Tribute to the legendary Shamshad Begum, one of the first playback singers in the Hindi film industry, on her death anniversary today.1,172 views
Legendary singer Shamshad Begum is now singing in heaven… Shamshad Begum who passed away on this day in 2013 belonged to the golden era of Hindi film music. Shamshad Begum, who with her bold, bright and boisterous singing went on to become the leading and the highest paid numero uno star singer of the forties and acquired the legendary status in the dawn of her career.
Here we share her last interview with Filmfare.
Her spectrum has been kaleidoscopic. The romantic Saiyan dil mein aana re (Bahar), the teasing Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana (CID), the pathos-dipped Chod babul ka ghar and even the Hinglish ditty Meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday (Shehnai) are all classics from songstress Shamshad Begum who ruled between the ’40s-’60s.
While her pictures shot in her heyday show her as a robust woman, today Shamshad Begum at 92 is frail and almost angelic. Dressed in salwar kameez she moves with a walker. Her lucent eyes mirror the changing notes in her life. Instant fame, adulation, separation from loved ones and then a retreat from rivalry. “Bahut gandh ho gayi thi (the scene had become dirty),” she says cryptically of her voluntary retirement. But the lines on her face have left her heart untouched. As if on cue she sings the zingy C Ramchandra number Sunday ke Sunday complete with the rhyme, ‘Ye dil beating kya jaane…yeh chasing hunting kya jaane’.
Fun loving as she is, she’s firm. Firm that she doesn’t want a recorder around. Firm that she’ll not badmouth her peers. Firm that she’ll not lambast the composers who used her as a stepping stone and then ignored her. “God opened doors for me. I never approached any music director. I never insisted that I’d sing only the heroine’s numbers. I had no ladai (fight) with anyone,” she narrates raising her hands in gratitude. “Mere sitare uruj pe the (my stars were on the ascent), the day I met Master Ghulam Haider saab,” she says of the maestro who was her mentor. And unlike most singers she’s not offended that her hit numbers are being remixed today. “Let the young generation have fun. Duniya ke saath badalna chahiye (we must change with the world),” says the veteran who lives with daughter Usha Ratra and son-in-law Lieutenant Colonel Yogesh Ratra in serene Powai. Usha sits with us through the chat, updating me now and then with trivia…
It was Shamshad Begum’s headmistress who discerned her ‘surili awaaz (tuneful voice)’ amongst a chorus of girls reciting prayers in the school assembly. Her conservative father, Miya Hussain Baksh, however didn’t encourage her yen for singing. Rather it was her chacha (uncle), a Sufi at heart, who enjoyed qawwalis and ghazals and secretly took her to Jenophone Music Company for an audition with musician Master Ghulam Haider. “I was only 12 and couldn’t climb onto the platform to sing,” recalls Shamshad. “I sang Bahadur Shah Zafar’s (the poet-ruler) ghazal Mera yaar mujhe mile agar.” An impressed Haider gave her a contract for 12 songs with facilities provided to top singers including Rs 2 as tonga fare. The Company being patronised by the rich, Shamshad’s popularity grew in elite circles.
Her ‘breakthrough with the masses’ came when she began singing on All India Radio (AIR) in Peshawar and Lahore during the late ’30s. “Ghulam Haider saab turned me into a professional. He’d say, ‘Accept offers from all composers. Learn their style; don’t impose your style on them. Be like the water which takes the shape of the glass,” shares the singer who perfected her Urdu diction with a kazi. She donned a burqa when she went for recordings. “Hindu girls in Peshawar wore a ghoonghat (veil) so I wore a burqa. In the studio I’d take it off,” she laughs.
The sassy Shamshad even gave a screen test for producer Dilsukh Pancholi (of Pancholi Studio) who wanted her to act as well. “When my father came to know about it he fumed and said, ‘I’ll ban your singing)’. So I continued singing songs on radio.”
But with her Punjabi numbers in Yamla Jat and later Hindi songs in Khajanchi (both Ghulam Haider scores) her voice made waves in the Hindi film industry in the early ’40s. Yet she only remained a faceless voice in compliance with her father’s diktat. Right up till the ’70s.
Back in Bombay, director Mehboob Khan wanted her to sing for Taqdeer in which he was launching Nargis. He was upset when told that her father wouldn’t send her to the ‘big’ city from Lahore. “Mehboob saab came home and told my father, ‘You’ve made her a frog in a pond. Throw her into the ocean and she’ll learn to swim.” And sing she did for Taqdeer with her song Babu darogaji becoming popular.
Soon, other composers including Anil Biswas, C Ramchandra and Naushad made a beeline for her. She settled in Mumbai in 1942. “I only went back to Lahore during Moharram. I never sang during the month of mourning.” And while the world clamoured for her, she remained a KL Saigal fan. “I saw Devdas 14 times for the song Balam aan baso. Once I met Saigal saab while he was recording at Ranjit Studio. He said, ‘To tu woh bala hai, teri awaaz mujhe badi pasand hai (So you’re the one making news. I love your voice)’.”
Later, the songstress fell in love and married lawyer Ganpat Lal Batto after much familial objection. But she placed two conditions before him. “That I’d never stop singing nor severe ties with my family.” But after Ganpat Lal’s death in an accident in 1955, a heartbroken Shamshad stopped singing for almost a year. Says daughter Usha, “She’d keep saying, I just can’t sing’.” Again it was Mehboob Khan who drew her out of this turmoil. “He wanted a full-throated voice for Nargis in Mother India and said, ‘If you don’t come; I’ll come and take you,” recalls Shamshad. Ironically, the first number she recorded was Pee ke ghar aaj pyari dulhaniya chali. The musicians were moist- eyed but not her. “I’m an artiste. Rone ke liye sara din sari raat padi hai
(I could cry through the entire day and night),” says the singer who then on wore only white. To lighten the mood daughter Usha steps in, “I was crying on my wedding day when they played a reocord of mom’s song Chod babul ka ghar (Babul). I burst out laughing!”
As a professional, Apa (as Shamshad was fondly called) was stringent. She never indulged in small talk. She didn’t encourage smoking in her presence. She never socialised or attended premieres. Her family never visited her in the studio nor did any industrywallahs visit her home. Her mantra, “Na mujhe maska maro, na main maska maroongi (Don’t flatter me, I’ll not butter up anyone either).” But she went out of her way to help newcomers. Never mind if they abandoned her later. She recounts her first brush with music director Madan Mohan and veteran singer Kishore Kumar at Filmistan Studio who both sang with her as chorus boys. “Madan Mohan would be clad in a crisp white pant and shirt and didn’t look like a chorus boy while Kishore would be dressed crazily in pyjamas. He was an eccentric genius,” she says. Young Madan would pull a chair for her and even serve her tea. She was told he was on the lookout for a break as a composer and wanted her to sing for him. And she did sing in Aankhen for him.
She was also told that the other boy was Kishore, Ashok and Anoop Kumar’s brother. ‘‘I told Kishore, ‘One day you’ll leave your brothers behind’. Years later, Kishore told me, ‘What you said has come true’. People forget favours, he didn’t forget my words. Later, we even sang the hit song Meri neendon mein tum (Naya Andaz).”
She also lent a hand to the legendary Raj Kapoor. “He wanted me to sing for Aag but couldn’t afford my rate but I respected his dad Prithvirajji (Kapoor) and relented. We rehearsed at home during my break time. Musicians Shankar sat at the tabla and Jaikishen at the baaja for composer Ram Ganguly,” recalls Shamshad whose songs Kahe koyal shor machaye and Dekh leher ki aur became hits. She asserts that though Raj and she didn’t work together much, he valued her contribution. “At an event he said, ‘This lady did a lot for me but I could do nothing for her’.”
Shamshad and music director OP Nayyar went back a long way. During her radio stint in Lahore, she often spotted a young Nayyar there. “We’d send him to get cakes for us.” Later when he came to Mumbai, he approached her to sing for Aar Paar. While she sang all the songs, the sad version of Leke pehla pehla pyaar was sung by Asha Bhosle. Nayyar, who compared the clarity of her voice to ‘a temple bell’, hardly made her sing later.
She remembers a young Mohammed Rafi being brought home by his father. His ‘kamal ki awaaz (wonderful voice)’ impressed her. Soon they sang De mohe balama for Rail Ka Dibba. “We had to sing a few lines holding our breaths. I managed; he couldn’t. He said, ‘Aapaji maan gaye aapko (you’re a talent to behold)’.” She adds, “Aaj machine gaate hain, artiste nahin (today machines sing, not artistes).”
She continues,“When I helped newcomers I never told them to give me all their songs to sing. I believed only God could give, not them.
I was never insecure. Everyone brings his or her taqdeer,” says the singer who holds tremendous affection for peers Geeta Dutt, Noorjehan, Amirbai Karnataki, Uma Devi (Tun Tun) and Suraiya.
But for someone who sang more than 5000 songs in five languages, her career came to an abrupt end. “The more hits I gave, the less work I got,” says the singer who then opted to retire. Apparently, her songs were seldom played on radio and even if they were, she was denied credit. But she steers clear from commenting on this.
What makes her day today is reciting Quranic verses, the Gayatri mantra and even praises of Guru Nanak Sahib. And sometimes a comment made by the likes of maestro Pandit Jasraj who recently said on a music show, “Even well-known artistes have at some point copied Shamshad Begum and Noorjehan.”