Begum Akhtar: Pioneer of ghazal singing

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Noor Israr is appreciative of the unique role of an artist

Her album

Music in the subcontinent was classical to the core and the vocal content was mostly composed of traditional rural content. Deeply seeped in classical oeuvres, singers emphasised more on intonation than on the content. The appreciation accordingly pertained to the ebbs and flows of the notes rendered by the singer and little attention was paid to the content of lyrics. A classical musical rendition was mostly related to village life and its chores and was bereft of portraying life in town and cities.

With the advent of popular film music, poets who wrote for film songs became popular. Film music was, however, considered inferior by classical music world that was averse to it. It, however, wanted to make its presence felt through comprehensible content of lyrics and settled for singing poetry of classical poets of Urdu poetry. One of the first proponents of this genre was Begum Akhtar. She started singing ghazals of masters of Urdu poetry in the traditional Thumri-dadra style that was later fine-tuned by singers such as Mehdi Hasan, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Ghulam Ali and Jagjeet Singh into a mode that is now considered to be the preferable style of ghazal singing.

Begum Akhtar was a court singer and performed in the courts of Hyderabad and later Rampur states that gave her the opportunity to wrench herself away from the theatre and film world. She was made to quit singing after marriage but was persuaded after many years to resume her career as a singer by radio officials. She was recognised as the pioneer of ghazal singing in the subcontinent and the parameters set by her were, more or less, followed subsequently with slight alterations in rhythm styles.

Her singular contribution was to raise the level of popular forms by investing it with greater musical virtuosity. The rise of the Thumri and dadra can be attributed to the changing taste of the elite that wanted to spice its austere sessions with forms which were prone to being sentimental. Ghazal became popular as it was brought into the unusual world of Thumri and made perfect by Begum Akhtar. Her mastery over classical singing was absolute and helped her to switch to ghazal effortlessly.

Performing live
Young Begum Akhtar
With her husband Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi

Begum Akhtar learnt music from Ustad Imdad Khan and later Ustad Ghulam Muhammed Khan. She also benefited from the education of Ustad Sakhawat Hussain in Faizabad till she became a student of Ustad Atta Muhammed Khan. Her emphasis on the lower register and the precise intonation of the sur must have evolved with time as she had begun her career as a singer singing in upper register. Her shift of gear (sur) transformed her into an unparalleled singer that was able to sing all varieties of poetry such as ghazals with long behar (meter) or small ones.

Singers adapted to her style and faithfully followed it making it more durable than fleeting magic of film-based song. Her style gave independence to ghazal to be sung freely without consideration of time and was temperamentally different from restraints of the 3-minute record. The flamboyance of her ghazals emphasising specific words in a ghazal through appropriate tonal inflections made it into a lively instrument. It also gave the singer the liberty to reveal his grip over movement of tone that is the hallmark of classical music of the subcontinent.

Her style also provided the ghazal singers with a huge portfolio of ghazals that is practically inexhaustible because poets left hefty collections of their poetry and there is no dearth of choosing popular material from amongst them. The popularity of ghazals sung by singers encouraged new poets to emerge who embellished ghazal with new ideas and variations.

Due to its very nature ghazal prospered more in Pakistan and all famous ghazal singers emerged from here. It does not mean, however, that ghazal was restricted in any way as it actually gained in acceptance after the rendering style made popular by Begum Akhtar. Ghazal is now the recognised pattern of music and poetry throughout the world and vast audiences always turn up in large numbers to listen to its rendition.

Noor Israr has a discerning taste in music and he is a trained singer

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