When an accomplished vocalist takes to the field of theatre, it can only be a gain for the latter. For, although theatre is known as a composite form that contains all other arts within it, the current scenario provides plenty of proof that it has narrowed down greatly. Acting frequently becomes a skilful projection of speech alone. So when eminent vocalist Rita Ganguly presented her play “Jamal-e-Begum Akhtar” to a packed Abhimanch auditorium during the ongoing Bharat Rang Mahotsav in New Delhi, it became an occasion not just to celebrate the life and contribution of her guru, the ‘Malika-e-Ghazal’, but also a lesson in the art of the stage. Besides, she threw in, during the compelling two-and-a-half hour solo portrayal — accompanied by a single sarangi player — other significant asides about women in a world designed for males, with some pointed barbs about men whose natural comfort is in polygamy.
Theatre as a mirror of society is a familiar concept. This play also showed the actor as a reflection of her subject. Receiving congratulations after the performance, when an admirer suggested she repeat the production often, she replied, “Why? I am fine with music…like Begum Akhtar.”
Indeed, the point came up a few times during the performance, that her guru had been forced by circumstances to put up with situations, duties or lifestyles she was either unhappy with or tired of. But it was music that drew her out again and again. It was, perhaps one could say, Begum Akhtar’s natural state. But her natural state was also to remain a learner, not afraid to go back, time and again, to the drawing board and learn from a new guru to attain a better grasp of her art. As the performer pointed out, “ Zindagi mein kai baar third gear se first gear mein aana hota hai (Often in life it is necessary to go back to first gear)” — a pithy remark that elicited applause from the rapt crowd.
The versatile Vidushi Rita Ganguly too has shown a remarkable skill for repeatedly coming back to first gear and accelerating to enviable velocities. Trained to a high level of accomplishment in a surprising number of genres, including Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Modern Dance, Dhrupad, Thumri and Ghazal, under the most eminent gurus in each, she is now largely known for her vocal concerts and has devoted the past few decades to keeping alive the memory of Begum Akhtar. As such, “Jamal-e-Begum Akhtar”, which has been performed before in different versions, is a tribute not only to Begum Akhtar but also to the other great artists who moulded this rare performer.
The play, conceptualised and scripted by Ganguly, who introduced it as “kissagoi” (a traditional storytelling format), had several personal incidents woven in, which gave the audience a glimpse into the relationship between Begum Akhtar and her prime disciple who travelled with and accompanied her for over nine years, until Begum Akhtar’s untimely and sudden demise from a heart attack in 1974.
A feisty woman herself, who taught mime and movement at the National School of Drama for over three decades, Ganguly paints a portrait of an even feistier woman who defied the tragedies that assailed a young girl with beauty, high spirits and immense talent, growing up without a father in times when a woman performer was frequently at the mercy of her patrons. Raped by one, wooed by another, from whom she ran away overnight, the golden voiced Akhtari Bai Faizabadi finally married Lucknow-based barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi — after he had dramatically saved her from the spurned prince’s arrest warrant! Putting career and fame aside, she tried to fit into his elite lifestyle.
But the sheer indolence of a well-heeled lifestyle, combined with dark memories that come crowding in on a mind restrained from constructive art pursuits, and a relentless series of miscarriages, caused her mental and physical health to break down. It was music that saved her again — whether merely from the point of view of her adoring fans, or also for herself, it would be hard to say. While Ganguly is at pains to point out that Abbasi was a kind-hearted man and husband, his goodness could not make up for the emptiness that attacked his wife’s spirits. Timidly responding to a call from All India Radio’s L.K. Malhotra to start singing again, she recorded a few songs at the radio station on the condition that she return home before her husband returned for lunch.
Ganguly is vehemently at odds with those who say that Begum Akhtar was from the tawaif tradition. She was a Sayyed, she maintains, and was given the performing name Akhtari Bai by her guru Ata Khan, as the ‘bai’ suffix associated with tawaifs would help a new child artist gain audience acceptance. Later, in the Lucknow studio, when the question arose under which name the recordings should be labelled, she was horrified at the suggestion of “Begum Abbasi”, saying she did not want her husband’s name attached to professional singing. Thus it was Malhotra, states the play, who came up with the name by which the melody queen became famous — Begum Akhtar.
At the end of the evening, which had been interspersed with snippets of songs rendered by Ganguly as she went through the different musical personages in Begum Akhtar’s life — each in characteristically authentic tones — we heard the voice of the Begum herself: “ Jaane kyun tere naam pe rona aaya (Why does your name bring a tear to my eye?).” Never mind that the standing ovation obscured Ganguly’s last pose in the rocking chair, that — worse — the clapping drowned out that magical voice. Most were indeed left moist-eyed, at the tale of pain that sublimated itself into pure melody, at the wounded soul who was queen of hearts.