Shanti Hiranand Akhtar–the immigration officer at Wagah Border first looked at this name on the Indian passport he held and then at the young girl who stood in front of him. To him, something wasn’t right. “Kya dekh rahen hain?” pat came the answer wrapped as a question from the feisty Mallika-e-ghazal Begum Akhtar. “Ye hamari beti hai (What are you looking at? This is my daughter),” Akhtar and Hiranand were headed to Pakistan for a concert. When she got Hiranand’s passport made in the Lucknow of the 50s, she added her own name to that of her most sincere and devoted disciple. Begum Akhtar never had any children.
Shanti Hiranand, who passed away on Thursday night due to age-related issues, was Begum Akhtar’s foremost disciple for over two decades, devoted her life to her “Ammi”, remained the harbinger of the Begum Akhtar gayaki, the thumris, bhajans and dadras, she learned from the name synonymous with ghazal. Hiranand was 88.
The name Shanti Hiranand is likely to ring a bell only to those in the music circuits, mostly the kind where ghazal is revered and heard, and especially the kind where Begum Akhtar –ghazal’s inimitable queen — is cherished and worshipped. Hiranand was never a famous ghazal or thumri singer for the stage. One saw her sometimes in the last couple of decades at sporadic concerts. A reticent musician, she was more a teacher in the last few decades of her life, regularly teaching at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi.
But in her heyday, when she learned from Begum Akhtar, accompanied her on stage, sang with her, and later recorded too, Hiranand was a powerful yet tender voice. And after Akhtar’s death, the connoisseurs and fans wanted to hear Hiranand to find a glimpse of the charming voice they loved, to find that hint of murki, or a sher that could lead them to the memory of a woman they revered — they wanted her to sing it all like Akhatari would. That can be a difficult position for an artiste, who may want to have a style of her own. But in Hiranand’s case, her tender voice, her style, her understanding of poetry, her music, was so embedded in that of Begum Akhtar’s style, that she couldn’t have escaped it. She even won a Padma Shri. But she remained under the shadow of Begum Akhtar to be called her foremost disciple, and her best one. Anjali Banerjee is the other one, but she didn’t take up music professionally.
Born in Lucknow in 1932, Hiranand was interested in music at a young age, and her Sindhi parents encouraged her to learn in the neighbourhood music school. Hiranand’s father was a businessman and moved to Lahore in the 40s. Here Hiranand learned from a teacher in the neighbourhood. She helped her get on to AIR Lahore and Hiranand would go there often to sing “the song of the week”, something they’d play for the whole week. The family moved back to Lucknow post the Partition and Hiranand began to learn from a musician of the Rampur gharana and also sang at AIR Lucknow. It was in 1952 that someone at the radio station suggested that Hiranand should learn from Akhtar. By this time Akhtaribai Faizabadi, who was born in 1914 in Gulaab Baari in Faizabad to a courtesan named Mushtari Bai, a time when the royalties were beginning to lose all their lustre, was married and had become Begum Akhtar. She wasn’t singing as much then. When Hiranand met Akhtar, the latter asked her to sing something. It was a “nervously sung” Krishna bhajan in the romantic Pilu that took away Akhtar’s heart and she asked her to come the next day. “I still remember the first time I went to her house to learn. She was dressed in a crumpled sari and talked with a lot of command. I was almost 20 and knew the grammar of music, but her persona was so enchanting that I wanted to go to her house every day to enter that delightful world of riyaaz,” Hiranand had once told this report in an interview in 2014.
She made Hiranand her “gandaband shagird” (a student through a thread ceremony). “Shanti ji would often say that ammi said then, ‘why should men be the only ones doing this ceremony. I will do it too’. Also, I think she would have welcomed a homely girl as her student at that stage of her life. This was a time when she was dealing with restrictions and her own emotions,” says Vidya Shah, Hiranand’s student.
Shah adds that the close relationship between the two allowed Hiranand to completely immerse herself in the Begum Akhtar approach and gayaki. “Singing for her was only that. And I mean it in the intense, passionate way, not in the limiting sort of way. But it must have been very hard to learn from someone like Begum Akhtar, when your point of reference is that level of charisma, flamboyant, singing and passion. But what was interesting still was that she was always devoted, sincere to her craft and gave all her music to the students,” adds Shah.
The shy Hiranand was a part of gatherings now and was taken in by the crowds and a plethora of significan people at Akhtar’s baithaks and concerts. “She knew too many people and there was always a crowd of people of every kind in the house, which included poets, singers, the Charatrams and the Parekhs. The day she would decide to cook, she would have everyone running around the house. She would order new pots and pans, would want vegetables cut a certain way and bark orders at everyone. All this while she smoked a pack of Capstan cigarettes every day and drank ice cold water. Surprisingly it never affected her voice. She would say, ‘Awaaz ko jaisa train karoge vo vaise hi ban jayegi.’
Writer and historian Saleem Kidwai put up a short video of Hiranand singing at Begum Akhtar’s mazaar on her last visit in September last year. “With the passing of Shanti aapa, ends our last tangible link to Begum Akhtar,” wrote Kidwai.
For many years after her death in 1974, Begum Akhtar lay buried, abandoned and blanked out in the bylanes of Lucknow’s Thakurganj until Hiranand took upon herself to construct a structure around her grave so that people could come and pay their respects. “Look at the stature of Begum Akhtar, who had a Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, and yet Hiranand ran from pillar to post to get that structure up. She made it her life’s project to get it done. Otherwise the grace was in shambles,” says Shah.
In a rare Doordarshan video of Begum Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi together at a mehfil, a ghazal by Azmi — Suna karo meri jaan inse unse afasaane/ Sab ajnabi hain yahan kaun kis ko pehchaane — is composed and sung on the spot by Akhtar. Hiranand is seen accompanying her on the tanpura. As Hiranand hits bull’s eye with the notes on a line, Akhtar says, ‘Kya baat hai’. Hiranand looks down, fulfilled and gets back to playing the tanpura. The fulfilment part comes from having pulled it off to Akhtar’s standards. Throughout her life, Hiranand attempted to sing and teach music that was up to her great teacher’s standards. This she did with utmost sincerity. And that will remain her greatest legacy.
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