Remembering Begum Akhtar and Saleem Kidwai – The Wire

Every year, Saleem would stretch his resources both physical and fiscal to celebrate Begum Akhtar’s birth anniversary on October 7.
Agha Shahid Ali, Begum Akhtar and Saleem Kidwai circa 1970. Photo: Author provided
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The memory of Begum Akhtar, who was born on October 7, 1914 is inextricably linked in my mind to that of my dear friend Saleem Kidwai, who passed away in Lucknow on August 30. I don’t quite remember when I first met Saleem. Perhaps it was early in my youth in the 1970s; was it at a mutual friend’s birthday party? He had been there but I don’t remember connecting with him much then.
I really got close to Sallu about two decades later, when a mutual friend came to visit from London in winter of 1990 and we went to meet Saleem. He was still teaching at Ramjas College and lived in his sister and brother-in-law’s house at Jamia. This time we both opened up over classical music, Urdu poetry and gay politics, and our friendship soon became all-encompassing. We would meet several times a week; we discussed everything under the sun and got to know each other’s friends and families.
Saleem’s family had known Begum Akhtar for a long time from their hometown Lucknow. He had heard her music and had known her husband Barrister Ishtiaque Ahmed Abbasi. He had also bonded with her personally towards the end of the 1960s as a student in Delhi. The poet Agha Shahid Ali, who taught me briefly at Hindu College, was his close friend. Saleem and Shahid had become the Begum’s favourite fans till her death in 1974.
Sallu could never bring himself to write a book about Begum Akhtar, though he publicly spoke and wrote about her genre of music and the tawaif community in general. Later, he went on to translate the memoirs of her contemporary Malka Pukhraj, who had been the court singer and dancer at Maharaja Hari Singh’s court in Kashmir. In Begum Akhtar’s case he felt he could not betray the confidence she had reposed in him by giving him access to her personal life. Privately though, he would open up about those years with her.
1994 marked 20 years of Begum Akhtar’s death. The Government of India decided to mark the occasion with a postage stamp in her memory. Malka Pukhraj, the erstwhile court singer and dancer of Maharaja Hari Singh’s court in Jammu and Kashmir, had come from Lahore to release the stamp and sing in her memory.
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I was the culture editor of a newly launched news channel at the time. As I was covering the event, I talked to Malka about those years and her memories of ‘Akhtari’, as she called Begum Akhtar. I went on to interview a host of people led by her family, her students and pupils and her friends who had known Begum Akhtar closely and over those conversations emerged some fascinating reflections and reminiscences on the life and persona of the late prima donna.
It also turned out that two or three young people in my team had loose connections with Begum Akhtar through their hometown Lucknow. Someone came from the same locality as where she had lived; someone’s grandmother had been her best friend and so on. I thus got to meet the redoubtable Sayeeda Ahmed who had been in All India Radio and Akhtari’s best friend and confidant in the early 1940s in Lucknow. She had crucially facilitated Akhtari’s marriage to Barrister Abbasi.
In this quest, Sallu and Shanti Hiranand, Begum Akhtar’s foremost disciple, encouraged me to go to Lucknow and meet more people. Begum Akhtar’s younger sister Shammo Apa was still alive and active, as was her lifelong tabla accompanist Munne Khan sahib. Over the next many months, fascinating accounts of Begum Akhtar emerged through conversations with several people who had been close to her in her life. These people, too, could now speak more freely about her persona and her life as twenty years had passed since her death. These conversations and anecdotes were recorded on video and out them emerged “Hai Akhtari”.  The title derives from a lament that a lovelorn ‘deewana’ (one who is crazed with love) went about inscribing on the walls of old Lucknow the night she died.

Every year, Saleem would stretch his resources both physical and fiscal to celebrate Begum Akhtar’s birth anniversary on October 7. He had got her grave repaired and refurbished, and got it fenced off from the illegal encroachers who have over the years colonised the entire grave yard and built dwellings. He would invite at least one good vocalist to come and perform in the Begum’s memory. In this task, Madhavi Kukreja and her small band at Sanatkada helped him immensely.
I dedicate this film to dear Saleem, who had loved and admired her so deeply.


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