As a poetic form, the ghazal is very old, with its origins in 6th century Arabic poetry. It means ‘conversations with women’, which, if taken literally, immediately assumes heterosexual male authorship directed at the object of love. But this interpretation negates the real history of the ghazal at its height (in the 18th and 19th centuries) in what is now India. However, that is a story for another time.
For now, it is sufficient to say that courtesans of the era not only wrote poetry, they also performed it using music and dance. We have lost most of the poetry they wrote, and can only imagine how they may have performed the dance forms that were taken away from them and appropriated by far more elite Indians. But the only things that still survive, thanks to the early recording technology of the late 19th and early 20th century, are some courtesans’ singing performances.
Long before the ‘playback singers’ of Bombay cinema existed, the first and greatest recording stars were of courtesan lineage, who sang thumris and ghazals for the gramophone. Many of them managed to do this by hiding their origins, which were surrounded in stigma. But one of the greatest ghazal singers of all time—so accomplished that she was called Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of the Ghazal)—did not do so.
Her name was Begum Akhtar, and in many ways she came to exemplify the deep connection between poets and courtesans in the sub-continent (and the debt that the former owe to the latter). Her performances are sublime because they reflect not only her mastery of vocal music, but her immense understanding of the poetry she is performing.
Many commentators have made a connection between her deeply empathetic interpretation of the ghazal and her complicated, often unhappy life, but this simple cause-and-effect understanding of her art doesn’t make much sense to me. The emotional power of Begum Akhtar’s performance is significant because of the cultural history she was embedded in, and also undoubtedly her great talent and charisma.
Personally, Begum Akhtar’s art has gotten me through many, many days and nights of love and loss. Here is just a taste of her bewitching and enduring power.
‘Uzr Aane Mein Bhi Hai’ written by Daagh Dehlvi
This is a ghazal written for the beloved who is being ambivalent towards the lover—neither will he visit the lover, nor will he let the lover visit him (“Uzr aane mein bhi hai, aur bulaate bhi nahin'—'You hesitate to come to me and don't call me to you either.”)
The maqta, or last couplet, is a particularly beautiful one, with the poet completely turning his attention away from the beloved and asking himself:
“Zeest se tang ho, ay Daagh toh, jeetey kyun ho?
Jaan pyaari bhi nahin, jaan se jaate bhi nahi”
(“If you are tired of life, Daagh, why do you continue to live? You don't value your life, neither do you let it go.”)
‘Aye Kuch Abr, Kuch Sharaab Aye’ by Faiz Ahmad Faiz
This is a real treat, both because this ghazal by the great revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz is replete with stunning imagery, and because one can watch Begum performing it. This means being able to catch her smile as she begins the song, nosepin glinting, paisley shawl wrapped around her—and vicariously feeling the thrill of the eye contact that the audience at this mehfil was able to have with her.
Every couplet is gorgeous and sensual, take the second one, for example:
“Baam-e-Minaa se mahtab utare
Dast-e-Saqi mein aftab aye”
(“Moonlight descends from the top of the wine container, and the sun rises in the hands of the wine bearer.”)
‘Dil Hi Toh Hai’ written by Mirza Ghalib
Here is a clear example of how an empathetic and skilful performance can lift poetry that signifies despair into a realm of self-posession, even a kind of clarity.
In this ghazal, Ghalib wants to be left alone to mourn the loss of his love in peace:
“Qaid-e-Hayaat o Band-e-Gham
Asl mein donon ek hai
Maut se pehle aadmi
Gham se nijat paaye kyun?”
(“The prison of life and the cage of sorrow are one and the same—why should a person be released from sorrow before they die?”)
There is something about the way Begum Akhtar performs Ghalib—one of the finest Urdu poets of all time, and a well-known trickster—that brings out his stoicism, even amusement, in the face of heartbreak.
‘Tabiyat In Dinon Begana-a-Gham’ written by Jigar Moradabadi
It was difficult to choose between this and another Jigar ghazal, 'Koi Ye Kehde Gulshan Gulshan', a personal favourite, but this one won out because it is another chance to see Begum perform.
As this astute blogger has noted, this ghazal captures the numbing process of going into depression quite perfectly. Rather than simply being saddened, the poet finds himself becoming indifferent to things he previously enjoyed.
There is something unexpected, yet perfect about her sudden smile as she presents the matla, or the first couplet, to the audience, which invites us to immediately relate to the poet's words. And yet her rendering of the ghazal, accompanied by the tabla and strains of the lovely sarangi, is serious, and conveys the sense of slow withdrawal from the familiar world:
“Ke mehfil toh wahi hai, dilkashi kam hoti jaati hai”
(“The gathering is exactly the same as it was, but I am less and less enchanted by it.”)
‘Main Dhoondhta Hoon Jise’ written by Kaifi Azmi
There is something bittersweet about watching Begum Akhtar on Doordarshan National, while women of courtesan lineage were being actively demonised by the nationalist project.
There is a wonderful study by Regula Burckhardt Qureshi of Begum Akhtar's life and career, which chronicles her journey from being Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, daughter of a courtesan, to the married, 'respectable' Begum Akhtar, who came to symbolise the same high Urdu culture that first the British and then the Indian elite destroyed.
In this context, her success and widespread popularity is remarkable, as is the fact that she could officially take on students, one of whom is seen accompanying her in this ponderous but superbly rendered ghazal.
'Ae Mohabbat’ written by Shakeel Badayuni
I'd like to close with one of her best known songs. It's a lovely one, and this sher (couplet) in particular reminds me of another beautiful ghazal of a similar temperament, Sudarshan Faakir's 'Kuch Toh Duniya Ki Inayat Ne Dil Tod Diya':
“Yun toh har shaam ummidon mein guzar jaati hai,
Aaj kuch baat hai jo shaam pe rona aaya”
(“Normally I spend my evenings in hope, but there's something about today, that this evening is making me cry”)
This is another example of how ornate, even overwrought poetry can be transformed into an intensely relatable song with a great deal of emotional and artistic control. Her performance of this song is so iconic that her pupil Rita Ganguly titled her book about her 'Ammi', Begum Akhtar, 'Ae mohabbat.' A classic.
Tune in to the playlist of all of Shreya Ila Anasuya's Sexy Saturday Songs here.
Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer, journalist and the editor of Skin Stories at Point Of View. Watch out for her longer essay on courtesans in this space.