Veteran vocalist Shanti Hiranand and poet Ameeta Parsuram share their perspective on music, poetry and the unforgettable Begum Akhtar

Surely among the most romantic forms of expression in the world must be the Ghazal. Those songs of lament, loss and the unrequited love that refuses to die, of a passion that will not be curtailed by artificial social boundaries; those flashes of bliss when the beloved chooses to cast a benevolent look; that plunging despair when union seems impossible — yet the rejected lover would not be anywhere else for the world! The greatness of the Ghazal format though, is not just in the sentiments but in the words that express them, and in the voice that brings them to life. In this genre, Begum Akhtar’s was an unforgettable voice and an indelible name in 20th Century musical history. Over the decades since her demise, the musical techniques and the poetry may have undergone changes, but there are still those who swear by her contribution and sigh nostalgically for the days when Begum Akhtar (earlier known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi) enthralled listeners across the country. In her centenary year — her 100th birth anniversary falls on October 7, 2014 — the late queen of Ghazal has been paid tribute through a variety of events. Coming up soon is one by veteran vocalist Shanti Hiranand, one of Begum Akhtar’s major disciples.

The septuagenarian Shanti Hiranand has a certain frailness and delicacy about her. As she waves from the balcony of her residence in Gurgaon, she could be any genial grandmother. But when she says that apart from the respect and fame she has got, besides the rich musical legacy of Begum Akhtar, what gives her immense satisfaction is that the emotions are very much alive, you know she is not your stereotyped senior citizen. “If you sing a sher with understanding and from the heart, then you will not be old, you will be forever young,” she says.

Long back she stopped approaching music from its outer trappings, but immerses herself in it. People engage with the notes and musical ornamentation, the wizardry and the performance aspect, she muses. “I don’t sing from a superficial level. I sing having felt it from within, especially Urdu shayari. Mujhe bahut lutf aata hai usme. I feel as if my mind and my understanding have opened up. Take any sher, I feel as if it is reality (being conveyed).”

The essence of enjoyment, she points out, when listeners say ‘Maza aa gaya!’, is the enjoyment or rasa in the heart of the singer.

The veteran is sharing her thoughts with poet Ameeta Parsuram ‘Meeta’. The two have come together for an interesting project. Not only has the singer sung ghazals penned by Meeta specially for her, but she has also allowed the poet a glimpse into her own heart so that Meeta could write a nazm on her behalf as a tribute to her guru. The nazm will be presented as part of Shanti Hiranand’s centenary tribute to Begum Akhtar, planned for later this year in New Delhi.

It is a kind of a compliment for the Delhi-based poet, who admits that when she first approached the doyenne to work on an album with her, Shanti Hiranand categorically told she would only sing if her poetry inspired her enough. It is only fitting, seeing as the young Shanti, as she accompanied Begum Akhtar on concert platforms and during informal sessions, was introduced to some of the greatest artists and poets of the time: Lacchu Maharaj, Jigar Moradabadi, Kaifi Azmi…

The poets would give Begum Akhtar their verses and she would compose on the spot. “She would look at the paper, her face would light up, and the tune would come out.”

Then too, Begum Akhtar was a master at other poetic genres like Thumri and Dadra too, the disciple reminds us. “I have seen such encounters,” recalls Shanti. She would sing a line of a thumri and Lacchu Maharaj would portray it in myriad ways.”

The double CD album “Jo Aaj Tak Na Keh Saki” in which one CD was sung by Shanti (the other singer was Radhika Chopra) was the first encounter of the poet and the vocalist. Now this section will be re-released as a solo album with the addition of the nazm.

About the nazm, Shanti says, “The concept is very good, as it is very true that her reflection (aks) is on me. But to say that I am her reflection only would not be true. Her reflection is there, because I have her gayaki, her thought, and the influences of her life experiences — those things will never leave me — but to say that I am her reflection completely, that is not true. Because a river flows, and many tributaries make that river. Until all the smaller rivers flow into it, the bigger river is not complete. So it is natural (lazmi) that an artist imbibes from the guru and then slowly finds an individual path too.”

The veteran recalls some listeners have even wagered that from behind a curtain you wouldn’t be able to tell the disciple from the guru. “But after all the voice is not the same, is it? Her voice can’t be mine. But, while the voice, awaaz, is different, the andaaz (manner) is the same.”

And it is that andaaz, that approach to Ghazal singing, that is the aks here, notes Ameeta. “How does it make you feel, when people look for and find Begum Akhtar in your singing,” she asks.

In answer, the vocalist analyses her life as having three aspects: the carefree abandon of childhood, then the intellectual search in literature, thought, philosophy, and the third aspect, music. “This part became deep and all encompassing. That is, the thought, the philosophy, it was all at an intellectual level. But from the time Begum Akhtar came into my life, it was as if the truth of life began to appear to me, rather than the (mere) philosophy. It became majaazi (natural). This was her gift. I did not know where I am, what I am singing, how to sing, how to approach the music, which genre to go into. But I experienced this great attraction, and I just followed her, step by step. I never looked back. I became what she made of me.”

To be so deeply loyal as to forget yourself leaves a student vulnerable when the guru is no more. Shanti was thus bereft of her guru after Begum Akhtar’s sudden demise in 1974. “I felt that now I would not be able to go on,” admits the 2007 Padma Shri recipient. “But when I began practising, singing her gayaki, then certain things began to shine. Riyaaz is a great thing. It’s not that I am special, but anyone who does riyaaz will get that polish.”

Yet, she notes, she has got so much from her guru that her life is full even today. “You may say I am old and I can’t be in love, but I say I am still in love,” she declares. “Now if you try to correlate it with social relations, literally, there is no use.” She notes. The ‘mehboob’ can and should be understood at many levels. “I am grateful God has made me like this. There are people who go through life without ever hearing the birds sing!”