Book Review: In Memory of Begum Akhtar by Agha Shahid Ali

‘In Memory of Begum Akhtar’ is Agha Shahid Ali’s second book of poems, published in 1979 by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. It’s a short book, about 48 pages long, containing 25 poems. This book is currently out of print. But you can purchase an e-book copy by contacting the publisher (

My only other outing with Shahid’s poetry is his first book – Bone-Sculpture. You can read my review about the book here. Back then my only source of reference about the poet was his wiki page. But this time, I decided to research a bit more widely about the poet before attempting to read his book because the poems in his first book were full of references from his personal life, culture and Kashmir.

There is very little we can learn about the poet from the author bios of these two books. Bone Sculpture, the poet’s first book of verse came out in 1972, while he was teaching English in Hindu College, Delhi. But the second book of verse, which we are discussing today, came out in 1979 while the author was pursuing his doctorate in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University. So the migration he hinted in his first book had already happened. But no other clues about his personal life were given.

To begin with, I needed more info about Begum Akhtar. It was crucial to decode the relationship between the poet and this singer who is credited as one of the most influential people in his life. Not just the title of this book, but two full poems within the book, ‘In Memory of Begum Akhtar’ and ‘Begum Akhtar’ are clearly about her. Luckily, I found this wonderful article by Manan Kapoor : “How the legendary Begum Akhtar influenced the life and poetry of Agha Shahid Ali.” It was everything I was looking for. Do read it. I will mention the points relevant to our discussion here:

  • Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (7 October 1914 – 30 October 1974), also known as Begum Akhtar, was an Indian singer and actress. Dubbed “Mallika-e-Ghazal” (Queen of Ghazals), she is regarded as one of the greatest singers of ghazal, dadra, and thumri genres of Hindustani classical music. (Source: wiki)
  • Begum Akhtar was one of the most influential people in Agha Shahid Ali’s life. Two of his most celebrated achievements – his ingenious experiments with English Ghazals and translations of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s verses can be traced back to her influence.
  • Shahid successfully adapted the form of Ghazals, an Urdu/Persian literary tradition, to English language. This resulted in the posthumously published collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals. Begum Akhtar fueled his love for Ghazals, the other influence being his father Agha Ashraf Ali. Begum’s Ghazals influenced how he perceived and understood the form. Features of her ghazal rendition—such as wit, wordplay and nakhra (affectation)—were present in Shahid’s poetry as well.
  • When Agha Shahid Ali wrote to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most famous Urdu poets from Pakistan, in 1982 to seek permission to translate his poems, he lured Faiz to say yes by offering in return a rare recording of Begum Akthar’s rendering of ghazals.

The first poem in the collection, ‘In Memory of Begum Akthar’ is an elegy written by Shahid soon after the death of Begum Akhtar in October 30, 1974. The poem is dedicated to Saleem Kidwai, the poet’s friend, a historian and translator, who introduced the poet to Begum. Together they attended Begum’s concerts in New Delhi in the early 1970s.

“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.” (From the poem, In Memory of Begum Akhtar)

The intensity of the poet’s sense of loss and despair can be felt in lines like:

“no room for sobs,

even between the lines;

I wish to talk of the end of the world.”(From the poem, In Memory of Begum Akhtar)

Apart from Begum Akhtar, Shahid also pays tribute to many other poets and influences in this book. In the second poem ‘Introducing,’ he talks about his early influences like Shelley, Keats, Mahjoor(Kashmiri poet); being surprised by verse-libre (free verse) in his late teens and life becoming a waste-land (reference to T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland) during his doctorate days. The poet confesses, at that point, his poetry became all about wars and deaths. This theme is again explored in the poem ‘Warscape.’

“Unawares I was caught in wars

and wars, …”

“…Death punctuated all my poems.” (From the poem, Introducing)

His tributes continue in poems like ‘K.L. Saigal’ and ‘On Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.’ Reading Ghalib is mentioned multiple times. The poem ‘Thumri for Rasoolan Bai’ is about Rasoolan Bai’s house burnt during the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad. Rasoolan Bai was an Indian Hindustani classical music voice musician. This poem is both a sorrowful tribute and vivid depiction of violence.

“(I knew they’d axed

her voice)”

“I could only preserve

her breaking voice

while the house burnt its bhairavi.” (From the poem, Thumri for Rasoolan Bai)

Just like in his first book, apart from death, one of the most repeated themes in this book is also Kashmir: her history, her beauty and sorrows. Poems like ‘Painting a Kashmir Landscape’ and ‘The Legends of Kashmir’ are examples for this. His secular and multi-linguistic upbringing becomes themes in poems like ‘Note Autobiographical – 1,’ ‘Note Autobiographical -2,’ and ‘Learning Urdu’. A sense of regret or loss soaks poems like ‘Notes from Autumn’s Wars’ and ‘Deepavali, 1973.’

friends know here’s a poet

with his anthology of regrets” (From the poem, Notes from Autumn’s Wars)

Whereas, we watch the poet grow aware of his own privileges and the stark contrast of poverty around him in poems like ‘Profile’ and ‘The Wallet City: 7 Poems on Delhi.” Of course, these are all just one of the themes of these poems. If we look closer, we can again see that its all political, eternally inseparable from his own life stories, stories of Kashmir and events from Indian politics.

“We walk through streets calligraphed with blood.” (From the poem, Qawwali At Nizamuddin Aulia’s Dargah)

I will repeat my opinion about Shahid’s first book of verse here also. His poems are not passive reads. They are eternal references to the history, poetry, music, stories and blood spilled in his land. I’m sure I haven’t even touched the surface of its meanings. How many lines of his poetry still await to be deciphered? I hope, as I read more about Kashmir and the poet’s own life, more mysteries in these lines will reveal their secrets to me. Until then, all I have for my solace is this hope to read these lines again, to make more open and sensitive attempts to understand and empathize with the emotions of these poems in the future.

Disclaimer : I’m just a student of literature. If there are any mistakes in the write-up or any new/different perspectives about the book that you wish to add, please reply in comments.

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