Akhtaribai Faizabadi, or Begum Akhtar as she was more popularly known, was born on 7th October, 1914 in the small town of Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh in northern India. She was born in a high class family that was not musically inclined. However, at her uncle's insistence, she was sent to train under Ustad Imdad Khan, the great sarangi exponent, and later under Ata Mohammed Khan. Later she travelled to Calcutta with her mother and started learning music from classical stalwarts like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and finally she became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan Saheb.
Her first public peformance was at the tender age of fifteen. She took the music world by storm. The famous poetess Smt. Sarojini Naidu appreciated her singing during a concert which was organised in the aid of victims of Bihar earthquake. This encouraged her to continue singing ghazals with more enthusiasm. She also cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company at that time. A number of gramophone records were released carrying her ghazals, dadras, thumris, etc.
With the advent of talkie era in India, Begum Akhtar acted in a few Hindi movies in thirties. East India Film Company of Calcutta approached her to act in KING FOR A DAY (alias Ek Din Ka Badshah) and NAL DAMAYANTI in the year 1933. Like others of that era, she sang her songs herself in all her films. She continued acting in the following years. The movies she acted in are: Ameena (1934), Mumtaz Begum (1934), Jawaani Ka Nasha (1935), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (1935).
Subsequently Begum Akhtar moved back to Lucknow where she was approached by the famous producer-director Mehboob Khan, as a result of which she acted in ROTI which was released in 1942 and whose music was composed by maestro Anil Biswas. ROTI contained six of her ghazals but unfortunately due to some trouble between producer and director, Mehboob Khan subsequently deleted 3-4 ghazals from the film. All the ghazals are available on Megaphone gramophone records. Begum Akhtar, meanwhile, left Bombay and returned to Lucknow.
In 1945, Begum AKhtar was married to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and became known as Begum Akhtar. However, after marriage, due to her husband's restrictions, she could not sing almost 5 years, and subsequently, she fell ill. Music was prescribed as the only remedy! In 1949, she returned to the recording studios. She sang three ghazals and a dadra at Lucknow Radio Station. She wept aferwards and returned to singing in concerts, a practice which lasted until her death.
Begum Akhtar's involvement with films was not yet over. Music Director Madan Mohan persuaded her to sing in two Hindi movies viz. DAANA PAANI (1953 - ai ishq mujhe aur to kuchh yaad nahii.n hai) and EHSAAN (1954 - hame.n dil me.n basaa bhi lo). Satyajit Ray's Bengali film 'JALSA GHAR' (1958) was her last role where she played the role of a classical singer.
She acted on stage as well. However, the theatre required for her to raise her voice so that she could be heard in "the pit class" at the back. Her voice was adversely affected by it. So, she had to give it up.
Begum Akhtar is almost synonymous with the concept of ghazal gaayaki. She immortalized her own definitive style of singing - a style that few have been able to match. She is rightly known as Mallika-e-Ghazal.
Her voice matured with time, adding richness and depth. She sang ghazals and other light classical pieces, singing them in her inimitable style. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit. She was a regular performer on All India Radio. She usually composed her own ghazals and most of her compositions were raag based.
During her last concert which was held in Ahmedabad, she had raised the pitch of her voice as she felt that her singing that day had not been as good as she had wanted it to be. She had not been feeling well that day to begin with. The additional demand and stress she put herself under resulted in her falling ill and being rushed to the hospital. She passed away on 30th of October, 1974 leaving a big void in ghazal lovers' hearts.
She was posthumously awarded the Padmabhushan. Just eight days before her death, she recorded Kaifi Azmi's ghazal:
sunaa karo merii jaan un se un ke afsaane
sab ajanabii hai.n yahaa.N kaun kis ko pahachaane
Source: Various articles, CD inlays, books, etc.