Tuesday, May 10, 2022

जाने क्यूँ आज तेरे नाम पे रोना आया..

P L Deshpande on Begum Akhtar
Translatation by Abhay Phadnis
Oct 31, 2001

[For those who have not heard of P L Deshpande: he was a man of many parts: writer, humourist, musician, music composer, connoisseur extraordinaire of music and the literary arts, actor, director of films and plays, political activist. Till his death a few years ago, he was a cultural icon in Maharashtra. He had written this article on the occasion of Begum Akhtar's fifth death anniversary in 1979.In translating this article from Marathi, I have been as faithful to the original as possible, with two caveats. One, I have chopped lines that sounded too flowery in English and did not really add value. Two, wherever a literal translation would be awkward, I have freely re-phrased the words/lines concerned.

jaane kyu.N aaj tere naam pe ronaa aayaa

It often happens - especially on cloudy mornings - that I awaken from sleep with a line from some song playing in my head. It can take any form: a "cheez" from some raag, a line from some poem, or just syllables from a "taraanaa". At times, it goes on in my mind all day long, acting as a  constant backdrop as I go about the business of living. A raag fills my body and soul like the fragrance of incense fills a room. Even as I play out my role in the world, someone inside me lives in a time and space of his own, cocooned in the melody and the rhythm of that unceasing song.

In this state, one gets from unexpected sources sensory inputs that light up hidden corners of the mind and bring up an endless replay of memories.

Today, a line resonating in my mind woke me up even before my consciousness had registered the clouds in the sky. Waking should happen as falling asleep does, as the baby in the cradle falls asleep, lulled by the sound of her own anklets. Today, after a long time, I so woke up. I have of course long outgrown the anklets, but generous nature has many other instruments that soothe the mind just as effectively. Such an instrument sounded in the recesses of my mind this morning, and a song flowed from it: "ai muhabbat tere a.njaam pe ronaa aayaa.."

And the song did not come alone - it brought with it the voice of Begum Akhtar. And I found my pillow damp with the tears left over from that night five years ago when Begum Akhtar died.

Following her death, there had been a radio programme where many of her
admirers and fellow-performers paid tribute to her memory. It was difficult
for them to find words to describe what was welling up in their hearts. What _did_ get said left so much unsaid. Her music that had made its way into the hearts of innumerable people; her voice that infused new life into the words of a Behzad or Shakeel; the notes that she seemed to draw from some musical cornucopia and scatter around as manna from heaven - how could they be described? And then, suddenly, a ghazal by the Begum herself came wafting over the waves -

ai muhabbat tere a.njaam pe ronaa aayaa
jaane kyu.n aaj tere naam pe ronaa aayaa

Till then, I had held back the flow of tears. There was no apparent reason for a man like me, well over fifty years of age, to sob uncontrollably on listening to this ghazal. The tears were a riddle to me then. Along with the song, I asked the Begum, "jaane kyu.N aaj tere naam pe ronaa aayaa?"(Why did I cry today on hearing your name?)

Shakeel, who wrote this ghazal, and Begum Akhtar, who drenched each line of it in tears as she sang it, are both no more. But the tears that cloud the mind often appear in the eyes unbidden. Gadakari has written a beautiful line in his play "Raajasanyaas": "swargaatale dev kaa re tumachyaa manii-maanasii vastiilaa utaralele asataat?" (Do the gods from the heavens themselves reside in your mind, your soul?) When one listens to Begum Akhtar, each note that emanates from her being seems to come from the world of the gods. Just as one cannot conceive of the Taj Mahal being made of any stone but marble, so also some ghazals seems unacceptable in any voice other than hers. Unless the notes have taken up residence in the very being of the singer, they cannot move the listener. To experience the music of such a singer is fortune's gift indeed.

My introduction to Begum Akhtar's music was indeed fortuitous. In 1937,  Mumbai's radio station was at Ballard Pier. The recording studio consisted of a huge hall and an adjoining announcer's room. Just outside the hall was a waiting room for visitors. I used to be occasionally called to record some bhajans or to take part in some skit. The compensation used to be a crisp five-rupee note. But the real attraction of the place for me was the radio. In those days, hardly 4 or 5 houses in Parle (where I stayed) had radios. While the radio station had many "radio stars", even a five-rupee artiste like me had free access to the radio there!

One day I saw a crowd around the radio set. Right in front of the radio was  the Director of the radio station, Zulfiqar Khan Bukhari. The people surrounding him were musicians one and all. There was a beautiful ghazal playing on the radio. I learnt that the singer was one Akhtari Faizabadi. At the highest note, the voice would crack slightly and everyone from Bukari-saab downward would go "subhaanallaah!" Her next ghazal started "diiwaanaa banaanaa hai to diiwaanaa banaa de" - and the name Akhtari and her voice were imprinted on my consciousness for ever. The style of singing was totally new to me. the meaning of the words did not matter much. Behzad and Shakeel were famous poets, masters of the word. But this empress of music was giving their words the gift of immortality.

In the world of singers, I have met three singers who sang for the sake of singing. People who did not want to demonstrate their "gharaanaa", who did not want to show off their skills, who did not want to prove their superiority over someone else, who did not try to gain attention by extraneous elements beyond 'sur' and 'taal'. They were: Balgandharva, Barkat Ali, and Begum Akhtar. Their singing was always musical. They did not indulge in "layakari" (play of rhythm) at the expense of the song. It was as if the song welling up in their throats was just allowed free flow, unencumbered, unobstructed. No tradition to be carried forward. No pretensions of complex pieces to be presented. The footwork of "laya" was innate to each note that emerged. An arrogant tabalchi may be playing
complex rhythmic variations, but Begum Akhtar would come to the "sam"
effortlessly and gently like a bird coming to rest on a branch swaying in
the breeze. Words and notes that are as hypnotic as a bird's unexpected rush of notes, just as agile and always mellifluous, measured, controlled. As the soaring into the sky enchants, so too the coming down to rest.

Those were the days when the music of Begum Akhtar, Balgandharva, and Barkat Ali held us spellbound - to use Madgulkar's phrase, our ears would become honeybees ("kaanaa.nche madhukar"). I have been fortunate to hear in my lifetime the incandescent music of stalwarts: Manji Khan, Kesarbai, Vazebuwa, Faiyyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Nissar Hussain Khan (in his prime) - singers who fulfilled Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar's exhortation, "gaaNyaacha zaad ubha kela paahije" (you music must create a great tree). These singers indeed made a majestic tree out of each raag they sang. I would be astounded by the magnificence of their "tapasyaa"; I could feel the awe they generated from the minute they stepped into the "mehfil". I would deem it a privilege to even take the covers off their tanpuras. But all these great people appeared to me like Vishwamitra-s creating a world of music. Their immeasurable "saadhanaa" would leave me stunned. However, in the case of Begum Akhtar, Barkat Ali, and Balgandharva (performing in mehfils in half-pants and an open-necked cotton shirt), it was difficult to separate the singer from the song. These people would not just sing, they would _become_ the song.

I first heard Barkat Ali in 1939/40 in a Sunday afternoon concert at the
Santa Cruz Suburban Music Circle. Barkat Ali, dressed in a simple cotton
pyjama and kurta, was helping bring the harmonium and tables onto the small stage. In a few minutes, the tabla was set to the right pitch and, without any ado, Barkat Ali started singing. We were besotted in those days by his "baaGon me.n paDe jhuule". My subsequent efforts to get my throat to reproduce the beautiful garland of notes that followed "dil me.n tamannaa hai..." met with spectacular failure!

Narayanrao Balgandharva was another singer in the same mould. The minute the tabla blended with the 'sur' and the organ played the first notes, his singing would immediately flow - he would then live through the song. It mattered not whether anyone expressed appreciation, whether the listeners were erudite or uninformed - his mind, his being was focused just on the song.

So also with Begum Akhtar, although with some minor differences. If the
accompanying "saarangiyaa" showed great understanding of the notes she sang and caressingly reproduced them, she would always, with her innate Lucknowi "adab", express her gratitude either through words or by just a gentle nod. If connoisseurs in the audience expressed their "daad", a small "salaam" came forth with the cupped hand going towards the inclined head.

The devotee who cannot go to Pandharpur seeks to quench his desire by
meeting with the "waarakarii" (pilgrim) who returns from there. In my youth, I had no pull towards Delhi, but was attracted by Lucknow. But that being a time when the four-anna fare for going from Parle to Girgaon had to be carefully provided for, where could I even dream of going to Lucknow! And ghazals and thumris were not sung in the concerts that our suburban circles arranged - they would be sung in the private soirees of the rich. We had to be content with the gramophone records that came our way.

I had to come to Poona in search of the "anna-brahma" that was more critical then than "naada-brahma"! And in Poona I met Madhukar Golwalkar, who considered Lucknow his pilgrimage spot. He, Vasantrao Deshpande, and I would spend night after night listening to Begum Akhtar's records. I have lost count of the number of nights lit up by her records.

The notes of Madhu Golwalkar's sarangi knew but the by-lanes of Varanasi and the road in Lucknow leading to "Akhtar Manzil" (Begum Akhtar's residence). Vasantrao Deshpande had had the fortune of knowing Barkat Ali in Lahore. At a time when the Punjabi 'ang' of music was as far from Poona as Punjab itself, the only voices in Poona that could negotiate that difficult style were those of Vasantrao and Suresh-babu. Otherwise, Poona's music scene was under the influence of Balgandharva and Master Krishnarao. The language we friends spoke among ourselves was Hindi, a language that Madhu and Vasantrao spoke with true Lucknowi fluency. I too had some exposure to the language and to "sher-o-shaayarii" thanks to two years spent in Ismail College. In Lucknow, Madhu had accompanied Begum Akhtar on the sarangi and had worked on Lucknow Radio. Hailing from a rich family from Jabalpur, he had gone to the Benares Hindu University to become an engineer but, captivated by Begum Akhtar's singing, moved to Lucknow as her "saarangiyaa". This madness, this
passion cannot be explained.

"diwaanaa banaanaa hai to diwaanaa banaa de" - how can one explain to anyone what is being asked for? "muft huye badanaam tere liye" - who here is the "he" and who the "I"? "koyaliyaa mat kar pukaar" - the moment of silence that precedes this plaintive plea is not really quiet at all, it is a deep lake of limitless pain. But if one cannot _see_ the bedewed eyes that rise toward the singing "koyal" in supplication, how will one realise this? All
this is but part of the same madness, the same passion.

The slow build-up of notes before the song starts has to play the part of a
veil. The sad, alluring, enchanting, volatile beauty that is hidden behind
it has to be revealed by the singer slowly, tantalisingly, with precise
timing. The listener's expectation cannot be stretched too far, nor can
rushing to the destination work. It is a unique moment when the veil finally
slips, a moment of the blending of union and surrender. Indeed, the song
realises itself at that precise point; the seed of the note germinates
there. The knowledgeable singer and the true connoisseur both experience the totality of the song there. The moment of the first "aa" is the moment of truth. The sculpture that follows necessarily needs diversions, frills,
ornamentation. Unless the line bends, how can a picture be formed? But, as the "shaDja" of the harmonium and the tanpura resonates and fades, the singer's "shaDja" has to arrive at such a precise "muhurat" that that one moment robs the listener of the very sense of time.

I had never imagined that I would ever meet the Begum, that she would
lovingly sing for me. The prime of my life went by in "the desire of a moth
for the star and night for the morrow". However, I never allowed myself the
ridiculous emotion of frustration. My pride in my devotion to music was such that I felt that the great musicians were testing me just as the Lord Vithal is supposed to test his devotees! And, listening to Begum Akhtar's record of "wafaa_o.n ke badale jafaa kar rahe hai.n", the torn mats on the floor of my house used to turn into soft carpets, and the naked bulb on the ceiling into a many-layered chandelier! Believers do iterations of the "Bhagavat" and the "Dasbodh"; I, of Begum Akhtar's records! This "ishq" never made me "nikamma" [referring to Ghalib's couplet: "ishq ne hamako nikamma kar diyaa Gaalib, waranaa ham bhii aadamii the kaam ke".] Those to whom this world of music was alien never darkened our streets. This "parwaanaa" stayed in search of the "shamaa".

Whether or not that "shamaa" would ever really appear before us, her
devotees, was something I never considered: as far as I was concerned, I had her always with me. For me, Begum Akhtar was a musical experience. Of course, she had a corporeal body with its virtues and flaws; that did not
matter. And yet, the draw toward meeting this corporeal being was also
there! Out of the blue, I gained as a friend the great connoisseur
Ramubhayya Date. Like parents in days of yore putting their offspring at the feet of the great and the mighty, he took me one day to meet Begum Akhtar at her house in Lucknow.

(Only those who have known Ramubhayya and Begum Akhtar will ever appreciate the mystery of their relationship. Being introduced by him to Begum Akhtar was like Krishna taking me to Radha and saying, "Meet my friend". On the occasion of Ramubhayya's first death anniversary, Begum Akhtar came to Bombay and sang; that night, an uncontainable cry of anguish expressed itself in song.)

At Lucknow that day, Ramubhayya introduced me to her and, with Lucknowi floweriness, praised me sky-high. Also there were Kumar Gandharva, [his wife] Bhanumati, and Rambhau Gulawani. Ramubhayya pulled forward the harmonium in the drawing room and told me, "Play something."

I told him, "Play something here? What have you got me into, Ramubhayya?"

He said, "A true problem indeed! It is the hour for Bhimpalas and Multani.
How can we let that hour pass unheeded? We need to give it its due!"

I thought of "Circus-wale" Chhatre. It is said that "Bhugandharva" Rahamat
Khan never sang on request. Chhatre, who always used to be with him, would then start singing. His singing must have been designed to intimidate the lions and tigers of his circus; it was said he whipped the notes as he sang. Rahamat Khan would get angry and would then start singing himself. I wondered then - and still do - whether Ramubhayya meant my harmonium playing to serve the same function!

Kumar on one side, the Begum on the other, and the harmonium in front of me. I left my fate to the gods and started playing. My fingers turned to
Bhimpalas, and the Begum suddenly asked, "hamaare baalga.ndharvajii kaise hai.n?" (How is Balgandharva?) Those four notes of Bhimpalas had immediately reminded her of Balgandharva. The minute I heard that, all the formality of new acquaintance fell away. Bhimpalas belonged to Balgandharva as if by birthright; because of him, Marathi music-lovers fell in love with it. The minute I realised that the Begum-sahiba was fond of Balgandharva, she became part of my list of life-members! The strangeness of that unknown drawing room suddenly vanished.

In those days, I used to dress in a khadi kurta-pyjama and jacket, because
of which the Begum-sahiba immediately started calling me "leader-saab".
Kumar sang in that small mehfil that day. Kumar's first "shaDja" received
its first "daad" from the Begum's moist eyes. His singing ended, and there
was stillness.

As much as the music, I still remember the stillness and the silence that
followed. It is one of the paradoxes of art that the ultimate aim of evoking
of the essential sound ('naadabrahma') is to go beyond sound itself. Only
when the song reached that destination can one experience the meaning of "aalam hai tanhaa_ii kaa" - what the state of aloneness is all about. An
aloneness that cannot withstand the touch of even sound: such splendid,
complete silence.

Great ("pahuu.Nche huye") men have told us for centuries that one should
know oneself. In the context of music, Begum Akhtar "knew herself" at a very young age. At Faizabad, she had started rigorous training in classical
music. That music, that "gaayakii" was something she could have easily
mastered. But it would not give her the release, the reassurance she sought in music. It would not set her free. It came with its set of rules and
regulations. When their house in Faizabad was burnt to the ground, Akhtari
moved to Calcutta. She started singing in a Parsi theatre company and became quite a hit, getting encores for the first time in her life. And a divine moment saw her entering the corridors of Urdu poetry. In the poems of Ghalib, Meer, and Zauq, the young Akhtari found words to accompany her plaintive notes. Her innermost feelings found expression in the ghazals; she could now communicate what she wanted to. She also found that the new form brought her admirers who could relate to what she was seeking to communicate. Poets like Shakeel and Behzad felt delighted that their words found expression in Akhtari's voice. Ghazal singing got a new standard. As days went by, Akhtar Manzil in Lucknow became the new Mecca for the moths rushing to this flame. The news that Behzad had given the Begum a new ghazal would spread like fire and the Begum's mehfil room would be filled to bursting.

Ultimately, it is the live mehfil that is the mainstay of music: the singing; the singer; the accompanists who follow her with every part of their being and blend their art with hers; moment upon expectant, eager moment, each filled with the riches of 'sur' and 'laya'; the emotion that flashes in the singer's eyes when a particularly deadly 'taan' emerges from her throat; and the listeners who sit there as supplicants, imbibing every note and freely showing their appreciation. Truly, those who experienced these mehfils at Akhtar Manzil would ask of God only this: that the mehfil never end!

I do not know the secret of the magic the Begum had in her throat; I do
know, however, that whenever, wherever I heard her voice, I would drop any work, stop talking, and just listen, willing time itself to stop. Take an
incident that occurred just last year. I was at Mallikarjun Mansur's house
at Dharwad. Our conversation was in full flow, when his daughter put on the radio in the next room and we suddenly heard Begum Akhtar singing,
"sitaaro.n se aage jahaa.N aur bhii hai.n". All conversation stopped. When
the song was over, Mallikarjun-anna said: "This voice and Narayanrao's
[Balgandharva's] voice - these are immortal. The rest of us will all be
forgotten. Leave the argument of khyal versus semiclassical - why try to
divide the live torrent of music? Theirs are notes that the gods have

People who reach great heights in music seem to speak such simple truths at times. I feel that, in moments of pure joy, such truth is spoken by that
deity in their hearts whom they themselves seldom meet!

When listening to Begum Akhtar, I would be deeply moved by her singing even if I could not always get all the nuances of the words of the ghazals. The flow of her music would not tolerate unnecessary leaps. There was no rush, no great hurry. There was no room for gimmickry. Her ghazal tunes were never frivolous. The words would flow through simple, familiar raagas. They would pause at significant points, bringing home the meaning and the drama of the sher. But what appeared simple was in fact extremely difficult. Her singing would never countenance any breach of musical boundaries. And above all, the aim was to communicate with each listener sitting before her. Indeed, her singing was suited to the small mehfil, not to large theatres.

In Poona, the Begum would always stay at Ram Maharaj Pandit's "Aashiyaanaa"bungalow. His wife Vasundhara-bai was the Begum's disciple, and she showered on her "Ammi" the same love, respect, and attention she would have given her own mother. Ammi's residence at "Aashiyaanaa" was treat time for us. Vasantrao Deshpande and Ammi were very close friends. She would make him sing and would accompany him on the tanpura. She called him "Guruji".

Attending the Begum's mehfils at Akhtar Manzil was considered a great
privilege; here in Poona, this malika-e-ghazal would respect our desires and sing to our heart's content! All her wealth, her fame, and the devotion of her admirers had left her essential humility untouched: there was no
arrogance in her. There was no attempt to compete with anyone. She would just allow free flow to the notes that were welling up inside her. She never hesitated to acknowledge and appreciate talent wherever she saw it. Her praise was never miserly.

When HMV released an LP record of Balgandharva's stage songs in Mumbai, she cancelled her flight ticket to Lucknow to attend the function. I was to
speak at the ceremony. I stood up to speak, and there was Begum Akhtar in the audience! I remember how she had come to see [PL's play] "varyaavarachii varaat" even though she could not follow Marathi. After my speech at the function, she came up to me and said, "Leader-saab, today you spoke very well (aaj aap ne bahut dil-chasp takariir farmaayii)."

I asked her, "How did you follow what I said in Marathi?" She replied, "You
usually make people laugh a lot. Today, the 'daad' you were getting had a
very different quality."

At "Aashiyaanaa", there was once a marvellous mehfil. Singers can make out easily when the audience consists of true lovers of their music. The mehfil was going on hour after hour. Different forms like thumri, ghazal, dadra were being presented enchantingly. "daad" was flowing spontaneously and frequently. Vasantrao Deshpande was accompanying the Begum on the harmonium. In the intermission, we all came out on the lawn to have coffee under the moonlit sky. The Begum said to me, "khudaa kasam, I love singing in Poona!"

I said, "This is your Lucknowi 'tehziib' speaking. I too say at each city I
visit that the connoisseurs of that city are unique, that you cannot find
such 'rasika-s' anywhere else."

She told me, "I mean it. Do you know why I like singing here? It is because
my singing gets appreciated here. There, the 'shaayar' takes all the 'daad',
leaving the poor 'sur' 'sharmi.ndaa'! Here, the 'sur' finds love."

That mehfil was unforgettable. The Begum sang till 2.30 in the morning, but the mehfil still seemed to be going strong. It is given to few performers to keep the night young, night after night, and the Begum ranks with the best of them. At 2.30, she turned to Vasantrao Deshpande who was on the harmonium and said, "Guruji, won't you sing for us?" Then, till 5 a.m., Vasantrao sang ghazals and thumris with great élan. Watching Begum Akhtar as a listener, watching her give 'daad' to the performer, was a special experience in itself.

As the city lights were going off, the mehfil ended. The morning was as
enchanting as the night: the dawn, conceived in the womb of that musical
night, flowered in music.

That was the last proper mehfil of Begum Akhtar's that I heard. After that,
I only met her once at Delhi when she was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship. As the awardee, she sang at the Kamani Hall that day.

And then one day the news came: Begum Akhtar died in Ahmedabad. 30 October 1974. When her body was being sent for burial from Ahmedabad to Lucknow, the rules and regulations of the inhuman bureaucracy of the Indian statesubjected it to humiliation and trouble. Even when the songbird of life had inhabited it, that cage called Akhtari had suffered many blows. The ghazals that she so loved were written by poets who shared her pain of incompleteness and had strung the words together with their tears - Jigar, Behzad, Shaukat, Shakeel. The Begum's notes arose mainly from the pain of separation; hers was the singing of the "virahinii". As her music flowered, it reminded one that the destiny of the flower was to wilt and be put aside. Lotuses came floating on the river of her music, but they were the lotuses that the poet Grace called "wordless lonely lotuses (ni/:shabda ekaakii kamaLe)". From that throat that had its strings tuned to perfection at birth itself, the "swayambhuu" gandhaar would emerge, resplendent in melancholy. And when the intensity reached its peak, then - like a drop of water rolling along a wire and, unable to bear its own weight, bursting - the note would find its own intensity too much to bear and would split. The knowledgeable and compassionate connoisseur would find sublimation in that moment. In Balgandharva's singing, a word uttered at the boundary between prose and song would leave the listener bewitched; so also this experience.

Begum Akhtar would come, would sing, and would go off. Promising us that, "inshaallaah", we would meet again. 'Akhtar' means "star". This star it was that sang to us, "sitaaro.n se aage jahaa.N aur bhii hai" (there are many more worlds beyond the stars). When she sang to us of this world beyond the stars, we would find freedom - if momentary - from the bitter realities of this world. Begum Akhtar is gone, leaving behind her songs in records and tapes. But all this is like watching the march of the seasons in a painting. Those poor machines replay the recordings, but the eyes recall those mehfils. Those nights of years ago seem but a few days old. And a line of one of her ghazals keeps coming back to mind: "kabze me.n thii bahaar abhii kal kii baat hai" - it was but a day or two ago!

It is not that my life today is burdened by all the natural and manmade
troubles of the world; I have seen people bear limitless sorrows. I have my
blessings: birds known and unknown keep coming back to the tree outside my window and singing their "bhoopali-s". I can hear the chatter of children in the houses around. An itinerant breeze brings with it the news of the seasons turning another cycle. But when I see a sparrow alight gently on the creeper on the fence, when I hear the raindrops from a light shower fall from the jasmine leaves to the ground, when I see a cloudy morning - all these lead me to thirst for Begum Akhtar's songs. The bird's coming to rest, the raindrops dripping off the leaf, the sky suddenly covered with clouds - just as all these happen so naturally, so easily, and so drenched with life,so also Begum Akhtar's songs. Those notes that come flowing. The pauses in the 'laya'. I myself become a poem of the morning, a poem whose first line is always the same -

jaane kyu.N aaj tere naam pe ronaa aayaa! 

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