Swan Song

Watch a performance from the last surviving court singer of Awadh who now lives in poverty


A singer at Awadh's royal courts, the last of her breed, Zarina Begum who enthralled audiences with her songs until the 1950s and even 60s, is undergoing treatment for several ailments at a private hospital in Lucknow.

The recipient of the first Begum Akhtar Award instituted by the Uttar Pradesh government in January this year, Zarina Begum also trained under the inimitable Begum Akhtar. The story goes that Zarina who came to Lucknow at the age of 11 to train under Gulam Hazrat was heard by Begum Akhtar and enlisted as her disciple. Her voice and style of singing is often likened to Begum Akhtar's.

The clip above is from a 2009 documentary film called The Other Song made by Saba Dewan. It explores "the enigmatic figure of the tawaif, courtesan, bai ji and the contested terrain of her art practice and lifestyle."

Here we can see Zarina Begum perform in a style unique to the then prevalent courtesan culture. Romantic, intimate singing suited to a smaller audience, often familiar to the singer.

The 88-year-old singer who once sang for kings, has been living in extreme penury for years now. She along with her son Ayub, daughter Rubina and son-in-law Naved have been living in abarsati in Lucknow's congested Aminabad area. The Uttar Pradesh government has said it will bear the cost of the cash strapped artiste's treatment. And taking heart to that statement the singer has expressed her last wishes for her children – a job for her daughter or son-in-law, or an e-rickshaw for her physically challenged son.

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