To my ears, the sound of the Urdu language and the ghazal were the most enticing when I was in my teens, even though I could not understand most of the words. I had no idea that the couplet had a form, and that it was necessary to tune in to the conventions of the ghazal to truly appreciate it.

We studied Hindi and English in school and spoke a broad, not very elegant, Hindustani at home. But, despite my ignorance, the recitation of a ghazal always transported me to a romantic world of make-believe which I preferred to all others. The heartbreak of unrequited love, the incredible selflessness of the lover who gloried in the pain that connected him to the beloved, the perfumed gardens where the rose and the bulbul conversed about life and the spinning planets of the universe – all merged into an illogical resplendence that was quite addictive.

I could easily get my “fix” by chanting some memorised lines and pronouncing the special q, z, gh and kh sounds of Urdu with dramatic exaggeration. Even though the meaning of what I recited was a mystery to me, I could summon up the atmosphere. My friends envied the access they thought I had to the glamorous world of Urdu poetry.

Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, as she was known then, was the authentic symbol of that world and her voice was the most effective magic wand there could be for me.

Many genres of Indian singing entail softening or modulating the voice in an effort to create delicacy and beauty, but this was not her way at all. She seemed to collect herself like an archer taking aim, and hit each note dead centre with great energy, allowing the surplus charge of sound to spill over naturally. She was genetically so tuneful, so “sureela”, that the directness and honesty of her voice-throw sometimes resulted in a characteristic break (or “patti”) in her voice which “killed” connoisseurs and was hailed by listeners as an inimitable core of beauty in her music.

Her audiences always waited for such euphoric moments in each recital and greeted them with sighs of rapture. She never tried to produce this effect. It happened spontaneously, almost absent-mindedly, but the effect was electrifying. The impact of her voice on the note produced sparks, as when flints are rubbed together. Her famous patti became the envy of all her contemporaries, and as a ghazal singer she had no equal. Even her rivals had to concede this.

I loved her voice and needed no special education to be enchanted by it. But to understand the art of ghazal singing at its most evolved form was another matter altogether.

I never set out to learn the structure and dynamics of the couplet. But comprehension was forced upon me as a by-product of the simple and most enjoyable process of listening to Akhtari Bai with full attention over a period of years. This also revealed to me some finer points of her craft, notably the skill with which she could combine and balance music, words, and meaning in a single creative impulse.

Purists have a point when they say that music is articulate only in its own language and in no other. Pure music is not concerned with the meaning of the words that accompany, embellish, or assist it in any fashion, however poetic or moving those words may be. And yet the harmonious coexistence of poetry and music runs through the fabric of the Indian tradition as exemplified by the bhakti saints, Sufis, and folk singers.

In these instances, music can owe a good deal of its poignance to the words it clothes, but that does not change the fact that words and meaning are extraneous to music. The ghazal too is a self-sufficient literary form with an integrity of its own. If it has vitality and enduring value it should need no aids or props from the world of music.

The greatness of poets like Mir, Momin, and Ghalib owes nothing whatsoever to music. In fact, originally the ghazal, which literally means “addressing the beloved”, was never meant to be sung or set to music. The practice of reciting in “tarannum” (melody) is still frowned upon by orthodox literary connoisseurs because the intrusion of melody, which sneaks in with a small demand of its own, blurs the word structure and disturbs the natural flow of the line.

Akhtari Bai sang the ghazal with such insight and sensitivity that she created a new area where poetry and music were simultaneously enhanced.

Her first principle was to leave the greatest poetry alone, so that her music would not flounder under its heavy weight. This principle was obviously and sensibly borrowed from the thumri form where the poetry of the text is suggestive and ambivalent by design so that the interpreter can choose freely from a multiplicity of possible meanings. Guided by this experience, Akhtari Bai usually picked lightweight ghazals that could be easily moulded to a musical purpose without damage to either.

Her most popular ghazals, “Ae mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya” and, an earlier hit, “Deewana banaana hai toh deewana bana de”, are examples of this. Even when she chose to render verses of indifferent literary value, they leapt to instant fame while the bulk of the output of their authors sank into oblivion. Aspiring poets vied with each other to get an entry into her repertoire because it guaranteed recognition.

The second principle she adopted was from the genre of the khayal where the words of the composition exist mainly as sounds, and not much as meaning. In her singing, the long vowels became flowing, graceful, melodic arches while the hard consonants formed the pillars that supported them.

She used the vast range of sounds offered by language, the liquid sounds, the sharp sibilants, the harsh gutturals, the nasal, throaty, or breathy consonants as musical raw material, and she did this with such amazing skill that the stoniest lines became delicious to the ear, as in her rendering of Iqbal’s “Kabhi ae haqeeqat-e muntazir nazar aa libaas-e majaaz mein ke hazaaron sajde tadap rahe hain meri jabeen-e niyaaz mein...” The remarkable thing was that her musicality never lost track of the meaning of the poetry, and her command over both was absolute.

Listening to her taught me what the structure of a typical couplet or sher of a ghazal was. Each is a self-contained unit in which the first line makes a non-committal statement that is not poetic or philosophic in itself. It only serves as a sort of background to the rules, as it were.

The actual game begins only with the second line which retrospectively illuminates the introductory line and reveals the hidden meaning in a powerful backlash. There is a point at which the second line turns and looks over its shoulder at what has been said in the first line, suddenly suffusing it with a significance that was not apparent before this point. For instance:

Yun toh har shaam ummeedon mein guzar jaati thhi ...

is the innocuous first line of an unremarkable couplet. It is just a setting of expectancy meant to highlight the flash of comprehension located in the second hemistich:

Aaj kuchh baat hai jo shaam pe rona aaya ...

As I recognised this pattern in verse after verse, I realised that I had been led to this understanding only by the cadences of Akhtari Bai’s music. The low-key statement of the first line was set to music that in a way matched an introductory alaap. The music rose to a climax at the precise point at which the couplet turned to look back and shed light on the meaning of the whole sher.

There was such a close correspondence between the ebb and flow of the music and the dynamics of the couplet that an understanding was almost thrust upon me. No other ghazal singer can dance so gracefully, so closely with the poet.

Indeed, her art improved as she matured. The last ten years of her life represented a pinnacle that her earliest work had promised. My first recollection of her is a high-pitched voice, urgently announcing her name at the end of a ghazal sung on a 78-rpm disc brought out by HMV. “Mera naam Akhtari Bai Faizabadi,” the voice proclaimed, abruptly cutting off the magic of the music and the glamour of the poetic Urdu words that had come before.

Back then, I was not old enough to understand the relevance of this strange vocal signature. The grown-ups in my family who swooned over Akhtari Bai’s music explained that many artists who recorded songs between the 1920s and ’30s followed this practice of shouting their names out at the end of each song in the innocent belief that it would prevent their work from being plagiarised or pirated!

I was as fascinated by that piece of information as by the music itself, and played the discs again and again, fantasising that this famous singer, who was a living legend even then, was personally telling me her name. I could never have imagined that one day, forty years later, it would really happen, that she would actually speak to me and that we would become friends.

Originally published in The Cooking of Music, Permanent Black, 2001.

Akhtari: The Life and Music of Begum Akhtar

Excerpted with permission from “Akhtari Bai Couldn’t Live Without Love”, by Sheela Dhar, Akhtari: The Life and Music of Begum Akhtar, edited by Yatindra Mishra, all translations from the Hindi by Maneesha Taneja, HarperCollins India.