Akhtari: The missing notes

One of the most infuriating things about reading a new book is the gradual realisation that its editors are convinced of the imbecility of their readership. This is especially true of a book that promises insights into the life and work of as important a historical figure as Begum Akhtar. Akhtari, compiled by Yatindra Mishra, does begin well. Its first essay by Salim Kidwai, historian and close associate of Begum Akhtar, is an excellent example of what most of this book is not — rigorous but accessible scholarship, written with clarity and insight, by a scholar who knows how to use language well. The second piece by Sheila Dhar keeps one hopeful. Dhar’s unassuming writing is sure to put readers unfamiliar with Akhtar’s world at ease. But the book is mostly downhill from there.

One is forced to read repeated accounts of Akhtar’s relationship with her husband, Barrister Abbasi, who is said to have caused her to give up her music after their marriage, only to have ‘allowed’ her to start singing again later. Dhar and Kidwai both dispel this simplistic portrayal of Akhtar as victim and Abbasi as perpetrator; yet in the rest of the book, essay after insipid essay includes voyeuristic gossip about this relationship that undoes Dhar and Kidwai’s work.

Interesting trivia

Tedium and repetition are the hallmarks of this book. We learn, again and again, how various famous people were moved to tears by Akhtar’s singing and how the crack in her voice regularly pierced the hearts of connoisseurs. The book certainly contains interesting trivia and reminiscences, but these have to be excavated. Most of the content of these single-page blurbs could easily have been woven into one or two representative essays. What you have instead is a banal assortment of hagiography.

Akhtari consists largely of essays translated from the original Hindi with complete disregard for linguistic form and semantic context. These essays would have been rewarding if read in Hindi, such as the delightful conversation with Akhtar’s disciple Shanti Hiranand that gives us a revealing glimpse into the quotidian Begum Akhtar. What is completely absurd, though, is the incompetence with which entire ghazals, written by no less than Ghalib, are translated. In an age in which sophisticated scholarship on every syllable written by the likes of Ghalib is freely accessible, the translators deem it sufficient to insert arbitrarily picked synonyms from online dictionaries into hurried translations of some of his most iconic ghazals, with the comfortable assumption that they contain no wordplay, nuance or metaphor worth accounting for.

Akhtari: The missing notes

Absurdity becomes hilarity when the translations deal with musical terms. It is thus that the famous catch in Begum Akhtar’s voice becomes a ‘yodel’, shattering the already fading dream of Akhtar’s pathos. ‘Aalaap’ becomes ‘undersong’ and even the term ‘ghazal’ is inexplicably translated as ‘aria’! One wonders why the conventional practice of using the original Indic musical terms and providing a glossary was rejected.

Akhtari also provides remarkably little by way of musicological insight. The only exception is Shubha Mudgal’s rigorous attempt to address technical questions about Akhtar’s singing, which is certain to help listeners who may find her vocal aesthetic alien to their contemporary sensibilities. One wishes, though, that Mudgal as well as other musicologists had been given more space to discuss Akhtar’s musical life in detail, for there is so much more to be said.

There exists among scholars an alternative perspective on the trajectory of Begum Akhtar’s music. From this point of view, Akhtar’s earlier voice — metaphorically as much as literally — was richer and more unique than her later voice. In her second coming, Akhtar’s audience changed into one dominated by bourgeoisie sensibilities and her music adapted itself to meet its expectations — not only in terms of the timbre and expressiveness of her voice, but also in terms of the melodic content of her songs.

The book does not adequately remind us that the ‘songs’ Akhtar sang were tunes that were, in comparison with the film song, rather loosely defined. Akhtar’s ‘singing’ of them implies a creative act of improvisation, in which the structure of the song is continually modified through a process of spontaneous composition. Inevitably, such improvisation is profoundly affected by the ethos in which the performance occurs. Thus, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi’s harkat-driven ghazals and Begum Akhtar’s more somnolent thumris can be seen as two entirely different animals. Instead of this fascinating perspective, we have essay after uncritical essay restating the convenient truism that Akhtar’s music matured as she grew older as, apparently, the music of all respectable traditional musicians must.

There is no scholarly discussion of why Begum Akhtar’s music stood out from among the many thumri and ghazal singers who were her predecessors and contemporaries; or of the contributions of Akhtar’s supporting musicians, whose accompaniment continues to be a subject of study for today’s tabla players. Neither is there any mention of the music director Khayyam, who composed the tunes for some of Akhtar’s most iconic ghazals. The book could also have included, for instance, curated listening with expert commentary on select tracks; links to resources such as the IGNCA’s website documenting her life and work; an introduction to the prosody of the ghazal as a literary form that is an inseparable part of the Begum Akhtar experience — the mind reels at the thought of what might have been.

One fears that in its attempt to present an easily digestible volume on Begum Akhtar, this book will end up making her music seem all the more archaic and irrelevant to today’s readers. By choosing hagiography over scholarship, Akhtari has lost the opportunity to address the complexity of a fascinating and rich life.

The writer is a scholar and Hindustani musician.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 9:45:52 AM |

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