Begum Akhtar, Barrister Abbasi, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru

Justice Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju

Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own.

Just as there have been many Urdu poets but Mirza Ghalib ( 1797-1869 ) is universally regarded a shade above everyone else, so also there have been many ghazal and thumri singers in India and Pakistan ( Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Anup Jalota, Talat Aziz, Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Girja Devi, Shobha Gurtu, Noorjehan, Iqbal Bano, etc ) but Begum Akhtar ( 1914-74 ) stands a shade above everyone else.

Many of her immortal songs are given below

The story I am going to tell relates not so much to Begum Akhtar as to her husband Barrister Ishtiaque Ahmad Abbasi and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, one of the renowned lawyers of India.

In the 1930s Barrister Abbasi, was a young lawyer of the Chief Court of Avadh ( which later became the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court after its amalgamation in 1948 with the High Court ).

He was the son of a rich zamindar ( landlord ) of Avadh. He had got his barrister’s qualification in England after studying many years there, and then returned to India to start law practice in Lucknow.

In those days most lawyers in UP, Bihar etc were sons of zamindars, since for several years after joining the law profession one earned little, so only those who got an allowance from their fathers could sustain themselves and tide over the early years.

Like most fresh lawyers Barrister Abbasi, had no work. Such sons of zamindars who became lawyers in Lucknow ( and elsewhere) used to have an easy life, their allowance coming from their father. They would get up late, have a sumptuous breakfast, go to Court, where they had no work, and spent their time chit chatting with friends, and then returned home In the evening. Later they would go to Mohammedbagh club in Lucknow, play tennis or bridge, have some whiskey, and then go home again.

Barrister Abbasi also followed this routine.

It so happened that in this period of his life he fell in love with the famous ghazal singer Begum Akhtar, and wanted to marry her. To this his father vehemently objected, because Barrister Abbasi belonged to a high caste Muslim family, whereas Begum Akhtar belonged to a low caste family. Moreover, she was a singer, which was not then regarded a respectable profession.

However, as Mirza Ghalib has written, “Ishq par zor nahi, hai yeh woh aatish Ghalib, ki lagaaye na lage, aur bujhaaye na bane “. Barrister Abbasi was adamant as he was madly in love with Begum Akhtar, and he married her. On learning this his father was furious, and he cut off his son’s allowance, which drove Barrister Abbasi into very straitened circumstances financially.

At that time Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru ( 1875-1949:), the renowned lawyer of the Allahabad High Court, who had been knighted by the British King, and was Law Member in the Viceroy’s Council, had come to Lucknow to argue an important case.

Sir Tej saw barrister Abbasi sitting dejected in the Bar Library, and came to him and asked ” Kya baat hai barrister, kyon itne udaas dikhayee de rahe ho ?” ( Barrister, what is the matter, why are you looking so gloomy ?). At first, Abbasi kept silent, but ultimately he related what had happened.

Sir Tej then went away without saying anything, but a few days thereafter Barrister Abbasi received by post an envelope containing Rs. 500 ( which was a huge sum in those days, equivalent to perhaps Rs 10,000 or 20,000 today ) and a first-class train ticket to Jaipur. He could not make head or tail out of this, but nevertheless, he took the overnight train to Jaipur.

There he was received in the morning at the station by the liveried employees of the Maharaja of Jaipur, who asked him whether he would like to see Jaipur on the Maharaja’s Rolls Royce, or the Maharaja’s buggy. He opted for the buggy, which took him on a round trip of the Pink City.

He was then taken to the Palace, where he had a sumptuous lunch in the suite which he was given, and then rested.

In the evening he was summoned to the suite of Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru and met him there. He naturally asked Sir Tej what this was all about. Sir Tej replied that he and the Barrister had been engaged in an arbitration case between the Maharaja of Jaipur and the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Sir Tej then said that Abbasi would not be able to understand the case as it was too complicated for him, so his job was to hear the proceedings in the day, and to entertain people by reciting Urdu shayari in the evenings.

The arbitration lasted about 2 weeks, and resulted in an amicable resolution of the dispute. A grand darbar was then held, attended by both the Maharajahs. In this darbar, it was announced that ‘Ala Wakeel Saheb’ Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru was granted Rs. 5000 as fees and 500 asharfis (gold sovereigns), and ‘Ala Wakeel Saheb’ Barrister Abbasi was also granted the same.

In this way, Barrister Abbasi earned an amount which was fabulous for those times, and he thus tided over his financial crisis and could support his newly wedded wife Begum Akhtar.

This just shows the magnanimity of Sir Tej, one of the foremost lawyers in India, who wanted to help the Barrister, without making him feel he is getting a handout.