Monday, April 28, 2008

How the Begum trumped the Nawab

Kumar Mukherjee (died: 2007) was, for several decades, one of the most influential members of Calcutta’s music “establishment”. In 2006, Penguin Books published a book titled “The lost world of Hindustani music”, under his authorship. For those interested in Hindustani music, the book is a highly readable cocktail of dramatized history, memoir, musicology, critical writing, known myth, and unverifiable anecdote.

According to Mukherjee, Nawab Raza Ali Khan of Rampur, whose own musical skills and discernment were dubious, continued his legendary father, Hamid Ali Khan’s patronage of classical music. One of his remarkable practices was to offer generous inducements to musicians under his patronage to become his “ganda-bandh” (ceremonially initiated) disciples. Apparently, even the redoubtable Ahmedjan Thirakva succumbed to the Nawab’s guiles, as did several others of considerable stature. But, according to Mukherjee (Pg.143-144), Begum Akhtar, the queen of Ghazal and Thumree, made the Nawab pay dearly for his misguided enthusiasm. The context was, no doubt, a little more complicated.


One gathers that the Nawab fell so deeply in love with Akhtaribai Faizabadi, that he carried her off to his palace and held her in luxurious imprisonment for many years. To quote Sheila Dhar (Kairana vocalist, socialite, and author), once again, she was endowed with gifts and allowed to wear the priceless heirlooms of the state, including a “Satlada”, a seven-stringed pearl necklace. The Nawab was rumored to have said openly that the only thing brighter than the seven diamond pendants of the famous necklace was Akhtaribai’s smile. However, his fixation soon made her claustrophobic, and she began to resent her golden cage.

Partly as revenge, and partly as a game to test her power, she ordered coins to be struck in her name and had them embossed with her profile. She thought it was time to bring matters to a head and this seemed a stylish way of doing just that. When the Nawab’s intense devotion began to turn into displeasure with what she steadfastly regarded as nothing more than a lark, her mood changed to one of anger. She expressed it by decamping with the necklace, no doubt, to teach him a lesson.

The Nawab’s men were dispatched in hot pursuit, but could not find her anywhere because she immediately stopped singing publicly and went underground. When she emerged years later, it was as Begum Akhtar, the respectable wife of a barrister from an eminent family of Lucknow. The protection of such a husband made all the difference. The wild and outdated allegations of the princely state now seemed absurd.


Mukherjee neither vouches for the story, nor dismisses it. Nor does he report any attempts at verification. But he gives it credence by being broadly sympathetic to both parties. His impartiality is reasonable. But, the implicit acceptance of the story’s veracity is disturbing. The attribution to Sheila Dhar does not quite absolve him, because its inclusion in the book appears to endorse its veracity. The issue of veracity is important because formidable reputations are involved. When Mukherjee was writing, the participants in the drama had been gone for a long time. Since his writing, Mukherjee has passed on, and so has Sheila Dhar. The story is now in the realm of unverifiable anecdote, which the gullible could unwittingly respect as history.

Begum Akhtar’s posthumous stature may, or may not, be affected by this reportage. But, Mukherjee’s certainly will. I make this observation with some sadness because I had known Mukherjee since I was a teenager (mid 1960’s), as he was my father’s colleague in government service. I admired him for his erudition and his passion for music, while he encouraged me in my artistic pursuits. He needed neither his musicianship, nor penmanship to live comfortably, though he was more than competent with both. His surrender to salacious gossip is a warning to every writer against the temptations that lie along his path.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2007

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