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Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi

Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi

Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi

  • By: Shanti Hiranand

₹647.50 ₹1,295.00 Save: ₹647.50 (50%)

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ISBN: 9788130901725

Bind: Hardbound

Year: 2005

Pages: 198

Size: 185 x 242 mm

Publisher: Viva Books Originals

Sales Territory: Worldwide


Indian Legends have a way of completely disappearing from public memory as living, breathing  (sometimes fire-breathing!), three-dimensional characters who are both loved and loathed for what they are. They remain stuck somewhere on the firmament, like the stars, unreachable, unassailable, untouchable. It is considered blasphemous to even think of deconstructing their myth, equal in depravity to acknowledging one's parents' sex lives! As a result of which the things that one would have liked to say to them remain unsaid. Resentments and imagined slights grow and fester. Social hypocrisy demands that we, the acolytes, remain quiet. The pain of our rejection mellows with the years and then suddenly a day comes when we forget the living person, the trappings that defined them, trivia that seemed so important then is completely forgotten. All that remains in our minds is an image of some demigod, performing superhuman feats.

Begum Akhtar, b. circa. 1914 - d. 1974, a legend in her own lifetime, is one such person on whom there is no available biography. A pioneer in the field of Indian light classical music, she helped popularize the traditional form of thumri and ghazal gayaki and took it to the concert level all over India and abroad. Thumri is a light classical form of music in which the stress is not laid so much on the purity of the raag as on the expression of emotions and "hav-bhav".  Begum Akhtar took this genre and treated it with her own special palette, and what emerged is a collection of some of the most sensuous and haunting melodies of the last century. Her music still sets the standard for connoisseurs of this genre to this day.

Unfortunately despite her talents, an entire generation of Indians has grown up listening to only gossip connected with Begum Akhtar's life, be it the controversy surrounding the Nawab of Rampur or her other alleged affairs. There was never any credible source one could approach to clarify these juicy tales. Some of these stories have remained as they were, while many others have grown and acquired a life of their own, getting spicier in the retelling over the years until there is a sort of creative explosion of stories surrounding Ammi's life. Many movies have already been made, borrowing generously from episodes in her life; many documentaries have questioned her rumoured affairs. Everyone has tried to prick at a festering wound, but no one has provided that healing touch.

This is what Shanti Hiranand has attempted in her memoirs; she has tried to heal. It is a book that will put to rest all pending issues, gaping discrepancies and obvious lies. It is a book that will hopefully provide a salve to all those open wounds surrounding Begum Akhtar's persona. Shantiji has examined her beloved Ammi under the microscope of her never-ending love for her, as well as with the objective philosophical gaze of a woman who has had the distance of over 25 years without her. She may not necessarily tell all, but she has shown us a side of Begum Akhtar that was hitherto hidden in the dusty corridors of House No. 1, Havelock Road, Lucknow.

It is interesting how these two women from seemingly diverse backgrounds could come to such an exalted level of understanding between themselves, in times that were not very conducive to such social interactions. Shantiji belonged to an upper middle-class business family. She and her sisters had a liberal education and were used to a certain space and freedom to pursue their own passions, while Begum Akhtar lived within the cloistered environs of a typical feudal home in those days. On the one hand Shantiji was an austere Gandhian and Begum Akhtar was a person of deep indulgences. It is amazing that even Shantiji's parents never stood in her way; they never stopped her from being with her "Ammi". On the contrary on occasions it was Shantiji's mother who encouraged her to follow her Guru right until the end.


Contents: Prologue • Acknowledgements • A Word about Shanti Hiranand's book on Begum Akhtar • Preface • Service and Love • Seclusion • God  • Knowledge • Ecstasy • Truth •  Union with God  • Extinction • References • Glossary


About the Author:

Shanti Hiranand was born in a business family in Lucknow. Her penchant for music goes back to her childhood. Soon it became an all consuming passion for her. Starting her early training at the Music College in Lucknow, she had to shift to Lahore in the early forties because of her father's business interests. Her first performance was on Radio Lahore in 1947. After partition her family shifted back to Lucknow and she started training under Ustad Aijaz Hussain Khan of Rampur. Alongside she continued performing on AIR. She met her Guru, Guide and Mentor in Begum Akhtar in 1952.  Ammi trained her in the traditional forms of thumri, dadra and ghazal singing. Begum Akhtar's passing away in 1974 drove her to dedicate her entire efforts to excel in the art given to her by her Guru.

It is fascinating journeying back to an era in the history of Indian music, which helped shape the future of Indian classical music in the last century. Shantiji has delved into the practice of shagirdi and ganda badhana, the traditional Guru-Shishya bond, which have all but disappeared in this institutionalized age of training. She has dwelt on the changes that have come over in the music industry over the last century. From an exalted individual search for one's voice it has turned into a veritable profit-seeking vocation. What is lost is the total surrender and dedication that students in her time felt for the Guru. She recalls with pride her association with so many of Begum Akhtar's contemporaries, many of whom still treat her with the same love and affection. 

Though Shantiji's effort has always been to present Ammi in as true a light as possible, she has done so with love and caring and a tremendous sense of pride for a woman who rose from humble beginnings to conquer the world of music. It would have been far easier for Shantiji to remain quiet and let these events slip into oblivion, but it goes to her credit that she has taken up the challenge to put it down on paper. It has been a tightrope walk for her to talk at length on some of the more controversial issues concerned with Ammi's life. And she puts it very elegantly when she says that there were some things she just didn't dare discuss with Ammi!


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