Shamshad Begum, the rustic nightingale

Shamshad Begum,  the rustic nightingale

Shamshad Begum was a star play-back singer for two decades, late thirties to the late fifties. At that time, there were at least thirty-five female...

Shamshad Begum was a star play-back singer for two decades, late thirties to the late fifties. At that time, there were at least thirty-five female voices in competition. Some were soon forgotten after a dozen songs and two lasted into 21st century. But all along, Shamshad was Shamshad Her clarion call could not be mistaken for another. Shamshad Begum was always vibrant, always in key, never sounded rowdy and rambunctious even when singing a comic caper. I should know. My first favourite Hindi film songs were hers, 'Diwali phir aagayi sajni' and 'Sawan ke nazare hain,' both from her first Hindi movie: "Khazanchi" (1941). Can you belive it, she lent her voice for all the nine songs in the film, solo numbers, duets and choruses! What was her experience by that time? She was born in Amritsar in 1919. In 1937, she started singing for the Radio Lahore. Just after that, the proprietors Janki Nath of Jien-O-Phone Record Co., contracted her to sing for him. While singing for the radio, and the non-film songs in Punjabi, Urdu for discs she had attracted the notice of the music- director Ghulam Haider and had the benefit of his counsel. He was composing for films and used her voice in "Yamla Jatt" (1940), a Punjabi film. I heard a duet from this film years later (sixties), 'Sapne wich suffna takiya' and I was astounded by her confidence, singing along with her guru, Ghulam Haider. In "Khazanchi," the numbers were racy, happy choruses. But the serious 'Ek kali, naazon ki pali,' the sentimental 'Man dheere dheere rona,' the romantic 'Lout gayi,' were also rendered with aplomb. I have with me the very first handful of songs, of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Geeta Dutt and a hearing proves that they were groping to find their own stance.
Geeta came into her own with SD Burman's coaching, 'Mera sundar sapna' in "Do Bhai" a year after her debut in "Bhakta Prahlad" (1946) for composer Pt Hanuman Prasad. Lata needed a Khemchand Prakash to facet her jewel-like voice into 'Ayega anewala,' "Mahal", (1949). Her Hindi play-back debut was for Datta Davjekar, 'Pa lagoon,' in "Aap Ki Seva Men" (1947). Asha had two solo numbers in the little known "Bhakta Gopal Bhaiya" (1948) under the baton of Shankerrao Vyas. It was so unknown that late Varsha said that according to her mother Asha, no recording was issued of these songs. I corrected her. There was, on the budding Young India label, SM2011 and I have it. It was Asha's fate that she sang for a number of composers and no doubt, some of the songs were exquisite, like 'Chahe sataye, vo chahe rulay,' in "Hamlet" (1954) for Ramesh Naidu but featured in costume fantasies and C rated devotionals, they did not catch the fancy of the public. It was left to C Ramachandra to give her youthful profile with 'Ina mina dika' from "Aasha" (1957). No great song but a resounding hit, competing with Kishore's version on an equal footing. Shamshad's early career had no such hiccups. She'd be asked to sing, eight songs in a film (Humayun, 1945, Haider), Actress, 1948, Shyam Sundar; Ghar Ki Izzat, 1948, Pt Gobindram) and an incredible ten out of ten in "Poonji" (1943, Haider). What made the composers bee-line for Shamshad when there were thirty other singers that had a dozen hits to their credit, Parul Ghosh (Hamari Baat, Main unki ban jaun re, Anil Biswas, 1943), Uma Devi (Dard, Afsana likh rahi hun, Naushad, 1947), Amirbai (Kismet, Ab tere siva, Anil Biswas, 1943), Sitara Bai, not to be confused with the dancer-actress (Man Ki Jeet, Nagri meri kab tak, SK Pal, 1944), Lalita Dewoolkar (Nadiya Ke Par, Dil leke bhaga, C Ramchandra, 1948), Surinder Kaur (Sabak, More nahi baware, AR Qureshi, 1950) Sulochanna Kadam (Dholak, Chori chori, Shyam Sundar, 1951), to mention only a few? Her voice, of course.
But there was her personal rapport with the composers too, that was kept by her at a strictly professional level. Ramchandra told me that she had no ego problems at all; her voice could go on a boy (Bachpan ke din, Deedar,1951), a second heroine (Chandini ayi, Dulari, 1949) an item number in today's parlance (Ek do teen, Awara,1951), an absolute new-comer Vyjayanthimala (Bahar,1951), the heroine's maid (Sheela Naik, Aan,1952), a vamp (Waheeda Rehman, C.I.D, 1956). Naushad raved about her unique presentation, of the lyric, no matter whether it was Urdu, rustic or sophisticated Hindi. "The best singers have sung for me. When I visualised a song in her voice, no one else could bring out that cutting edge. For the heroine Munawwar Sultana, I had her sing 'Jadu bhare nainon men.' In the same film, she sang bidai, 'Chhod babul ka ghar.' When I wanted a voice for a go-getting leading lady, it was Shamshad; 'Na bol peepee more angna' for Geeta Bali (Dulari, 1949), 'Laraloo laraloo' for Nalini Jaywant (Jadoo, 1951), 'Chaman men rahkar' for Nargis (Deedar, 1951)." "Sometimes I paired her with Lata, for the contrast; notice how well they go together in the Holi songs, 'Khelo rang hamare sang' (Aan, 1952), 'Holi ayi re kanhaayi' (Mother India, 1957) and 'Dar na muhabbat karle' (Andaz, 1949). She could stand the opposition of Rafi and Manna Dey, no mean singers, and come out with flying colours." He did not mention the songs but 'Dukhbhare din' and 'O gadiwale' both from "Mother India," come to my mind. In "Mela" (1948), there was signature call between the lovers, 'Dharti ko akash pukare,' much imitated in later films. This was just 45 second musical phrase by Shamshad and Mukesh, heard through the film. It was so much appreciated by the people that HMV had to issue a disc pairing it with orchestral dance music (N15920) whereas the other ten songs were all on Columbia label. Before C Ramchandra got fixated on Lata's voice, he had many swinging to his baton, Amirbai, Meena Kapoor, Lalita Dewoolkar, Geeta Roy. But when he wanted a joyous number laced with easy gait and gaiety, he opted for Shamshad. "Patanga" (1949) had gems, 'O dilwalo, dil ka lagana achha hai, Par kabhi, kabhi,' 'Mere pia gaye rangoon' with the composer chipping in as Chitalkar. Not a poke in the ribs forcing out an uncomfortable guffaw but a feather touch behind the ear to tickle your fancy. And 'Tabiyat saaf hogayi' (Sagai, 1951) is a punny take-off on the youth of the day, with Shamshad trading witty vocalisations with Rafi and Chitalkar. 'Sunday ki sunday' (Shehnai, 1947) is bandied about as the first westernised song from Hindi films. In this Chitalkar shares the space with Meena Kapur in the first half and with Shamshad in the second. Meena Kapur is her sophisticated self but it is the combination of Shamshad with Chitalkar that sets it alight. Shamshad sang very few songs with the singing stars of the time. I can recall only four or five with Suraiya, none of them exceptional. Again two with Surendra, and two with comedian Sudev. No great shakes. Her maximum numbers of duets, with male singers were naturally with Rafi and lesser number with Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Chitalkar, Honestly, I can't say a particular male voice suited her. I once asked SD Burman why he thought of using Shamshad's voice exclusively for a teenaged newcomer Vyjayanthimala in "Bahar" (1951). He asked, "Why not? Weren't they popular?" they were, all five of them. But the cracklingly mature voice for an adolescent? "I don't think of it that way. As per the screenplay, I visualise a song, listening to the director's requirement. Then I call for a voice which suits them. If all goes well, they're hits. If something goes wrong, they are duds!" In her early Jien-O-Phone period Shamshad sang many Hindu devotional and artis, some of them under a Hindu pseudonym. I recall 'Tere poojan ko bhagwaan' which was reprised with the same tune and phrasing twenty-five years later in "Majboori" (1954) by Asha and Hamida Banu. Many years ago, almost half-a-century perhaps, Shamshad started giving live concerts. Till then, I had not seen a single photograph of her anywhere. I met her when she came to Madras. Her daughter Usha Ratra acted as an occasional interpreter when I interviewed her. The concert was a sensational success. Her mainstay in orchestra was handsome accordeon player Sammy Reuben, who knew and reproduced every tinkling bit in the original orchestrations. She told me of encouragement she received from OP Nayyar, the scores of hit songs she sang for him. Her last raging forest-fire was 'Kajra muhabbatwala' a duet with Asha (Kismat, 1978). Asha'a voice went on the heroine Babita and Shamshad's on the hero Biswajit in drag. I am sure Shamshad cared not a hoot. Asha's voice is all soft velvet and Shamshad's: The glinty bead-work embroidery. A part from Hindi and Punjabi, she sang in Marwari,Bhojpuri and yes, in Tamil films too (Aan, 1952, Hazaar Raten, 1953). And hundreds of songs, non-film, in the categories of Religious, Rural uplift etc. I recall two Islamic songs, ' Ye kahani hai hasan ki aur husain ki' and 'Kali kamaliyawale' and one addressed to Sai Baba, that were popular across religious boundaries. Now that she is dead (then HMV and now) SaReGaMa will rush to issue a commemorative disc. Let's hope that it will do justice to the myriad-toned mesmeriser Shamshad. (The writer is a noted film historian and critic)
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