Documentary channel

Documentary retraces the journey of the woman from Faizabad who became Begum Akhtar

Nirmal Chander’s visually sumptuous ‘Zikr Us Parivash Ka’ is a cradle-to-grave account of one of India’s most celebrated classical music artists.

Nirmal Chander’s documentary Zikr Us Parivash Ka (In Praise of That Angel Face) provides a reminder of Begum Akhtar’s antiquity in the opening sequence. Only somebody older than a hundred can tell you where Begum Akhtar lives, a bystander tells Chander as he hunts for the house in the Faizabad town where one of India’s greatest classical singers was born. Another says, I’m not old enough to know.

Towards the end of the film comes a reminder of her lasting impact on classical music. A fan from Pune who visits her grave speaks movingly of what her songs and performances have meant to him.

Chander’s film, made for the Sangeet Natak Akademi production in 2015, rests between ignorance and appreciation. The 54-minute film has most recently been screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala and the London Indian Film Festival.

Zikr Us Parivash Ka provides a cradle-to-grave account of the woman known as Akhtarbai Faizabadi until she adopted a more respectable title. Chander traces the singer’s formative years in Faizabad, where she was born in either 1913 or 1914 to the courtesan Mushtari, and follows her through her early successes at private gatherings (or mehfils) and concerts, her brief playback singing and acting career, and her emergence as one of the greatest voices in Hindustani classical music. There are interviews with her student, the ghazal singer Shanti Hiranand, writer Saleem Kidwai, members of her family, and singer Shruti Sadolikar Katkar.

“With Begum Akhtar, you can meet people over five or seven years and you will still not be finished,” Chander said.

Mushtari and Begum Akhtar (left). Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Mushtari and Begum Akhtar (left). Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Chander makes good use of a radio interview with Akhtar in which she declares, “I am fortunate to have been born in a land where music is present in the very air,” and numerous archival photographs, some of them from Pran Nevile’s illustrated book Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers and Playmates. The filmmaker locates Akhtar as a link between the courtesan tradition that was robbed of its patronage with the decline of the zamindari system and the professional singer whose fame travelled from saloons to the mainstream through public concerts, gramophone records and the radio.

The film has aural and visual texture to spare. Esteemed cinematographer Ranjan Palit gorgeously shoots the vestiges of a fading world – the capacious mansions where she once gave private performances, and the gracious men and women whose appreciation for Akhtar’s craft endures beyond her death in 1974 hours after a performance in Ahmedabad.

“The idea was to make the film it look grand and match Begum Akhtar’s stature and her music,” Chander said. “I wanted to get her music to come alive visually.”

Zikr Us Parivash Ka. Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Zikr Us Parivash Ka. Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Chander was recruited by the Sangeet Natak Akademi to make a film marking Akhtar’s birth centenary (celebrated in 2014). “They gave me a free hand to make the film,” Chander said. “I spent four to five months listening to her music and seeing what worked for the film and appealed to me. I didn’t have a structure or a script, and it all came together on the editing table.”

While the documentary provides an engrossing account of the woman and the world out of which she sprang, it bypasses the intersection between the public performer and the private individual. Akhtar married lawyer Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi in 1944, and she briefly gave up singing before returning to her profession. Abbasi encouraged Akhtar to take up more serious poetry in her singing, and along with her voice, her renditions gained heft too.

Akhtar liked to wear red lipstick to her performances; she smoked; she had “pain in her voice,” according to Shanti Hiranand. The source of this pain remains hidden in Chander’s respectful account, which concentrates on the music and the milestones.

Begum Akhtar and Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi. Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Begum Akhtar and Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi. Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.

“There were lots of rumours about her personal life, and I didn’t want to go into them,” Chander explained. “No one can actually give you a first-hand account of what really shaped her, and the rest is conjecture. You cannot hope to cover a subject fully in a biographical documentary. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to make a film to please everybody and would keep away from that pressure.”

What we get is a measure of the artist, which is doled out through anecdotes. A telling one is from sitar player Arvind Parikh, who taught her to play the instrument for two-and-a-half years before her death. A novice should always practise only in front of the Ustad, Akhtar told Parikh once – an indication of her ease with herself as well as her ability to always remember her place in the world of classical music.

Begum Akhtar. Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Begum Akhtar. Image credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.