In the closing chapter of this book, singer Shubha Mudgal writes, “Finally no amount of analysis will ever be adequate to understand (her) genius.” She reverentially talks about Ghazal empress of yesteryears, Begum Akhtar.

Having grown fond of Begum sahiba’s songs in the past few years it was imperative that I read Akhtari penned by Yatindra Mishra. The book is published by HarperCollins India and reflects of the life of songstress Begum Akhtar.

One too many adjectives are used throughout the book to describe the enigmatic voice of Begum Akhtar – deep, husky, smoky, sprightly, hypnotic, intimate. Begum Sahiba’s voice had unique qualities and her love for poems and music was so deep that the ghazals she would set to tune would stress on every emotion that was meant to be conveyed by the poet with his words. In this book, editor Yatindra Mishra brings together the essays and memories of Begum Akhtar. Her near and dear ones, her students and the musicians of our times spell out how magical Begum Sahiba’s voice was.

Begum Akhtar was born as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi to a courtesan, Mushtaribai. However, with sheer will, talent and elegance she paved a way for herself in the world of music. What Meena Kumari was to films, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi was to music – the empress of pain. Her renditions had a power to personify pain and hurt. Throughout the book you witness how majestic her living was. She was truly Mallika-e-Ghazal.

In the chapter, ‘My eyes well up in the absence of my beloved,’ penned by Sushobhit Saktawat, the author writes that, “To listen to a singer like Begum Akhtar we have to train our ears. It is not possible for an average singer to infuse light, transparent, and hypnotic echoes in a song as Begum has done in this one.” The contributors to this book affectionately recall Begum Akhtar and the spell she would cast on the listeners. Pravin Jha says, “Her body seemed to be a puppet whose strings were pulled by music,” because when Begum sahiba gave up on music to embrace her life as a householder, her mental health dwindled and soon she was diagnosed with depression. She was revived only after her husband Barrister Abbasi allowed her to sing once again, albeit with some conditions.

In this book, we see Begum Akhtar as she was through the eyes of her connoisseurs. But this book, most definitely, is worth reading if you have an affinity for poetry and music.

My favourites by Begum Sahiba – Hamri atariya pe, Aey mohobbat tere anjam pe rona aaya.

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