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The Hindu Lit for Life 2015 – Poetry with Prakriti festival closes tonight with Delhi-based Hindustani classical musician Vidya Shah’s tribute to the music and poetry of the legendary singer Begum Akhtar in her centenary year. Excerpts from an interview with Vidya:
What drew you to Begum Akhtar and her work?
I learnt in the lineage of Begum Akhtar, taught by Shanti Hiranand, one of her senior-most disciples. So I grew up listening to vignettes about her life. Begum’s most important contribution to music was her singing of the ghazal, which is what drew me to her. Through this project, I’d hoped to highlight aspects of her life that reveal her greatness as a person, and the way in which she gave the ghazal a mainstream space in an otherwise hierarchical musical world. And since I’m presenting this at a poetry festival, I will look at the wonderful way in which she understood poetry, and the poets of her time, many of whom she had special relationships with. Her music was very much a part of that poetry, and it shaped her spirit and her singing.
Tell us about the process of creating this concert and its structure.
This concert is my understanding of Begum Akhtar, my perspective on her as a contemporary musician living in these times. I examine who Begum Akhtar was, her journey from being a bai to a begum, and in these journeys how she empowered herself with music and poetry. The performance is woven with a narrative that highlights interesting aspects of her life with anecdotes, some rare and others better known, which reveal how she could make such a fantastic impact on audiences even today. Choosing pieces from her vast repertoire was quite a difficult process. I was often overcome and overwhelmed with greed because I’d want to sing this song and that one too, because there are so many charming pieces she’s done. But ultimately, what I did choose are those that reasonably showcase the versatility of her singing, the richness in her choice of poetry and the journeys she made within her world of music.
What about Begum still resonates with audiences today?
It is musicians like Begum who paved the way for us. We don’t have the social baggage that they carried but we have the opportunities to present similar work. Begum was an assertive, independent feminist, who, despite the struggles in her life, was able to empower herself and others. For instance, in Hindustani classical music, the ritual of the ganda bandhan initiates one into a formal guru-shishya relationship. In her time, it was an entirely male practice. She was one of the first women to do it for her female students. So there was a lot of élan and strength to her as a person, and she found an amazing balance between her joie de vivre, and life’s struggles and sorrows. And that passion shows through in her music. Which is why she will remain relevant forever.
How has creating this project changed you?
Right at the start, I knew I could never reproduce or replicate Begum’s music. That would be impossible. The biggest advantage of her music, though, was the inherent quality that lets you imbibe it, absorb it, understand it, internalise it and make it your own. The project is now a year old and I’m still growing with it, still learning from it. It has given me a lot of humility and it’s been a humbling experience. It has also given me a lot of strength. I can now sense what must have been her greatness. And I’m excited to bring this now to Chennai, being a Tamilian myself, singing Urdu poetry here and sharing the life of a diva who wasn’t from here, but whose story still resonates here. I’m excited to be making that journey for myself.
(Vidya Shah performs at Kalakshetra at 7 p.m.)
Begum was an assertive, independent feminist, who, despite the struggles in her life, was able to empower herself and others
From : The Hindu