How the legendary Begum Akhtar influenced the life and poetry of Agha Shahid Ali

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Published on: 16 May 2019

Manan Kapoor

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The celebrated Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali was instrumental in popularising ghazals in the West. One figure who brought him closer to the form was the legendary ghazal singer Begum Akhtar. We look at Akhtar’s influence on the poet and his work, their relationship and how he beautifully captures this in his verses.  (Photo Source: Saleem Kidwai) 


‘And I,

 who’ve left three decades behind,

 three continents, three seas,

 a desperado in search

 of catastrophe

 now measure her legend from my sorrow’


(‘Begum Akhtar’, In Memory of Begum Akhtar, 1979) [i]


Agha Shahid Ali’s verses are an archive of longing; a place where memory is a homeland. As a self-proclaimed exile, Shahid, as Ali is usually known, spent most of his adult life longing for the vale of Kashmir, mapping the US through a nostalgist’s eyes and searching for ‘routes of Evanescence’. The triad of ‘memory, nostalgia and longing’ played an integral role in his poems, and the diverse metaphors through which he shouldered his memories were a result of his secular upbringing, the multiple cultures and geographies he experienced, and three languages spoken at home—Urdu, Kashmiri and English. But rather than viewing this ambivalence as a dilemma, Shahid espoused his multicultural identity with open arms, weaving verses that conflated the mannerisms and sensibilities of all the worlds around him.



Agha Shahid Ali, Begum Akhtar, In Memory of Begum Akhtar, Agha Shahid Ali and Begum Akhtar

Shahid's love for ghazals was amplified by people around him such as his father Agha Ashraf Ali, by the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and listening to the ghazals of the legendary singer Begum Akhtar (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)



Under Akhtarbai’s Spell

Born in New Delhi on February 4, 1949, Shahid immigrated to the US in 1976 and taught at multiple universities and colleges until his death on December 8, 2001. He published seven volumes of poetry, edited an anthology of ghazals called Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English and translated the verses of  Faiz Ahmad Faiz in The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Works. Shahid’s most celebrated accomplishment was his ingenious experiment with the English ghazal, which encapsulated his struggle to establish (with all its complexities and formal demands) an Urdu/Persian literary tradition in the English language. His collection of ghazals in English, Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals, was published posthumously.


Shahid grew up listening to ghazals and reading the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. This love for ghazals was amplified by the people around him, such as his father Agha Ashraf Ali—the eminent Kashmiri educationist. Especially influential was the legendary singer Begum Akhtar, whose ghazals influenced how he perceived and understood the form. Even though the Malika-e-ghazal (the Queen of Ghazals) had passed away by the time he started writing his own poetry, it was her voice that stayed with him, that made him understand the sensibilities of the form.


His first meeting with Begum Akhtar was in the late 1960s in New Delhi. However, one of Shahid’s most cherished memories was driving Begum Akhtar around Srinagar in his father’s car. Agha Iqbal Ali, Shahid’s brother, remembered that ‘one fine day sometime in April, 1969—it was raining—there was a phone call from Begum Akhtar. We didn’t know her personally but she said [she] wanted to come to our house.’ He recalled that her flight was cancelled due to some political problem and she ended up staying at their house in Rajbagh. Late at night, she ran out of cigarettes. ‘Both of us drove her in our Fiat to Amira Kadal to buy Capstans,’ he said, emphasising that ‘she only smoked Capstan cigarettes’. This vivid memory resurfaced in Shahid’s poem ‘I Dream I Am the Only Passenger on Flight 423 to Srinagar’:


‘Her picture: she smiles: she lights a Capstan.

Sharp in flame, her face dissolves in smoke.’[ii]

(‘I Dream I Am the Only Passenger on Flight 423 to Srinagar’, The Veiled Suite, 2009)



Agha Shahid Ali, In Memory of Begum Akhtar

During his time in New Delhi in the early 1970s, Shahid never missed an opportunity to go Begum Akhtar's concerts along with his friend Saleem Kidwai—who had introduced Shahid to her (Photo Source: Manan Kapoor) 



Begum Akhtar is an ephemeral figure, always evanescent in Shahid’s poems. Shahid told the writer Amitav Ghosh that, as a teenager, he couldn’t bear to be away from Begum Akhtar and that ‘in other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love—but I don’t know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her.’[iii] But Shahid only knew her for a few years—from the late 1960s until her death in 1974. In ‘Snow on the Desert’, he recalled a moment from one of her performances at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi in 1971, during the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War:


 ‘It was, like this turning dark

  of fog, a moment when only a lost sea   

  can be heard, a time

                      to recollect

  every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

  a time to think of everything the earth   

  and I had lost, of all

                      that I would lose,  

  of all that I was losing.[iv]


('Snow on the Desert', The Veiled Suite, 2009)



The True Subject

‘The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved.’—Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Alum Lewis, Burma (now Myanmar), circa 1943.


In 1976, soon after Begum Akhtar’s death, Shahid moved to America. However, during his time in New Delhi in the early 1970s, he never missed an opportunity to go to her concerts along with his friend, historian and translator Saleem Kidwai— who had introduced Shahid to Begum Akhtar. Whenever she would come to Delhi, Shahid and Kidwai would go to listen to her. He would sit right next to Begum Akhtar, recording the concert on his Phillips tape recorder. ‘When in an audience with Begum Akhtar,’ the poet Kaifi Azmi had said, ‘you not only get to hear ghazals but also to see one.’[v]


It was her influence at that early stage in his career during the 1970s that brought him closer to the intricacies of ghazals. Shahid studied the silences, interjections and repetitions in her music, which helped him imbibe wit, the element of nakhra (affectation), and Urdu sensibilities and mannerisms in his poetry. By doing so, he shaped his ghazals into a dense contemporary form using the sensibilities of ghazal gayiki (singing) such as interjections, onomatopes and the art of mazmun affrini (theme creation).



Shahid studied the silences, interjections and repetitions in her music, which helped him imbibe the element of nakhra (affectation), the wit and the Urdu sensibilities and mannerisms in his ghazals (Video Source: Ball State University Libraries/Youtube) 



When Begum Akhtar died on October 30, 1974, Shahid and Kidwai were in New Delhi. ‘From the airport we decided to come to Lucknow,’ Kidwai recalled with a heavy heart. ‘I think the ticket was 300–400 rupees. We had to borrow the money so that we could join the funeral.’ He meticulously narrated how both of them stayed up all night and how, at one point, Shahid went to one of the bedrooms and started writing an elegy, later published as ‘In Memory of Begum Akhtar’. In the poem, he wrote:


‘Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow,

 sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you.

 She wears her grief, a moon-soaked white,

 corners the sky into disbelief.’[vi]


(‘In Memory of Begum Akhtar’, The Veiled Suite, 2009)



Also Read | Internalising Faiz Ahmad Faiz 



In 1976, soon after Begum Akhtar’s death, Shahid moved to America. Not only did Begum Akhtar’s effervescent personality and singing bring him closer to ghazals, but she also helped him get in touch with one of the pioneers of the form—Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose ghazals Shahid had internalised while listening to his father sing. Though Faiz had stayed at Shahid’s house in Srinagar before Partition, it was a rare Begum Akhtar recording that put the two in touch. Shahid wrote to the Pakistani poet in 1982 for permission to translate his poems. Faiz was at that time exiled by General Zia-ul-Haq and, in the words of Edward Said, had ‘found a welcome of sorts in the ruins of Beirut.’ [vii] In the letter, Shahid reminded him that he had stayed at his home in Kashmir, and tempted him with the rare tape of Begum Akhtar singing his ghazals. Within a month, Faiz replied saying, ‘You’re welcome to do whatever you want with my poems, but send me the tape.’[viii]


Thus, the grand translation project began, culminating in the publication of The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Works. Soon after, Shahid published his seminal essay ‘The Ghazal in America: May I?’ which changed the landscape of ghazal writing in America forever.



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[i] Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Begum Akhtar’, In Memory of Begum Akhtar (Kolkata: Writers’ Workshop, 1979), 18.

[ii] ———, ‘I Dream I Am the Only Passenger on Flight 423 to Srinagar’, The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009), 313.

[iii] Amitav Ghosh, ‘The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn’, 2002,

[iv] Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Snow on the Desert’, The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009), 164.

[v] Debojit Dutta, ‘Watch Begum Akhtar Sing as Kaifi Azmi Recites 2 Exquisite Ghazals.’

[vi] Agha Shahid Ali, ‘In Memory of Begum Akhtar’, The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009), 53.

[vii] ———, ‘The Rebel’s Silhouette: Translating Faiz Ahmad Faiz’ (Paper presented at the ‘Katha Utsav’, New Delhi, 1991).

[viii] Ibid.