The Lonely Ghazal Queen: Begum Akhtar

October 7, 2014

A tribute on her Birth Centenary, October 7

Begum AkhtarA legend in her lifetime, who achieved enormous fame at a very young age, and gave joy to millions of listeners of many generations, including doyens like Mehdi Hasan, Talat Mahmood, Madan Mohan, Pt. Jasraj and Pt. Ravi Shankar, Begum Akhtar’s own life seems to be full of sorrow, pain, abusive relationships, betrayal by people she loved and a deep melancholy. She was born on 7 October 1914 (as Bibbi, along with her twin sister Anwari) to a court singer, Mushtari Bai at Faizabad (UP) and Asghar Ali, a civil judge in Lucknow. Mushtari Bai’s singing was causing a strain in the conservative Muslim family of her husband, and soon after the birth of the daughters, the marriage broke apart.

Subsequently, the child Anwari (some accounts mention her name as Zohra) died of suspected poisoning by the relatives of Mushtari’s huband’s family. This completely broke down all relationships between the two families. Thus, Akhtari was brought up as a single child under severe hardship by a single mother. Mushtari Bai did not want her daughter to go through the same life, and wanted for her proper education and marriage into a respectable family. But a spirited child, Akhtari could not be caged. She detested classes, loved songs of stage and films. Her maternal uncle convinced Mushtari Bai to groom her as a singer.

Thus started a long series of her training under various gurus at many places. After early training under Ustad Imdad Khan of Patna, a famous sarangi player and Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Khan of Gaya, the family came back to Faizabad in 1923, when her training started in right earnest under Ustad Atta Mohammad Khan. Around 1927, the mother-daughter with the Guru shifted to Calcutta, which was then the music capital of India. There at a music conference organised for collecting funds for Bihar earthquake victims, absence of a scheduled top classical singer created a lot of chaos. Ustad Atta Mohammd Khan suggested to the organizers to give her disciple a chance. As she sang her first ghazal, the crowd was spellbound. By the time she finished four ghazals and five daadras, a new musical sensation had been born. Among the appreciative audience was Sarojini Naidu. (Some accounts mention that this conference was for flood victims. ‘Earthquake’ or ‘flood’ is not merely a matter of detail, it has some significance – see Notes at the end.)

Her first recording for HMV – a mix of ghazals and daadras – brought her fame and many offers from music companies, theatre and films. The East India Company of Calcutta gave her roles in Ek Din Ka Baadshah, Nal Damyanti (1933), Ameena, Mumtaz Begum (1934), Jawani Ka Nasha (1935), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1936) etc. None of these films survive, but later she was called by Mehboob Khan to Bombay, where she acted in his landmark film Roti (1942), opposite Chandramohan and other co-stars, Shekh Mukhtar and Sitara Devi. This film is available on YT in excellent condition, but her six songs were removed because of some contractual issues with the Megaphone Record Company. Their audio was released later and is available here. In Panna Dai (1945) she sang two songs which became quite famous.

Meanwhile, she returned to Lucknow in 1942, where her training in classical music resumed under the great exponent of Kirana gharana, Ustad Wahid Khan. Her marriage in 1945 to a reputed Barrister of Lucknow, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, Nawab of Kakoli, transformed her from Akhtaribai to Begum Akhtar, but it came at a great price to her. Here onwards, the accounts differ. But, whether it was on her own volition to lead a life of quiet domesticity, or demanded by the barrister, or implicitly expected by his aristocratic family, her singing career stopped completely. In five years, she felt stifled and suffered serious bouts of depression. Doctors convinced the family that only music could cure her. When she returned to AIR for a recording she could not hold back her tears. Then started her comeback to concerts and public performances to tremendous acclaim. After a long gap, she sang playback in Daana Pani (1953) and Ehsaan (1954). She played a cameo role of a classical singer in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), which turned out to be her last film appearance.

Music remained her life till her very end, even when she was in poor health. She suffered her third heart attack during a concert in Ahmedabad on 26 October 1974. She could not recover and passed away within four days on 30 October 1974.

Though trained in classical music by the greatest exponents, she chose ghazal, thumri, daadra and light classical for her expression, because these forms gave her the opportunity to explore the poetry and the words and convey emotions. Her training and inner empathy elevated her ghazal singing to the level of high art at par with classical concerts. Besides the renowned poets, the lesser known poets became famous when she chose their ghazal to sing. Here is my tribute to Begum Akhtar on her birth centenary (October 7) with her best non-film ghazals, which made her the Malika-e-ghazal.

1. Kuchh to duniya ki inaayat ne dil tod diya, lyrics Sudarshan ‘Fakir’

Stories have been written about her Deewana banana hi to (see the Notes at the end), but the ghazal which seems to tell her story is my top favourite Kuchh to duniya ki inaayat, in which Begum Akhtar pours out all her inner emotions. Rains bring cheer to people (Remember उमड़ घुमड़ कर छाई रे घटा?), but to some Aayi barsaat to barsaat dil tod diya.  Sudarshan ‘Fakir’ wrote another ghazal for Begum Akhtar on the same tune – Ishq mein ghairat-e-jazbaat ne rone na diya.

कुछ तो दुनिया की इनायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया
और कुछ तल्खि-ए-हालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

हम तो समझे थे कि बरसात में बरसेगी शराब
आई बरसात तो बरसात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

दिल तो रोता रहे और आँख से आंसू ना बहे
इश्क़ की ऐसी रवायात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

वो मेरे हैं मुझे मिल जायेंगे आ जायेंगे
ऐसे बेकार खयालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया

आपको प्यार है मुझसे कि नहीं है मुझसे
जाने क्यों ऐसे सवालात ने दिल तोड़ दिया


2. Wo jo hum mein tum mein qaraar tha tumhein yad ho ki na yaad ho, lyrics Momin


3. Tabiyat in dino begana-e-gham hoti jati hai

A stage comes when one becomes inured to pain. When Begum Akhtar becomes बेगाना-ए-ग़म, there is no bitterness or complaint. Her voice is calm, and you see a flicker of smile on her face when she sings मेरे हिस्से की गोया हर खुशी कम होती जाती है or वही है शम्मा लेकिन रोशनी कम होती जाती है.


4. Koi ummeed bar nahi aati, lyrics Ghalib

There were moments of hopelessness in the life of Ghalib. Can you think of any other singer who could sing कोई सूरत नज़र नहीं आती better than Begum Akhtar?


5. Ab to yahi hain dil se duaayein bhoolane wale bhool hi jaayein

When the lover who has moved away, it is time to move on.  The best one can do is to wish that he completely forgets.


6. Koi kah de gulshan gulshan, lyrics Jigar Moradabadi


7. Aaye kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aaye, lyrics Faiz Ahmad ‘Faiz’

Begum Akhtar loved her drink. Let the clouds come, after that let the wine come. Thereafter, who cares if misfortunes come. The leftist, revolutionary poet, Faiz wrote some outstanding romantic poetry too. When Begum Akhtar sings Faiz, the effect is magical.

आये कुछ अब्र कुछ शराब आये
उसके बाद आये जो अज़ाब आये

बाम-ए-मीना से माहताब उतरे
दस्त-ए-साक़ी में आफताब आये

हर रग-ए-खून में फिर चरागां हो
सामने फिर वो बेनक़ाब आये

कर रहा था ग़म-ए-जहां का हिसाब
आज तुम याद बेहिसाब आये

जल उठे बज़्म-ए-ग़ैर के दामन
जब भी हम खानुमां खराब आये

फ़ैज़ की राह सरबसर मंज़िल
हम जहाँ पहुंचे कामयाब आये


8. Kis se poochhein humne kahaan wo chehara ye roshan dekha hai, lyrics Taskeen Qureshi (?)

Begum Akhtar lived life to the full. With her friends she would let herself go, drinking and smoking without inhibitions. Therefore, there is a gentle challenge in her voice when she sings मेरा तड़पना देखनेवाले अपना भी दामन देखा है?


9. Mere hamnafas mere humnawaan mere dost banke dagaa na de, lyrics Shakeel Badayuni

It may or may not work, but you do not refrain from beseeching the object of your love, who has showed signs of wavering, not to betray you. There is complete sincerity in the voice of Begum Akhtar.


10. Ae mere mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aya, lyrics Shakeel Badayuni

Finally, everyone is not lucky in love. All the pleadings must have failed. We started with the lady not being able to cry (रोने ना दिया), now there is unabashed admission of रोना आया. I end with what has become her signature ghazal, written by Shakeel Badayuni, which again seems to mirror her own inner feelings. As the story goes, she was singing this ghazal, when she collapsed at the concert at Ahmedabad.

ऐ मोहब्बत तेरे अंजाम पे रोना आया
जाने क्यूं आज तेरे नाम पे रोना आया

यूं तो हर शाम उम्मीदों में गुज़र जाती थी
आज कुछ बात है जो शाम पे रोना आया

कभी तक़दीर का मातम कभी दुनिया का गिला
मंज़िल-ए-इश्क़ में हर ग़ाम पे रोना आया

जब हुआ ज़िक्र ज़माने में मोहब्बत का शकील
मुझको अपने दिल-ए-नाकाम पे रोना आया




1.    Sutapa Mukhejee: Begum Akhtar: The Queen of Ghazal
2.    Sheila Dhar: Raga n’ Josh
3.    Rita Ganguly’s interview to The Telegraph: Loneliness was Begum Akhtar’s constant companion
4.    Films Division documentary on her life.
5.    Pt Jasraj presents his favourite Begum Akhtar songs



1. Some details of Begum Akhtar’s life and career are shrouded in confusion. Whether her first public concert in Calcutta was for Bihar ‘earthquake’ or ‘flood’ victims makes a vital difference. The earthquake in 1934 was one of the major natural disasters in history, whereas floods in Bihar are an annual occurrence, some years being more severe than others. Therefore, a concert to raise funds for ‘Bihar earthquake’ victims seems more likely. That would put Begum Akhtar’s age at the time of her first concert at 20, an early enough age to cause a sensation.

2. ‘Flood’ allows more flexibility in ascribing greater antiquity to her first fame. Rita Ganguly, whose interview has been linked above, is her disciple and first-hand biographer (“Ae mohabbat..Reminiscing Begum Akhtar”). She asserts that her first concert was in 1925 (at the age of 11), where her rendering of Deewana banana hai to deewana banan de stole the hearts of the audience. Its records (by HMV or Megaphone? – accounts vary) were a spectacular success, running into platinum disc. The record company had to set up a separate plant at Dum Dum (Calcutta).

3. As an aside, the Bihar earthquake comes for an interesting reference in the history of our national movement. Gandhiji described it as God’s punishment for the practise of untouchability. Tagore took issues with him, publicly terming his views irrational and insensitive to the victims.  A major problem with Gandhij’s interpretation is that among the people who perished were also thousands who were victims of the social evil for which God inflicted His curse.

4. None of the versions of Deewana banana hai we have heard on records or on the radio is in the voice of an eleven year old child. If her commercial record was cut in 1925, the company would have released it at some stage for its legacy value. For example, when HMV released its 4-pack ‘Swaranjali’ as a homage to Pt Kumar Gandharva, it also contained his singing as a child in Bhairavi (Kaahe ko jhooti banaao batiyan), Mishra Kafi (Aaj kaisi Brij mein), Bageshree (Gunth laao ri malaniya) and Ramkali (Sagari rain ki jaagi). Some of his renderings as a child artiste are now available on YT.  Master Madan’s songs clearly show the voice of a child below 14.  Begum Akhtar at 11 would have sounded very different from what we are familiar with in Deewana banana hai to.

5. Her biographies describe a divine blessing to Deewana banana hai to. As the stories go, Mushtaribai, troubled by Akhtari’s desire to become a musician, took her to a Sufi Pir at Bareilly Sharif and asked him whether she should marry her off or allow her to become a singer. The Pir asked Akhtari to open a page of her favourite book of lyrics. The page she opened had Behzad Lakhanavi’s ghazal, Deewana banana hai to. The Pir asked her to begin her next performance with this ghazal. And the rest as they say is history.

6. The tune of Deewana banana hai to was used in Rahne laga hai dil mein adhera tere bagair in Roti (1942), composed by Anil Biswas for Begum Akhtar, who was the singer-actor in the film. The same tune had also been used a year earlier in Pahle jo mohabbat se inkaar kiya hota for Khursheed in Pardesi (1941), composed by Khemchand Prakash. Incidentally, 2014 happens to be the Centenary Year of Anil Biswas and Khursheed too. Interesting connection this. These songs have been included earlier in SoY in the Inaugural post on Anil Biswas and in Songs of Atariya.

7.  Ashok D. Ranade in his celebrated book Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries writes that Pahle jo mohabbat se inkaar kiya hota  ‘anticipated’ Deewana banana hai to.  This would put Deewana banana hai to post-1941.  Another twist in the tail.  But, while Dr Ranade is a respected scholar, the book has some factual inaccuracies.


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 dustedoff October 7, 2014 at 10:48 am

Thank you for this, AK. Made for very good reading – I knew nothing about Begum Akhtar’s life, so that was particularly interesting (and sad, in a way – but then, Hain sabse madhur woh geet jinhe…, I suppose?)

I had had no idea that six of Begum Akhtar’s songs had been cut out of Roti. What a pity. I really liked that film a lot; I thought it had a brilliantly surreal yet hard-hitting quality to it that made it a more enduring film than many which followed. It doesn’t show its age as much as other films.

2 Sonal October 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm

As usual Brilliant Stuff – Thanks a lot, will share this article link with Begum Akhtar Fans 🙂

3 AK October 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Thanks a lot for your compliments. Many artistes had a sad life for various reasons, but I feel particularly sad if the reason was gender. Sometime back, Annapurna Devi chose to go public about her pain – she is often mentioned as being more talented than Ravi Shankar. This spawned some articles about other female artistes, such as Dhondutai Kulkarni (sole disciple of Kesarbai Kerkar), Shruti Sadolikar etc. Either they had to sacrifice their career, or had to be immensely lucky in marriage to get a supportive husband and family.

I remember Begum Akhtar did sing a few lines while going out with Chandramohan in a car. When I first saw Roti, I had an irreverent thought. What about an alternative title for the film? ‘Mehboob Khan’s Socialism Made Easy‘- poor good, rich bad; village good, city bad; socialism good, capitalism bad etc. Rarely you would find a more black and white film. I hope I am not offending anyone.

4 AK October 7, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Thanks a lot. I would love to have feedback from fans and experts, because as you would have noticed, there are many gaps and discrepancies in her story.

5 mumbaikar8 October 7, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Begum Akhtar’s singing, has some divinity, some kashish that cannot be described
sirf mahsoos kar sakte hai.
Thanks for taking us through the divine experience on this day.
My tribute to the legend!
Who is the lyricist of Song # 3 Tabiyat in dino begana-e-gham hoti jati hai?
A feature on Begum Akhtar throwing some light on her personal as well as professional life.

6 arvindersharma October 7, 2014 at 9:01 pm

AK Ji,
Another superb job and congratulations once again.
Begum Akhtar gave ghazal singing one more dimension, after passing away of Sehgal.
Mere words cannot describe the passion of her singing.
My favorite ;
Door Hai Manzil Rahen Mushkil | Ghazal Song | Beg…:

The lyricist of Ghazal, ‘Tabiyat in Dino’ is Jigar Muradabadi. Here is the Ghazal.
Begum Akhtar Video – 132 Tabiyat in dinon:

7 AK October 7, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Thanks a lot for your kind words, and the beautiful link on her life you have added. It is one of the best I have seen on her. It gives bites of her all the famous songs.

Thanks a lot for your appreciation and the ghazal you have mentioned. I am hearing it for the first time.

8 Kalyan Kamal Roy October 7, 2014 at 10:41 pm

Dear Writer,
I found this piece of article to be extremely authentic to facts and with soulful touches of music. Very few articles concerning Indian Music can match this.
Extremely well written and well documented.

9 mumbaikar8 October 7, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Thanks for sharing the information.

10 AK October 7, 2014 at 11:37 pm

Kalyan Kumar Roy,
Welcome to Songs of Yore, and thanks a lot for your appreciation.

11 Jignesh Kotadia October 8, 2014 at 2:12 am

A very happy birth century wish to this devine voice.

Nice recollection of the life and music of the great artist, Ak ji. Thanx for this tougher work. I have still not heard any nonfilm songs of her, obviously not any from ur list, but i will cover them in future. My only hearings of Begum Akhtar to date are those 6 terrific songs from film ‘Roti’. And what a brilliant singing that is ! …. Rahene laga hai dil men andhera tere baghair …. Ae prem teri balihaari hai… Woh hans rahe hai, aah kiye jaa raha hu main, haye patthar se dil me raah kiye jaa raha hu main ….Wahwahwah kya gaayki hai … This genre of singing definitely recalls the prodigy Master Madan… ”Haìrat se tak raha hai jahaan e wafa mujhe,, tumne bana diya hai muhabbat me kya mujhe..’ Aahaha…kya gaata hai yeh chhokra !! Afsos … He left us so quickly…

12 Soumya October 8, 2014 at 6:22 am

What a lovely article! I enjoyed the first two ghazals so much that I listened to them several times. I wish we could have heard her and Kesarbai when they were young. Perhaps the reason we find Begum Akhtar’s renditions so poignant is that she went through a lot in her life. Singing was a tough profession for women in those days. Ok, back to listening.

13 AK October 8, 2014 at 6:34 am

I can’t believe you have not heard Begum Akhtar so far. If you are so impressed by her songs in Roti, you would be mesmerised by her real songs – ghazal, thumri and daadra.

14 AK October 8, 2014 at 6:35 am

Thanks a lot. Happy listening!

15 Soumya October 8, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Here are a few of her Bengali songs:

16 Soumya October 8, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Sorry, could not help posting another song Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat in Maru Behag. This has to be near the top of my list.

17 AK October 9, 2014 at 6:53 am

Thanks a lot for the link of her Bengali songs. I especially liked Phiraye dido na more (Bhimpalasi?)

18 Hans October 9, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Great article. I have no words. I am a fan of SOY because of such articles. I can fully understand the wholesome effort behind collecting the information for the article.

I think there would be nobody who loves music, would not love Begum Akhtar’s singing. The songs are all great and no.6 was new to me. I remember in the good old days of Radio there used to be a program of non-film songs around noon on selected days. Begum Akhtar was present almost in every edition of that program. I remember that her ghalib ghazal ‘ibne mariyam hua kare koi’ was very popular, so I give its link. This is perhaps composed by Khayyam.

There is another ghalib ghazal ‘dil hi to hai na sang-0-khisht’. The tune at the start of this ghazal is quite different from all the other compositions of this ghazal.

Your notes are also very informative. I have very closely followed the rivalry between Gandhi and Tagore, which started right from the non-cooperation movement. Besides the Bihar earthquake, Tagore took him on about Gandhi calling Rammohan and Tilak as pygmies, his ‘charkha for swaraj’ his fasts – particularly his May 1933 fast. And Tagore was always right. Everybody knows about Tagore’s poetic and story writing skills, but his essays are just stupendous.

19 AK October 9, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Thanks a lot for your kind words. Readers like you also make my task very challenging.

I like Ibne Mariam hua kare koi a lot. The other ghazal too is very nice. Her Ye na thi hamaari qismat which Soumya has linked also follows a very different tune from others we are familiar with.

Tagore-Gandhi love-hate is interesting. They anointed each other ‘Mahatma’ and ‘Gurudev’. The fast you are talking about, Gandhiji was forced to be on the defensive. He had to explain it on some metaphysical terms – self-purification etc.

20 N Venkataraman October 14, 2014 at 11:33 am

I am late in conveying my tributes to Begum Akhtar on her Birth Centenary. A befitting tribute indeed. Needles to say it is always a delight to listen to the songs of this legendary singer. SoY started the year with a tribute to Anil Biswas where you had presented two of her songs from Roti. Then you paid rich tributes to her in your article Songs of Atariya , where two of her NF songs were posted . And now a full length post on her NF songs. Thanks for yet another wonderful write-up.

I had the opportunity to listen to her live at the Thyagaraja Hall which is located in the same street where I reside. I was in my mid teens then. I think that was Begum Akhtar’s last live performance in Calcutta.

After her untimely death in 1974, whichever Puja pandal that I visited that year were playing Begum Akhtar’s Bengali songs- Koyaliya Gaan Thama ebaar, E mousume paradeshe, chupi chupi chale na giye, Phire keno elo na etc.

Thanks to Mumbaikar8 for giving the link to the feature on Begum Akhtar, Soumya ji, Sharma ji and Hans ji for the additional songs. All that came out of her throat and soul was nothing but perfection. Her singing defied description.

Let me add a few numbers to the excellent selection of yours and others. Kaisee ye dhoom machaee is one of my favourites . Most of SoY members must have heard it several times. Yet I would like to add this Hori Thumri. There is a similar song of this genre, Jab Se Shyam Sidhare rendered by Begum Akhtar.

Kaisee ye dhoom machaee with an introduction by Pandit Jasraj

a Ghazal, Khuda Ke Waste Ab Berukhi Se Kaam Na Le, lyrics Sahir Bhopali.

and finally a Naat, Tu Hi Bharosa Tu Hi Sahara O Parvardigara

Thanks once again.

21 AK October 14, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Her two Shyam songs are my great favourites too. The ghazal Khuda ke waste was new to me. The Naat Tu hi bharosa sounded familiar, but thanks for refreshing my memory. It is an outstanding song.

22 mumbaikar8 October 30, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Heard this rare ( no need to say beautiful) Begum Akhtar ghazal, the famous saying “majboori ka naam Mahamta Gandhi” is nicely used in a sher.
jhunjalaye hai lajaye hai phir muskuraye hai

23 AK October 30, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Nice one. Thanks.

24 Neeru October 31, 2014 at 8:31 am

I have been reading your blog off and on for almost a year and thoroughly enjoying it. I stumbled on it while looking for film songs based on raags. While one of your readers has not heard her non film songs, I am the opposite. I have heard a lot of her ghazals but not the ones from Roti, so that is what I will do. A very informative article. Thoroughly enjoying listening to her all over again.
While I do like her ” wo Jo hum mein tum mein qaraar Tha” very much, I also like Nayyara Noor’s rendition.

25 AK October 31, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Thanks a lot for your nice words. I hope you are able to spend more time with SoY.

Begum Akhtar was hardly a film singer. If someone knew her film songs, but not NFS, it is really surprising. I came to know of her film songs in the Internet era.

26 kanti mohan sharma December 25, 2014 at 6:31 am

‘dil to rota hai’ should be replaced with ‘dil to rota rahe’.

27 AK December 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Kanti Mohan Sharma,
Thanks a lot for your correction. I have carried it out.

28 SYED HASNAIN NASIR NAQVI March 12, 2015 at 11:35 am

dil bagh bagh ho gya

29 Pulak Dasgupta June 10, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Really it is a big work on our beloved Akhtariji. Thank u.

30 AK June 10, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Welcome to SoY. I am happy you enjoyed it.

31 pulak July 20, 2016 at 8:53 pm

sir ji बहुत ढूँढने पर भी बेगम अख्तर की गजल रहे आशिकी के मारे के lyrics नहीं मिल रहे हैं। अगर आप बता सके तो शुक्रगुजार होंगे

32 AK July 20, 2016 at 10:03 pm

Welcome to SoY. I would look for it. Do you mean ग़म-ए-आशिकी से कह दो?

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