The Last Singer of Baithak Style, Zarina Begum

Walter Benjamin has written ‘Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’. This quote is validated by the documentary ‘the other song’ by Saba Dewan which has skilfully shown how dominant history telling has completely sidelined the art of ‘thumri’ singing where one word could stir up different meanings and emotions. The documentary focuses on Rasoolan Bai, a famous thumri singer from Benaras who has sung ‘phool gendwa na maro, lage karijva main chot’. It moves ahead with interviews of the last thumri singers and other scholars of music, about how this song had another version ‘phool gendwa na maro, lage jobanva main chot’ which wasn’t ever sung again by Rasoolan bai. The movie is a journey to the past lives of these singers when they were in the forefront of the culture of art and music. It opens up issues surrounding morality and purity. In the start of the film, a house is shown where different tawaifs used to sing in the hall of the house. The man, Rastogi ji, tells about his grandfather who was a great fan of thumri singing. He even shows the hall where the event was organised and has music records of the singers. Interestingly, he points out at the upper floor where the women of the house watched the singing from behind the shutters so that they could escape the gaze from below. This shows a clear demarcation between ‘respectable’ married women of the house who were kept in veil while other women who performed in front of the same men who kept their women in the private realm. Now that hall has been made into a temple.

Till a long time, tawaifs were professional musicians in India. They sang in mehfils, courts and were educated women who were adept in literature, music, art and with the ideas floating around, during that phase. The interviews with various thumri singers bring out their stories which revolve around their love for music and how much they trained themselves to be good at it. One of the singer tells that singing wasn’t allowed for women in her house but she secretively practised it until her father saw her talent and trained her like her other brothers. Another thumri singer who was famous at a young age talks about how her style of singing was misinterpreted too. Thumri singing is so deep and intense that people think that the singer is just singing for them.

Thumri singing was an art of tawaifs who openly and explicitly displayed their raw emotions of love and heartbreak and sexuality through the songs. But gradually with the decline in princely powers and the power passing on to the state, the future of thumri became bleak. Then the reformist movement in India commenced which focussed on morality and traditions. Thumri was seen to be erotic and too sexual such that the singers lost their importance by then. They got sidelined to the ideas of patriarchal and puritanical forms of music. The singers resorted to theatres and films. All India Radio asserted to only allow those thumri singers who have a marriage certificate and those who didn’t have a scandalous life. Rasoolan Bai and Begum Akhtar were working in All India Radio as they were married. Marriage as an institution has been a tool for acceptance of women in the society. Begum Akhtar contributed to the national movement by providing her space to the leaders to carry out secretive meetings in order to keep away from the British eye. She even took responsibility of the whole ‘mohalla’ by providing money for marriage and education in the families. National leaders like Gandhi chided the tawaifs to be supporting the national movement by giving money to poor, supporting the sick and also contributing in the Satyagraha. He demanded them to leave their profession and hence kept them off the resistance. Hence the question always arises as to why Begum Hazrat Mahal or Rani of Jhansi are the face of Indian national movement for independence while Begum Akhtar isn’t? This is directly linked to the moralistic lens of the society.

Born in Nanpara, Bahraich, Zarina Begum had begun her musical training under Ghulam Hazrat at the age of 11. Years later when Begum Akhtar, also known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, heard her, she immediately took her under her guidance. Gradually Zarina became a must at the royal mansions and one of the most admired courtesan singers in Lucknow. Zarina Begum was the last living singer of the ‘Baithak’ style of musical rendition. The song ‘Humari Atariya’ from the Madhuri Dixit-starrer film ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ was originally sung by Zarina Begum. She was the first recipient of the ‘Begum Akhtar Ghazal Award’ started by UP government. She lived in a rented home in Aminabad’s Hata Khuda Baksh area in very misearable life in later age. She tells about how a nawab that came to listen to her had no understanding of what she was singing. So then she sang a song, which is very famous ‘nazar laagi raja tohre bangle par’.

The national subconscious is gagged by the ideas of tradition and culture such that music and art also got engulfed in the ambit of religion. The tawaifs had to give up their music and abandon their instruments. There is a change in the whole scenario of music post independence. Another question arises out of the documentary and readings is why do women have to face the brunt of morality and culture while the men/ audience who keep wives as well as lovers, are decorated in history. It is important to use oral history as a way to go into the lanes of lost stories because it helps provide perspectives of people who might not otherwise be traced or heard. The other song gives a great insight into the field of thumri singing which has almost died leaving behind its singers with nothing but memories.(images credit-internet)

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17 thoughts on “The Last Singer of Baithak Style, Zarina Begum

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