MEHRU JAFFER | 10 APRIL, 2017
The 64th National Film Awards have just been announced for the best in Indian cinema, and Lucknow is thrilled. The city is thrilled because Zikr Uss Parivash Ka, a documentary on the life of the legendary vocalist Begum Akhtar has won this year's best biographical/historical reconstruction award, and Uttar Pradesh is selected by the jury as the most film friendly state.
Produced by New Delhi's Sangeet Natak Academy Zikr Us Parivash Ka, is a film that all admirers of Lucknow's angel faced nightingale can be proud of. For director Nirmal Chander's treatment of his subject is as poetic as Begum Akhtar's music. Chander has allowed the camera to generously unfold colourful incidents from Begum Akhtar's life through imaginatively composed images, and mysterious lighting. It is the camera that will walk viewers back into time to the birth place of the vocalist in Faizabad where few residents today have little, or no memory of Begum Akhtar.
The best part of the film is zero intrusion in the narrative by the voice over of a stranger. Instead viewers are invited to get intimate with the subject by listening to her story in her own words found in recordings pulled out from archives. This makes Zikr Us Parivash Ka an extremely wholesome cinematic experience.
Chander in fact is quite a master in making charming films. One of his earlier film Dreaming Taj Mahal is about a taxi driver from Pakistan whose sole interest in India is to see the Taj Mahal. Inspired by a true incident, Dreaming Taj Mahal smacks also of hope that great walls instilling fear and hatred amongst human beings will crumble away into dust one day.
Born in 1914 as Akhtari Bai to a small time tawaif, or courtesan Begum Akhtar was abandoned by her father, a well known lawyer. That rejection by a parent remained the greatest sorrow of Akhtari Bai's life and pathos managed to seep into every song that she sang. Her training in song and dance was rigorous. At a tender age Akhtari was sent to learn music in Kolkata and she had supported her mother with her singing and dancing in Lucknow.
Her abundant beauty and talent was noticed by Mehboob Khan and Satyajit Ray and she was invited to act in films like Jalsagar and Roti. But at the peak of her career, Akhtari Bai was recalled back to Lucknow by her paranoid mother who may have feared that her only daughter was leading a life in Mumbai that was too independent for her liking.
To escape her dominating mother, the vocalist married a leading lawyer in Lucknow. After her marriage into an elite family, she was respectably addressed as Begum Akhtar. She moved out of her mother's home near the China Gate into a more leafy neighbourhood where her England returned lawyer husband built a house for her. Lucknow remained the home of Begum Akhtar until her death in 1974.
Once the toast of every musical soiree, the art of this musician was perhaps fading away from the collective consciousness of the city. Then Chander arrived to put together her story and to seal the melodious memory of Begum Akhtar on the silver screen forever.
This film is precious documentation because it is the story also of one of the last of professional women called tawaif. There was a time when society saw courtesans as the ultimate in sophistication. The tawaif was taught every thing that is finest in life from fashion, poetry, song, dance to the art of speech. Those who could afford her, hired her to give lessons to the youth in the art of living. The word tawaif is derived from tawaf, or circumambulate after the nomadic lifestyle adopted by these professional women who travelled from city to city even 200 years ago, depending on where business was most lucrative. Once the British took over this part of the world in 1857, the dignified tawaif was reduced to a common prostitute.
The background score of the film haunts as it resurrects the memory of this Begum's songs frame by frame. Although trained in classical Hindustani music, Begum Akhtar loved the teasing tone of folk music and lyrics sung in the local dialect. The film reminds music lovers of the way Begum Akhtar chose the rustic lyrics of a thumri and a dadra to weave them into compositions inspired by sophisticated ragas. Her songs so full of folk tunes and classical melodies are a favourite to this day of ordinary citizens as well as connoisseurs of classical music.
Begum Akhtar had loved to favour young writers by singing their poetry and spreading the word about the different new kids on the block. It is only later in life that her husband helped her to appreciate the very philosophical verses of poets like Mirza Ghalib whose ghazals she interpreted in her singing in such a way that many an uninitiated was seduced into falling passionately in love with poetry.
Now all this magic left in the world by Begum Akhtar is documented by Chander in a most symphonic tribute on screen to the queen of ghazals that deserves a national award, and much more.