This year marks the 105th anniversary of the iconic actress and singer of Hindustani Classical Music, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi. Born on October 7, 1914 in a house of Faizabad that had the matrilineal control of the courtesan Mushtari Bai, Akhtari Bai began her life as a tawaif, earning money through her songs and dance. However, she left Faizabad and the culture of tawaif behind to pursue her interest in Hindustani Classical Music. Her voice and beauty gained her fame as a glamorous actress in Hindi Cinema and a classical singer of ghazals, Thumri and Dadra. Regarded as the “Mallika-e-Ghazal” (Queen of Ghazals), she was awarded the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

The Women Writers’ Fest at Lucknow, organised by SheThePeople.TV, dedicated a panel solely to celebrate the music, culture and power that Akhtari Bai and her art embodied. The panel was titled “Akhtaribai Faizabadi: Sur and Saz Ka Afsana.” It was curated and moderated by Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, head of the Department of Copyrights and Translation at Vani Prakashan and is the Managing Trustee at Vani Foundation. The speakers of the panel were Salim Kidwai, a historian, an independent scholar and translator, Sunita Aron, political analyst and senior resident editor, Hindustan Times (Lucknow Edition) and Hindi writer and scion of the Ayodhya Royal Family, Yatindra Mishra.

“Akhtari Bai even had a road named after her in Lucknow. But it is no more there and is only a history now. So it all comes down to who writes the history and how it is narrated.”

The courtesan culture of art in Lucknow and debates around it:

Akhtari Bai was born to a courtesan and hence inevitably began her music as a tawaif in Faizabad at a time when courtesan performers were demonized by British Colonial Government and the Indian Nationalist elites. However, the culture of courtesan performance is a part of the rich history of Lucknow and its Nawabs. Many historians have written about the rich courtesan culture in the courts of the Nawab. But, is the reading of woman artist as a courtesan, a sexual representation of her art or does it say anything about her sexuality?

Also Read: Meet The Women Spearheading ‘India Music Summit’

In the times of the Nawabs, as Salim Kidwai said, “tawaif” was disrespect to the otherwise respectable courtesan performers. Courtesans were never looked down upon as sex workers. Akhtari Bai even had a road named after her in Lucknow. But it is no more there and is only a history now. So it all comes down to who writes the history and how it is narrated.” Salim Kidwai knew Akhtari Bai closely and had witnessed her performances too. He believes that tawaif culture and performance is an important form of art and history of Lucknow, and Akhtari Bai was a classic example of the art.

Besides, Yatendra Mishra said that if Akhtari Bai is read as separated from her courtesan culture, the tradition of classical music that bloomed as an essential part of that culture will be undermined. He further said, “Some music was always sung in the courts of the Nawab. Their legitimacy is that they are an art to be performed in the court, and Begam Akhtar sang many of them. By not placing her in the context of the courtesan culture, we will have to forget her excellence in the art too.”

Besides, as Yatindra Mishra said, “Begam Akhtar used and depicted the courtesan cultural beautifully. Neither I nor any historian of the new age can change that tradition and what she formulated out of it. Her music is a mirror that reflects the artistic courtesan tradition and looking at it in that way is the justice that the tradition should be depicted.”

Talking about the importance of Akhtari Bai’s courtesan tradition for the women of all age, Sunita Aron said, “By viewing Akhtari Bai through the lens of her courtesan culture, we reiterate the fact that women can do whatever they want and it should be accepted by everyone with dignity. She forced everybody to not only accept her but also salute her.  It encourages other women to take up the professions that they otherwise hesitate because of the various stereotypes and restrictions.”

How does Akhtari Bai’s music speak to us even today?

Besides, listening to and enjoying Akhtari Bai’s music, one also finds in it a companion and truth for life. Sunita Aron said, “Akhtari Bai’s music is heard even today because it is said that she was very lonely in her life and found solace in her music. Human nowadays are lonely too and it is her music that speaks to them.”

“By viewing Akhtari Bai through the lens of her courtesan culture, we reiterate the fact that women can do whatever they want and it should be accepted by everyone with dignity. She forced everybody to not only accept her but also salute her.  It encourages other women to take up the professions that they otherwise hesitate because of the various stereotypes and restrictions.”

Picture Credit: Facebook/poted by Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah

Also Read: Akademi Award For Veteran Singer Haimanti Shukla

Rudrani Kumari is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

Get the best of SheThePeople delivered to your inbox - subscribe to Our Power Breakfast Newsletter. Follow us on Twitter , Instagram , Facebook and on YouTube, and stay in the know of women who are standing up, speaking out, and leading change.