Ban of crackers seen from a communal angle; Remembering Begum Akhtar


Its not just the environment that’s polluted but even our minds! Yes, pollution and poisonous propaganda are hitting the heads of the supposed who’s who on the circuit. I was taken aback hearing some of those arguments, on the ban on the sale of crackers in Delhi and in the NCR.

Even in this cracker ban the Right-Wing brigades are dragging along politics! They cannot see thousands and thousands sitting on the verge of death because of the poisonous atmosphere. They cannot see sense prevailing and have to drag along a communal angle to this too! Here we are gasping for breath and there they are crying hoarse some petty nonsense.

Nah, I wasn’t prepared to see this level of communal politics, where communalism seems to be seeped into the pores of those hell-bent on implementing a fascist agenda. They are not even open to sound reasoning or sense prevailing. They couldn’t be bothered if thousands die with collapsed lungs or hearts or with damaged eyes and ears and whatever organs the human form is bestowed with.

What does one do when today’s political rulers don’t seem to give a damn to the dead and dying? All they seem interested in, is in making lofty announcements of erecting concrete structures. Who will be left to view those, when perished we sit.

Can’t these Hindutva brigades realize that this entire environment is for one and all. We all have a right to a clean and pollution-free environment. After all, our Creator created it for each one of us. He didn’t have the Hindu-Muslim factor in mind. In fact, whilst keying in, I’m reminded of what Sufi Nizamuddin Chishti had told his disciples…words along the strain: ‘Our Creator has created the sun and moon and the breeze, fruit trees and plants and grain, rivers and rivulets, for each one of us. Its not meant for one country or for a particular community. Each living being has a right on Nature’s bounty.’


If this murky political mahaul hits, there is no better option than to sit listening to those classical strains and verses of the bygone. And on the late Begum Akhtar’s birthday on 7 October, I did exactly that. Listened to this celebrated classical singer’s renderings. And though much has been written about her passion for Urdu poetry, her yearnings, those emotional lows in her life which, perhaps, manifested in those renderings, yet there still exists ascertain romantic aura. Just mention the very name Begum Akhtar, who was also known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, and an entire range of images hover around…

Years before I could get to hear her at one of her concerts, I’d heard her name from an absolutely unexpected source: In my parent’s home in Lucknow, an ageing person used to come selling lemons, ginger, green chillies and cucumbers. All stuffed in a huge bag which would be hung on his stooping shoulders. And before throwing them on the floor, he’d exclaim, ‘Akhtaria ke bagh ke hain!’ It was part and parcel of those rumours doing the rounds that this man belonging to an erstwhile well-to-do family had lost his balance after being dumped by Begum Akhtar. He couldn’t take the strain; he lost not just his balance but also his home and family and was reduced to selling this mundane stuff. Selling all this along with chanting that one-liner: Akhtaria ke bagh ke hain!

Begum Akhtar and Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi. Photo courtesy: Sangeet Natak Akademi.

She, of course, finally married Lucknow’s leading barrister Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi, who is said to have fallen in love with her after hearing her at one of the local mehfils. Their marriage took place after much opposition from Abbasi’s clan; after all, he was defying traditions. He did put in a condition– after marriage, she will not sing and nor hold mehilfs in Lucknow. Though she’d agreed to this condition but the no-singing scenario made her fall ill…said to have suffered a nervous breakdown. With that,  Abbasi sahib relented, bringing in a relaxation of sorts in that ‘condition’- that is, she could sing and hold concerts in other cities of the country, but not in Lucknow. In fact, all those years of her marriage she did not sing in Lucknow except just once, and that was in the 60s,when she held a concert in aid of the war widows.

I’m not too sure whether the marriage actually was a ‘happy’ one because as several of her husband’s relatives offloaded to me that Begum Akhtar was a person with strong likes and dislikes and also she loved to live in style – wore expensive saris and jewellery, lived a lavish lifestyle which at times was far beyond her means. To quote her husband’s niece, late Rafia Husain – ‘Its Abbasi sahib, who had to sacrifice a lot for this marriage, including his career. A known fact is that he could not be made a Judge as he was married to a former courtesan. Then, he gave in to her at other stages of their lives; for instance, when she used to travel outside Lucknow for concerts, she did not want him to accompany her. With that he used to stay back in Lucknow. And though he was extremely lonely but never openly complained and nor ever fought with her. After her death, he was so devastated, its hard to describe. He lived a very lonely life and died ten years after her death.’ In fact, it’s Rafia Hussain, who’d told me that he was so much in love with Begum Akhtar that their entire clan had to accept her, ‘although it took a while for them to accept a courtesan as a daughter-in-law, but once they did accept her, the bonding was smooth and she gave us a lot of ‘izzat’…Let me also point out another aspect and that is, after her marriage Begum Akhtar had got along few of her own close relatives to stay with her and they stayed on even after her death and even after the death of my uncle.’

Rafia had refuted those rumours to Begum Akhtar’s addiction to pain killers and self-injected morphine injections: ‘Regarding her health and those injections even I’d heard of that but can’t comment on the authenticity; I never saw her ill and nor injecting herself …The only thing I remember was that she was addicted to tea and was a heavy smoker …one cigarette after another …and this could be one of those reasons for her sudden and untimely death.’


Yes, thinking of that blissful period in our very recent history where poets, Ali Sardar Jafri and Sahir Ludhianvi wrote verse after verse in solidarity with the Africans.

These lines of Ali Sardar Jafri written in 1960s relay much bonding between Indians and Africans: ‘This African, my brother / Picks flowers, in forest after forest / My brother, whose feet are red / Red as roses.’

Also these lines of Sahir Ludhianvi, written when Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of Congo, also a staunch anti-imperialist, was deposed from office and then murdered: ‘Tyranny has no caste, no community, no status nor dignity/ Tyranny is simply tyranny, from its beginning to its end /Blood however is blood, it becomes a hundred things /Shapes that cannot be obliterated /Flames that can never be extinguished /Chants that can never be suppressed.’

Look where we stand reduced to in these ‘developed’ times, where we leave no opportunity to hit and hound foreigners and even refugees trying to survive in our midst.