Born in 1914, in the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, Akhtaribai Faizabadi was initially trained in music by her mother Mushtarbai. Abdul Wahid Khan of Kirana gharana, Ramzan Khan of Lucknow, and Barkhat Ali of Patiala imparted musical guidance to Akhtaribai in her early years. Her later gurus, successively, were sarangi nawaz Imdad Khan, Ghulam Mohammad Khan of Gaya, and Ata Mohammad of Patiala.
Akhtar moved to Kolkata along with her mother and guru Ata Mohammad in the early 1930s, where singer Jaddanbai became their benefactor and got Akhtar an opportunity to sing on the radio. Gradually her radio assignments increased and it led to her cutting her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company. A number of gramophone records were released carrying her ghazals, dadras, thumris, etc. Her public debut was in 1934 in Kolkata. In the same year she appeared in Hindi films made in Kolkata.
The next phase of her life took her to the Nizam`s durbar in Hyderabad and subsequently to Mumbai to try her luck in films again. In 1943, she moved to Lucknow and became the court singer at the Rampur durbar of Raza Ali Khan. It was here that she met her future husband, Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi , whom she married when she was at the height of her career. Following her marriage, she retreated from her music for five years, but in 1948 staged an impressive comeback as Begum Akhtar with a recital at the Lucknow radio station. Her hitherto restrained enthusiasm surged forth and she became a trendsetter in ghazals and thumris.
Begum Akhtar had a deep, husky and richly-timbered voice with nasal intonations. In her thumris she blended the Purab and Punjabi styles. She did not resort to taan patterns in fast tempo. Her dadras were infused with a sprightly mood; her ghazals were thumri oriented with much scope for improvisation.
The peculiar charm of her voice was easier felt than described. Hers was a strange voice – not round or petal soft but angular and pincer like. She was known to use a momentary split in her voice, called `patti`, which appeared like a crack in the upper register. A serious blemish in any other singer`s voice, in the Begum`s case, it was ravishing. Some admirers waited for the `patti` to appear when she sang.
Begum Akhtar was a scholar of Urdu poetry. Her favourite poets were Ghalib, Dadh, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jigar Moradabadi, Shakeel Badayuni and Kaifi Azmi. Many small poets rose to prominence when she selected their lyrics. It speaks highly of her music that she had an impressive following even in regions where Urdu or Hindi was not properly understood. In later years she sang in Bengali and Gujarati too. Excerpts from one of her concerts is featured in Satyajit Ray`s film, `Jalsaghar` (Bengali, 1958).
She taught for a short while at the Bhatkhande (formerly Marris) College of Music in Lucknow. Her disciples included Shanti Hiranand, Rita Ganguly, Vasundhara Pandit, and Rekha Surya.
Begum Akhtar passed away in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on 30 October, 1974, after her last concert in Ahmedabad which she risked despite her ill health and against advice of her doctors, in fulfillment of a long standing demand from her fans there.