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Reliving A Legend

Partho Datta

By Shanti Hiranand
Viva Books, 2005, pp. 170, Rs. 1295.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

This may be a cliché but Begum Akhtar was like the proverbial shama to which countless parwanas have lost their souls. Stories about her life are legendary and add to the mystique of her musical personality. There is for instance the famous one about a poet in Lucknow driven mad by her music who roamed the streets scrawling her name on walls. Then there is the unconfirmed but widely believed account of her enthronement by the Rampur Nawab and her dramatic escape from the stifling atmosphere of the court and demands of her patron. In the 1950s she emerged as the eminently respectable wife of Ishtiaq Ahmed Ansari a lawyer in Lucknow. Her transformation from Akhtaribai Faizabadi, the famous singer-courtesan to upper class housewife was complete.   It was at this time that young Shanti Hiranand entered the household at 1, Havelock Road. She was an young enthusiast who frequently sang at the Lucknow, AIR. Her producer had suggested that she learn more seriously and that was how she hesitatingly reached Begum Akhtar’s door. Hiranand’s life was transformed by this encounter as her discipleship ensured her a place in Begum Akhtar’s household. This charming, frank and moving memoir of her beloved Ammi gives us an intimate and sometimes vivid glimpse of Begum Akhtar’s personality.   There have been other memoirs too which dwell on other facets of Begum Akhtar’s public and private life. The late Sheila Dhar has a fascinating account about her own troubled devotion in Here’s Someone I Would Like You To Meet which is now available in the omnibus volume Raga’n Josh (Permanent Black, 2005). Rita Kothari’s Bengali reminiscence Bai thekey Begum was published in the literary periodical Desh. Some years ago S.Kalidas produced an excellent documentary that had a range of interviews with her admirers. But Hiranand’s memoir is special. She and Anjali Bannerjee were the only two ganda-bandh shagirds (formally initiated disciples) of Begum Akhtar. This is an insider’s view and therefore all the more valuable.   If on reading this book one gets nostalgic about Begum Akhtar’s music, then luckily loads of it is available and readily. HMV has brought out numerous sets from her old L.P.s. Megaphone of Calcutta has reissued in two albums her early 78 rpms. Live recordings from the 1950s and 60s are also now widely available. Thanks to Kishore Merchant, three ...

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