Begum Akhtar : The Feminist Icon Relevant to Millennials and Gen Z

(Divyaa Kummar)


We live in a time, where Badshah blares out of car speakers and Ghazals do not get that many hits on music streaming platforms.

Probably, asking Gen Z to connect to a legend whose 108th birth anniversary is being celebrated, would be far reaching and that’s not what I have in mind.

Though, the feminist icon that Begum Akhtar has been, is as relevant today as it was in the days of yore.

Making a mark in the world of classical music, at a time when it was a largely male bastion against all odds makes Begum Akhtar a perfect candidate to be placed right next to the feminist icon, Simone de Beauvoir.

Born in 1914  to a courtesan in Faizabad,(U.P), she lived a life of pain and struggle.

Her father abandoned her and her twin sister. While her sister succumbed to death. She went on to make a name for herself in the annals of musical history as the Queen of Ghazals.

If Begum Akhtar would have been told during her lifetime, that she was a feminist, she wouldn’t probably know what it meant?  Or what it stood for? But everything she did and stood for spelt feminism in bold capital letters.

Starting out as the child of a courtesan, abandoned by her father, physically abused by one of her teachers and sadly even raped by a patron, an affluent king who had summoned her on the pretext of singing.

At the young age of 13, Bibbi, became an unwed mother. Most people don’t experience such pain in their lifetime that she experienced in her childhood alone.

When she gave birth to a girl child, her mother decided to tell everyone that the child was Bibbi’s sibling. Bibbi felt as if her sister Zohra had come back to her life.

Though, she still continued to pine for the love of the father who abandoned her.

Bibbi had never quite gotten over the loss of her sister and would carry her handkerchief to all her recordings and performances. She would cry after every performance and if one listens to her sing closely the pain is real and her voice laden with it.

She was the only artiste in her time who was allowed to smoke on the All India Radio floors. Probably smoking or drinking and meeting her friends at will is not what makes her or anyone else a feminist. I say this because that is not the definition of feminism. But she did live by her own rules.

Begum Akhtar was meant to rule the world run by men in a different way. In fact the courtesans of the time had more freedom to move as they pleased, without the restrictions of society. Having an income of their own, they had no restrictions like the women of large societal homes.

The matrilineal courtesan culture, celebrated daughters, gave them the right to property and the kind of freedom that women from respectable homes could not even dream about. In the late ’30s and early ’40s Begum Akhtar was in the driver’s seat while men came calling to take her out to wine and dine as her film career had also taken off.

But she was not a frivolous soul or just a show girl but an artiste of the highest calibre. A smart intelligent woman who had learnt and lived some harsh realities. That was ever present in her heart, voice and soul.

She had seen pain at the hands of her father,one of her teacher’s and an affluent king. Men from all walks and relationships had failed her.

This failure would find its way into the hearts of the public, who would be enthralled by her singing.

A playful soul she would sing with a hint of laughter,mesmerising her audience.

Her mother and uncle championed the cause of her musical education. Her first public performance was at the Earthquake Relief Fund concert  in 1935. She even got the attention and appreciation of freedom fighter and poet, Sarojini Naidu who gifted her a saree on the occasion.

Even Lata Mangeshkar was her ardent fan  and even requested for a Begum Akhtar Ghazal to be played on the AIR program ‘Aap Ki Farmaish’.  Such was Begum Akhtar’s  fan following.

From being Bibbi as a child to Akhtaribai Faizabadi, the courtesan and actress, to becoming Begum Akhtar through marriage,  into a respectable family to Barrister Abbasi.

Begum found love, where one would least expect it. Such was the enigmatic charisma of this formidable feminist.

Post her marriage on the insistence of her husband, she gave up singing to follow traditional household life.

But music was her first love and distancing herself from it affected her health. The singing star who shone across radio, theatre, cinema and in live performances had to return to singing in 1949 after almost five years as an antidote.

Her husband realised keeping her away from her music was a folly on his part.

Miraculously even her health bounced back.

The life of Begum Akhtar is too large and cannot be celebrated enough.

She was a free spirit who was always questioning set norms.While being a practicing Muslim she was also a Lord Krishna Devotee.

To know the legend is to know that she is much like the title of her Ghazal “Deewana Banana hai”.

Begum Akhtar was awarded with the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Academy awards during her lifetime and the Padma Vibhushan posthumously.

The life of Begum Akhtar is not just a tale of the fascinating Mallika-e-Ghazal.

But it’s also a motivational, inspiring story of the human spirit. She achieved great heights fighting against all odds and won in a world dominated by men.

The pain she had was evident in her voice. She channelled this pain to make her art even more nuanced.

She is in every true sense a champion of feminist values and her life is exemplary,  of a winner who shines even in the face of adversity.

The pain in her voice became a pleasure for many ears and still continues to linger in some.

Rest in peace Bibbi!

(The writer is an Independent Media professional, Communication Coach, Radio Personality, Anchor and Performing Arts Artiste. She has a deep love for nature, animals, spirituality and culture.)