard faith underlying the tormented childhood of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi to the rhythms of silence required of the doting Begum of a Kakori Nawab! And her final transformation to an icon of music! Begum Akhtar remains an enigma! But no one could answer all those curious posers raised over several decades with as much authority as Akhtar’s cherished disciple Prof Rita Ganguly, as she lends a unique perspective on the much-fabled and colourful life of this professional singing woman, who immortalised the verses of classic and contemporary Urdu poets. With a passion so varied, given the consistent evolution of Akhtar’s technique, nothing short of lifetime research could have authenticated and done justice to unravel the mystique and myth of this singing sensation in the Indian subcontinent, feted by the cognoscenti and the commoner alike.
The book delves into the subtle nuances of transition in time, educing the flavour, language and music of a period that witnessed the end of a predominantly feudal society; weaving the cultural tapestry of courts and twaifs and the turbulent times that led to Independence. How the enthusiasm, dreams, and frustration of the post-Independence phase coincide with emergence of the modern era, and how these historic changes connect with the sensibilities of a highly reflective artiste and mould her music! This interaction between an introvert mind of a scintillating singer and the world without, between the changing generations and an inquisitive yet introspective Mallika-e-Ghazal, spins the narrative. Begum Akhtar surfaces in her multiple roles as a performer, a lover, wife and mother, a teacher and friend, juxtaposing stupendous success and dismal failure. Music was the ultimate – the eventual destination of her creative soul. But beneath the façade of fame and fortune was a deeply sensitive woman, facing loneliness, pain and anguish – the poignant moments of existence that remained unresolved till her very end. Begum Akhtar’s life perhaps mirrors an image where we too may briefly perceive ourselves and question the veracity of our own lives.
Prof Rita Ganguly was under the aegis of eight renowned maestros before she came into the fold of Begum Akhtar in the early 1960s. Unreservedly propelled towards academic and artistic pursuits by her father Dr KL Ganguly, an eminent litterateur and editor of the daily, National Herald. Born in Lucknow, she was trained in dhrupad by Gopeshwar Bandyopadhyay, and graduated with honours in music & dance from Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan. Thereafter, she secured two national scholarships, and trained in Kathakali with the legendary Ashan Kunju Kurup and Ashan Chandu Pannikar, coveting the unique honour of becoming the first woman to perform at Shastha Temple in Kerala. Subsequently, she trained in Bharatanatyam with Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra. And new dimensions were added to her repertoire as she got closely associated with Martha Graham, the diva of modern dance, the Kathak maestro Shambhu Maharaj, and again became a recipient of national scholarship in music to train with Mallika-e-Thumri Siddheshwari Devi of Banaras. Soon after, she joined the faculty of National School of Drama, pioneered a course in ‘Movement and Mime’, and conducted Indian Classical Theatre Appreciation courses at National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Australia, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in England, and Tower Hall Theatre in Colombo.
Her final stop was Begum Akhtar who initiated her in Patiala and Kirana Gharana and gazal-gayaki, and like her last ustad, Ganguly’s music transcended mere sensuous experience to scale the heights of Sufism. As a torchbearer, she’s among the few musicians in the country who have continued to cultivate and popularise the traditional modes. This engaging quest led her to undertake first-ever research on traditional singing women and twaifs as a Fellow of Ford Foundation.
She has also penned the biography, Bismillah Khan and Banaras: the Seat of Shehnai, and received various honours – Delhi State Award, Mallika-e-Mousiki (Bangladesh), Critics Circle of India Award, Rajiv Gandhi Shiromani Award, Priyadarshini Award, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Padma Shri.

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