Hers was the voice that made my father’s generation swoon and cherish the beauty of the arts, forgetting that they had little money and lots of responsibilities. She was the one who inspired my favourite poet Agha Shahid Ali to do something I never thought possible: to write English poetry with the heart of a ghazal. She unites classical musicians like Pandit Jasraj  and Shubha Mudgal in their admiration at her depth of training and the genius of her performances.

But the story that really stays with me about Begum Akhtar, whose 100th birth anniversary is being commemorated on Tuesday, is about how she became unwell when her husband refused to let her sing. For seven years after her marriage, she didn’t perform. But then music became her prescription for life.

Begum Akhtar came to me as a cassette in our family chest of recordings, which I cleaned often with reverence, but not necessarily understanding. She was an inheritance I joyfully claimed because to hear her sing would make all the elders break out into raptures. For being a kid in the late 1970s and a teen in the early 80s, that wahwahi took root in a corner of my heart.

Now as a woman in my 40s, having lived life a little, the Begum is back in my life, as a modern-day primer to soothe me into understanding the subtext of experiences. Of love, shocks, surprises, loneliness, romancing life itself and laughing at one’s obsessions.

Here is an Akhtari Bai playlist of ghazals and more which have touched my heart. I invite you to rediscover her, without getting intimidated by the rules of Urdu poetry. If you are a complete newcomer, welcome. As you listen to her, I suggest that you keep Rekhta open in another window. Just hover over over the word you don’t get and Rekhta will explain it to you. The second time, close your eyes and just listen to the gems of thought, feeling and expression. Like Kaifi Azmi said of Begum Akhtar, “Ghazal sirf sunney ko nahin, balki dekhne ko bhi milti hain.

I listen to the Begum all the time, even when it hurts. You will, I hope, discover the potential of feeling soothed and understood, by an unlikely woman, beyond our grandmother’s age.

1) Tabiyat in dino

Sometimes, don’t we all feel in ways we can’t really put a finger on? This ghazal explores that “kuchh baat”, the spirit’s lethargy when we may just not be up to doing something. In times of busyness, this is a pause for the soul.

Here is the Rekhta link.

2) Kuchh to duniya ne

Caught between the world and circumstances, who hasn’t felt that moment when the heart brims over, but tears, they don’t come?

The Rekhta link.

3) Bhar Bhar Aayi Mori Ankhiyan

A short clip of Begum Akhtar singing in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar. In the film, decadent landlords sit down for a mehfil, as the queen sings Bhar Bhar Aayi Mori Ankhiyan.
Oh, the irony!

4) Singing the ghazal

In this second part of a Films Division  documentary on her, Begum Akhtar explains her thoughts about the ghazal and how it must be sung. At 5:08, she sings a whiff off  Ae Mohabbat, Tere Anjaam pe Rona Aaye.
5) Humri Atariya Pe

Did you hear Rekha Bhardwaj singing Humri Atariya Pe this melody in Dedh Ishqiya? Now listen to the Begum. An atariya, a part of a traditional North Indian home, is somewhat like a balcony. It is an open area where women had privileged access but men weren’t really allowed. That is the context of Begum Akhtar's dekha-dekhi moves.

6) An Interview

The singer explains that she gave her first performance because the main performer did not arrive.

Two online resources are a great help for Begum Akhtar fans. On Facebook, the Rooh-e-Ghazal and Begum Akhtar groups frequently share recordings. For further reading, there is also S Kalidas’ book on the Begum, Love’s Own Voice.