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Queer notes on Begum Akhtar

In 1949, when Begum Akhtar sang in a national broadcast of All India Radio (AIR), she was an instant hit. Born in 1914 to a tawaif (courtesan) mother, she performed in her first formal concert in 1934 as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi. She sang in elite gatherings, in royal courts, and performed in Bombay films. Her transition from Akhtari Bai into Begum Akhtar began when she married an English-educated barrister from Lucknow – an event considered both a scandal and a miracle by wider society. Her husband made only one condition: that she would not perform in public, a condition to which she readily agreed. But five years into the marriage, Begum Akhtar experienced mental health issues and her condition deteriorated rapidly. Doctors advised her husband that she might survive if she were allowed to sing. Her 1949 performance at AIR Lucknow met with great success, and as long as she lived, success followed her. She died in 1974, a few hours after performing in a private gathering in Ahmedabad, leaving behind a rich legacy of ghazal and thumri genres of singing associated with tawaif kothas, or salons. By reinventing these genres, and bringing them from kothas to the respectability of AIR and concert halls, Begum Akhtar gave them dignity. One cannot give any account of twentieth-century ghazal and thumri singing without invoking her name.

A closer examination of Begum Akhtar’s life and music, focusing on the genres of thumri and ghazal and their intersections with queerness in the context of caste and sexuality in postcolonial India, reveals that her life has been unwittingly connected to larger forces of modernity and contemporary popular culture.

Tawaif subculture and colonial entanglement

Gender-based discrimination runs deep in society, but in the field of music, such discrimination runs even deeper and manifests in complicated ways. The hold of dhrupad over Indian classical music was such that male dhrupad singers fiercely opposed even khayal when it first appeared in India. Khayal singers introduced a strong imaginative component to the highly structured dhrupad form, which was initially resented by dhrupad singers. However, with time, khayal established itself as a classical genre. Not only did women hold subordinate positions in the traditional gharana structure, upper-caste male singers believed that only men could sing classical forms like dhrupad and khayal as it required physical strength and intelligence that only they possessed. They viewed thumri and ghazal, often sung by tawaifs, as inferior forms of music. Nineteenth and twentieth-century reformers actively denigrated tawaifs’ music because of its semantic content and its emphasis on erotic fantasy that gave thumri its extra-musical meaning – in sharp contrast to dhrupad, whose structure often organises desire and regulates the mind. Unlike classical forms, thumri invites the listener to wander into non-normative and thus ‘dangerous’ spaces devoid of the rules that structure society. Therefore, when the British criminalised tawaifs, upper-caste reformers followed suit and enforced British laws and values far more resolutely than the British ever did. Consequently, tawaifs had almost disappeared by the time India gained independence. Only in Bombay films did tawaifs figure, but in a way that further maligned them.

Unbound by dominant rules, kotha spaces tend to be fluid and inclusive and thus more tolerant of social misfits who are now termed as ‘queer’.

Unlike home-bound upper-caste women, elite tawaifs were free from the restraints of conventional patriarchal norms, creating art and pursuing pleasure and wealth. However, in popular discourse (particularly film), tawaifs were predominantly presented as forlorn figures, always seeking or destroying marriages by seducing men. Such selective anti-tawaif representations are connected to both colonialism and Brahminism. If the British saw tawaifs as disruptive figures, Indian upper-caste reformers perceived them as fallen women. However, the same reformers narrated nartakis, the tawaif-like figures who appeared in pre-modern Sanskrit texts as goddesses, as Brahminic cultural icons in order to serve the project of nation-building. Ironically, in their attempt to empower women, they were censuring tawaifs who were already empowered. The music reformer V N Bhatkhande never invited tawaifs to his renowned music conferences. In the 1950s, AlR introduced a ban on “anyone whose private life is a public scandal,” which was, in effect, a ban on tawaifs.

Despite the collective hostility tawaifs faced, they adapted quickly to changing circumstances at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1902, when gramophone companies came to India, tawaifs were the only performers who could fulfill their demands. Even mediocre tawaifs had the opportunity to record songs. Technology changed the structure of entertainment. By the 1930s, tawaif kothas, where tawaifs collaborated with poets, musicians, composers, and patrons to produce and disseminate art, were replaced by film and recording studios. However, what goes unacknowledged is that tawaifs contributed immensely as performers and entrepreneurs. Most iconic actresses and playback singers in early Indian cinema were either tawaifs or from tawaif backgrounds. These seismic changes seriously disrupted the tawaif subculture, but they also created heterogeneously productive spaces. In a perverse way, the stage was set for Begum Akhtar to appear. Like elite tawaifs before her, she not only sang for the recording companies, she took them by storm.

A cultural icon

No account of ghazal or thumri singing can be given without invoking Begum Akhtar’s name. She sang in places that mattered and touched many hearts. Although a tawaif in her early life, she was never a stranger to high society. Her listeners were wealthy but also connoisseurs of music. Even today those who listen to her are the cultural elite. Yet, she became a national icon. If she impacted the elite directly, she indirectly entered the collective psyche of many across the Subcontinent. She acted in popular films in her early career, and then left. However, filmmakers nevertheless continued to use her persona, image, and voice. Begum Akhtar’s voice is used in recognisable ways to evoke certain genres of singing, attire, manner of speaking, and dance forms, to render spaces such as kothas visible. In Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 classic romantic drama Pakeezah, the tawaif kotha comes alive not when we see Meena Kumari on the screen talking to her female friend, but in a previous scene when we hear Begum Akhtar’s song mildly floating in the background. The politically astute use of Begum Akhtar’s voice serves a very specific function as it evokes a certain milieu associated with tawaifs and Muslim culture. However, one cannot fully determine how the viewer or listener would respond to the voice. Having worked with ace directors like Mehboob Khan and Satyajit Ray and with music directors like Madan Mohan, she never really liked acting and returned to Lucknow to sing – her real calling. However, filmmakers never forgot her. Satyajit Ray cast her in the 1958 film Jalsaghar. Her presence in films or on the stage and her voice via All India Radio had an electrifying effect on her listeners. There was hardly any radio station in the country where Begum Akhtar did not perform.

Despite the collective hostility tawaifs faced, they adapted quickly to changing circumstances at the turn of the twentieth century.

Films, radio stations, and concert halls were not the only spaces that captured Begum Akhtar’s aura and voice. The written word played an important role in highlighting her musical genius, wit, and intelligence. Vikram Seth portrays a figure like Begum Akhtar in his celebrated novel A Suitable Boy, and Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali dedicated his poems to her. Shahid, in particular, revered Begum Akhtar, which manifests most poignantly in Amitav Ghosh’s essay “The Ghat of the Only World,” published upon Shahid’s passing at the age of 52. Intriguingly, people who commemorated Begum Akhtar were other musicians, poets, and intellectuals. Most writings on Begum Akhtar were firsthand accounts that lent them immense credibility. However, some of her enthusiasts never knew her in person. For example, poet and music scholar Yatindra Mishra, born in 1974 to the Banaras royal family, talked about Begum Akhtar with deep familiarity as though he knew her. Mishra’s familiarity comes from family narratives. Begum Akhtar often visited his family, where she was praised for her singing and for sharing her knowledge of fashion and the outside world with the homebound royal women. Many of Begum Akhtar’s disciples recall her similarly, revealing her charming personality, generosity, and even volatile temperament.

Strikingly, Begum Akhtar almost single-handedly changed the nineteenth and early twentieth-century anti-tawaif discourse. Ironically, if today we remember royals or landed gentry, we often do so in the context of Begum Akhtar’s life.

Queer spaces

Due to India’s size, various deep pasts, and resilient subcultures, not every externally formed theory resonates throughout the country; this applies to both postcolonial and queer theories. While queer theory has decisively shaped the lives of urban queer people and created queer spaces and cultures, its effect has not percolated everywhere. Begum Akhtar created not just syncretic spaces, as frequently reiterated in popular discourse, but also queer spaces. It is intriguing how many young women and men followed her. Every time she visited Delhi, her young admirers surrounded her. They would listen to her elegant compositions as well as to her piquant anecdotes. These off-the-stage gatherings, warm and pleasant and anonymous, seemed to have distinct queer components. The young men who followed her were not students of music, yet they chased her, basked in her company and stayed with her as long as she wanted. Begum Akhtar let them in her inner circle because she was likely fascinated by the complete devotion these swooning and sensitive men of elite backgrounds bestowed upon her.

No account of ghazal or thumri singing can be given without invoking Begum Akhtar’s name.

Although many have talked about Begum Akhtar, no major scholarly work has been done on her, except for a few essays and memoirs. Therefore, it is difficult to read the nature of these off-the-stage mehfils or gatherings – how these spaces felt, what they discussed, what was it that drew men like Agha Shahid Ali and Saleem Kidwai to her – the young men who later went on to become her best-known acolytes. Begum Akhtar’s music was surely a great pull, but not the only cementing force. Other equally talented singers were active in the concert circuit. If they found in her something personally nourishing, she in turn found in them evolved listeners. Begum Akhtar once said ‘gale mein nahi par kan me kitna sur hai (not in the throat, but so much music in the ear), in reference to Saleem Kidwai. In retrospect, Kidwai, who later emerged as a gay historian and activist, noted in an interview published in the digital project on sex, love and desire, Agents of Ishq, that they never talked about sexuality, stressing that it was a different time; but he also asserted that she must have sensed his difference. That was a small but significant detail. It gives a glimpse into the dimensions that governed the unlikely relationships between the great singer and her young admirers. Indeed, it was first and foremost her music that gravitated these men to Begum Akhtar, but what sustained their relationships over lifetimes definitely involved some form of deep communication, of acceptance and of recognition. For any young queer person, recognition from an elder friend or colleague must have seemed precious in a society that controls even heterosexual members. Kidwai’s revelation suggests that, despite being a star performer, Begum Akhtar understood and embraced him. We also glimpse Begum Akhtar and Shahid Ali’s queer bonding in Ghosh’s essay. Once on their walk, when Begum Akhtar and Shahid met an upper-caste male musician, clad in white, Begum Akhtar complimented him for his clean and ironed white clothes, slyly alluding to his relationship with a dhobi woman. Both Shahid and Begum Akhtar laughed after the man left the scene. Such carefree banter between the young Shahid and the socially ambiguous figure were by all means unconventional acts.

Being a social outcast herself, Begum Akhtar was perhaps innately accommodating and sensitive to those who were sexual, if not social, outcasts. She ran a kotha in Lucknow – an establishment, no matter how elite and successful, marked as a marginal space in social discourse. Unbound by dominant rules, kotha spaces tend to be fluid and inclusive and thus more tolerant of social misfits who are now termed as ‘queer’. If Begum Akhtar remained a tawaif and thus a lesser person in the eyes of society, it was a misreading. Begum Akhtar’s experience with kothas and films exposed her to an array of people and sensitised her to the plurality of identities and different ways of being in the world.

Thumri and ghazal  

Begum Akhtar’s relationship with queerness also manifested in her choice of genres. She preferred singing thumri and ghazal. As Sheila Dhar notes, Begum Akhtar never once sang khayal in public though that was “the only formal training she had received”.

While all these genres have their own distinct beauty, it is intriguing how thumri and ghazal, though embedded in classical music, are stigmatised in musical discourse. Apart from the gender discrimination that initially meant these forms were seen as inferior, nineteenth and twentieth-century reformers associated these genres with tawaifs and thus with decadent Muslim culture. Indeed, many things one associates with tawaifs – their language, costumes, living spaces – were strongly influenced by external or non-Brahmin cultures, but in no way are these influences total. The genres of thumri and ghazal are a case in point. Although thumri and ghazal contained several non-Brahmin features, their internal structure remained raga-based. In other words, the grammar of these much-maligned forms, although shaped by outside influences, is inherently Indian. Instead of corrupting music, these forms enhanced and expanded the beauty and scope of Indian classical music. However, established male dhrupad singers felt threatened by these new, supposedly transgressive, forms of music that tawaifs were developing. Not only upper-caste men but also women resented tawaifs’ style of singing. The classical vocalist Mogubai Kurdikar never sang thumri in her entire career, and when a journalist asked why while interviewing her, she simply responded that she liked niyam – discipline, structure, order. Many dhrupad singers shared her view. If thumri is condemned for its form, the ghazal is criticised for its language as it takes many words from Arabic, Persian and Turkish. The opponents of ghazal ignored the fact that Urdu’s syntax mirrors that of the Hindi language, and though it adopts many features of non-Indic languages, it is native to the Subcontinent. Yet they saw the ghazal form as incendiary because it frees the expression of desire and love from cloying heteronormative strictures.

If we place Begum Akhtar in the context of these discussions, her style of singing appears subversive. Begum Akhtar did not invent thumri and ghazal, but she gave them new meaning and new ways of rendering them. She kept thumri’s sensuous and seductive stylistic motifs but altered its aesthetic goals: she gave the thumri form a new depth and classical sophistication that it may not have enjoyed earlier. Terms firmly confined to or restricted by theory, she demonstrated in practice. She made her listeners experience a parallel reality utterly disconnected from everyday life, introducing them to a new world. For those who were indeed looking for another world or a non-normative space, she created that space. It is this very disruptive potential of thumri and ghazal that scared dhrupad and other upper-caste male musicians. If dhrupad structured the world in pro-Brahminic ways, thumri and ghazal queered that world.

Seen thus, the celebration of dhrupad and fierce rejection of thumri is mainly an attempt to control sexuality. Strikingly, those who most fiercely opposed tawaifs and condemned their music as abject were musicians. They knew tawaifs’ music was raga-based, but they resented the danger these forms were posing through their explicit celebration of the erotic. If one considers the caste dimension of Indian society, which recognises only caste-mediated heterosexuality and thus is effectively anti-desire, one understands why tawaifs’ music was so furiously condemned. Therefore, it is widely known that even to this day, references to ghazal or thumri can evoke mild contempt. For example, in contrast to raga or bhajan, the names thumri and ghazal evoke a very different semantic resonance. Unlike the former, the thumri’s languorous form and the ghazal’s unmarked-by-gender poetic form take the listener into ‘unsafe’ territories where lutf (enjoyment) or rasa (pleasure) dominates.

Begum Akhtar effortlessly created pleasure-filled mental spaces via her renditions. Her brilliantly rendered thumri, ankhiyaan neend na aaye (Sleep eludes my eyes) is a great example. Even though I had listened to this thumri several times, one night while listening to it, I felt the need to write down its lyrics, and only then did I realise, to my utter surprise, that the thumri had only four lines. On each subsequent listening, I would forget it had only a few lines, which she sang for over 20 minutes. In private gatherings, she could sing such compositions for well over an hour. Recently, I mentioned this experience while presenting a paper on Indian women entertainers. An English colleague requested the link to Begum Akhtar’s thumri. I wanted to make sure what I said during my presentation was accurate because I last heard the thumri several years ago. So I listened to it again with the express intention of counting the lines. While doing so, I once again forgot to count them – such was her art. With time, listeners outgrow their favourite songs or singers, but Begum Akhtar’s renditions feel fresh and vital, unfazed by time. However, her music is demanding, it requires your full attention; one cannot casually listen to her.

Indians love music: it blares at weddings, at train stations, in buses, from temples to every corner of the market. Its presence is so pervasive that it is often not heard. This flow of sound goes unremarked, whether it is popular music or structured ragas. Intriguingly, this is not the case with thumri and ghazal: both forms invite critique and censoring. Indian parents may explicitly but inexplicably discourage their children from experiencing these forms, especially if their children immerse into and respond to these musical genres. The Brahminic culture repudiates these non-normative forms of music, not only because they have no practical use, but because they are perceived as being disruptive. Stereotypes about these forms persist. I could not connect Begum Akhtar’s marvelous thumri renditions to the common use of the term ‘thumri’ that circulates in popular culture as something cheap and vulgar. On the surface, such negative marking of thumri or ghazal may seem linked to anti-Muslim discourse. In fact, these forms are stigmatised because they embrace desire that goes against the ontology of caste.

Whose legacies

Queerness and the genres of thumri and ghazal are disavowed in similar ways. It is reiterated that both came to India from the outside. However, Indian scholars and queer theorists have demonstrated that queerness has always been part of the Indian tradition, arguing that these histories were suppressed by the Brahmin orthodoxy. Yet the notion that queerness is an import from the Global North, or that thumri and ghazal are non-Indian phenomena and therefore decadent, persists. I argue that whatever genres Begum Akhtar sang are located in the Indian tradition, without disputing the fact that these forms were shaped by outside influences. Begum Akhtar insisted that the value of any rendition depends on the lutf it creates in the listener. And if it fails to do so, it has no value, no matter what the genre is and how reputed the singer is. Her emphasis on the word lutf is no different from the word rasa that is central to Indian aesthetics. The Natyashastra, a treatise on Sanskrit drama, espouses rich commentaries on rasa. Begum Akhtar understood the centrality of rasa not only at an intellectual plane, but on a performative level: her singing embodies and enacts rasa theory. Ironically, what the culturally conservative marks as the ‘Brahmin Other’ – that is thumri and ghazal – is at the core of Brahmin tradition. Neither non-normative musical genres nor non-normative sexualities came to India from outside. Rather, they had always existed in the region.

It is intriguing how thumri and ghazal, though embedded in classical music, are stigmatised in musical discourse.

Surprisingly, it is a tawaif, the Brahminic Other, who carried forward the Indian legacy of music, effortlessly evoking rasa through her renditions, flirting with words and complicated laya patterns like no other. Begum Akhtar’s voice would glide everywhere and then arrive at the sam, or main beat of a tala, at the precise moment, to the utter delight of her listeners. Many wondered how she would return to the sam, as she seemed to recede so far from it; it seemed impossible she could land at the sam precisely. But land it she did, and at the exact moment. This mastery over notes and the tala system also surfaces in less obvious ways. In her chaiti sovath nindiya jagaye, the pace is so slow it seems free of tala. However, the tala subtly follows the rendition, and this sudden realisation delights the mind. Of course, Begum Akhtar is not alone in creating such moments, but few could create and cast such spells so effortlessly.

Begum Akhtar’s spontaneity manifests in unusual ways. When the Urdu poet Jan Nissar Akhtar met Begum Akhtar for the first time he complained that she never sang his poetry to which she promptly replied that he had never written any for her. The gifted poet immediately wrote one and the talented singer sang it on the spot, shocking and delighting the poet and the audience. In The Cooking of Music (2001), Sheila Dhar gives powerful insight into the kind of artist Begum Akhtar was:

“I dropped in to see her in her hotel room just before the concert. She was casually talking to the small group of close associates who had come to escort her to the concert hall about the ragas that she had decided would be suitable for the mood of each of the ghazals: Chayanat, Kedar, Darbari, and Khamaj. There was a cry of approval from all present. However, when she began her recital an hour later, her feelings had changed completely. She sang all four ghazals in Bhairavi, each different from the other and each outstanding! We were all dumbfounded.”

Begum Akhtar’s unique musical temperament – and her utter indifference to sentimentality and the pressure to sound ‘sweet’ – allowed her to produce such stunning and resilient effects that they captivate her listeners even today. One cannot fully explain how she could so seamlessly grab established musical forms and shake them into something utterly fresh and delightful. If she imbued empty spaces with pleasure while flirting with form, her expertise and immersion was so complete that it did not surprise the listener if she frequently struck pure notes that dispelled the darkness imposed on listeners by dominant norms. She freed listeners and shut down the blaring world with its insistent demands.


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