Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Talent, when subjected to the rigorous test of time and then recognized and rewarded, loses faith in itself and the award. Even the award loses it value when not given at the time it should have been. Expectedly, the value of the ‘loss’ is felt by none, neither the giver nor the recipient. The award then is ‘given’ and ‘received’ more as a matter of formality with absolutely no feeling of regret on the part of the former and generally with a feeling of remorse on the part of the latter.

It is, no doubt, heartening to note that the Government of India finally chose to honour the legendary singer Shamshad Begum with the prestigious Padma Bhushan for her melodious and meritorious contribution to the field of Hindi film music. The super songster achieved the enviable legendary status at the dawn of her career, was acknowledged the numero uno star-singer of the forties and ruled the playback scene for almost twenty years with her inimitable and unconventional voice. What hurts is the ‘recognition’ comes to her in the twilight of her life (she turned ninety on 14th April, 2009) along with names like Udit Narayan, Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai, all half her age or even less and for whom the test of time seemed redundant! In the wake of the Padma Bhushan, Shamshad Begum has now been short-listed for the Dadasaheb Phalke Academy Award when she deserved the coveted and prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award itself and many others much earlier in her life time - at a time when it would have made a bigger difference to the singer who had at all times made an unfathomable difference to the lives of millions of music lovers.

Shamshad Begum made the first difference when she was a toddler. The principal of her school, where she had her primary education up to V standard, noticed the ‘striking difference’ in her voice quality, spotted her latent singing talent and made her the head singer of the class room prayers. As a little girl of ten, Shamshad sang traditional and folk-based songs in family marriages and other religious functions. She enthralled everyone with her endearing and exuberant style of singing by flinging her one hand in the air and displaying a free-wheeling spirit and spirit of freedom. Ironically, now with age not in her favour, she is confined to the wheel chair or the walker with the support of which she moves around in her spacious apartment in the Hiranandani Gardens, Powai, Mumbai where she lives with her only daughter Usha and son-in-law Col. Yograj Ratra.

But the spirit, sparkle and spontaneity of the sprightly Shamshad are intact as they were when she made her unobtrusive singing start in the early thirties when sound and songs had become an integral part of Hindi films. Gifted singers like K L Saigal, Master Nissar, Rafiq Ghaznavi, Govindrao Tembe, Jahan Ara Kajjan, Mukhtar Begam, Zohrabai of Kapurthala, Jaddanbai, Goharbai, Umra Zia Begum had already made their foray in the realm of Hindi films and film music and had carved a niche for themselves.

Jenophone Record Company was on the look out for fresh voices. Shamshad, then at the threshold of her teens, sang well but her conservative and orthodox family was not musically inclined and supportive. Luckily, Shamshad had an appreciative and encouraging uncle who took her to the record company much against the wishes of her strict father. Shamshad was auditioned by none other than Master Ghulam Haider and an impressed Haider asked the company to sign her on a contract. After much cajoling, her reluctant father yielded and let his daughter sing but not before imposing certain conditions…that she would go to the studio in a burkha, not attend any party or function, not give interviews and not get herself photographed. The docile daughter respected her whimsical father’s conditions both before and even after marriage. She got married at the age of fifteen in 1934 to one Ganpatlal Batto, a Hindu by religion and a barrister by profession who incidentally was very fond of photography! Though she never allowed herself to be photographed till her career lasted till the late sixties, yet Shamshad Begum left her imprint in the minds of her admirers through the wide variety of private and film songs she sang in Hindi, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Tamil besides the Urdu-Islamic songs.

Shamshad Begum sang under a contract with the company and was paid Rs.12.50 per song, a royal amount in the thirties. She recorded as many as 200 songs for the company (mostly under the baton of Ghulam Haider) which were only broadcast in the radio but not released on gramophone records. In the late thirties, two of her private songs Tere poojan ko bhagwan and Om Jai Jagdish hare (the famous Hindu aarti) became immensely popular. But because of the turbulent and tension-filled political situation prevailing then, the recording company did not take the risk of associating a Muslim name with Hindu bhajans and the songs were credited to Hindu names like Radhe Rani and Miss Shanti on the records!

Shamshad Begum made her playback debut in Dalsukh Pancholi’s first Hindi film “Khazanchi” (1941), an epoch-making money spinner with music by Ghulam Haider who defied tradition, set a new trend and brought about a musical revolution with his effervescent and free-wheeling compositions like Sawan ke nazaare hain, Laut gayi paapan andhiyaari, Ek kali naazon ki pali, Diwali phir aa gayi sajni..…. These modern sounding rhythmic songs reverberated in the early forties and stirred the entire nation which was then reeling in the aftermath of World War II. Ghulam Haider ingeniously blended vibrant and vigorous rhythm with his lilting melodies which had the rich flavour of the lush folk tunes of Punjab and presented them through the vocals of the orotund Shamshad Begum, who with her bold, bright and boisterous singing went on to become the leading and the highest paid star singer of the forties.

Shamshad was in her early twenties then and was neither new to the studio ambience and microphone nor to Ghulam Haider, the film’s composer and her mentor. The film had nine songs and all the songs were recorded in the voice of Shamshad Begum and she holds the unique distinction of being the only singer to sing all the songs in a debut film itself. The aha aha and la la la la la refrains heard in the song Sawan ke nazaare hain were an indication of the songs that she was to sing with gay abandon and animated spirit in later years and come to be identified with.

Shamshad Begum was the favourite singer of Ghulam Haider though his own wife Umra Zia Begum was also a good singer with whom Shamshad shared a cordial relationship and had sung a number of songs in Punjabi. Ghulam Haider mentored, moulded and monitored her career right from the time she sang Punjabi songs for him in the early thirties to the time he migrated to Pakistan after partition. His two advices to her were - to be a good human being (which she is till now) and to adapt herself to the style of every composer the way water takes the shape of the container in which it is poured. Shamshad was a natural and spontaneous singer with no classical grounding. When she expressed her concern about the lack of it, her mentor’s words of wisdom were that her voice was like a flowing river and even a slight classical touch to the voice would put an end to its fluidity.

Under her mentor’s baton, Shamshad’s voice not only flowed but gushed with agility and vigour in songs from films like “Khazanchi”, “Khandaan”, “Zamindar”, “Poonji”, “Chal Chal Re Naujawan”, “Humayan”, “Bairam Khan” and “Shama”. Songs like Duniya mein ghareebon ko araam nahin milta and Mere haal par bebasi ro rahi hai (from Zamindar), Gaadiwaale dupatta uda jaaye and Sheeshe ke nahin tukde (Poonji), Naina bhar aaye neer and Husn kehta jaa raha hai (Humayun), Ashkon pe hua khatm mere gham ka fasana (Bairam Khan) and Ik tera sahara (Shama) became immensely popular and catapulted her career to greater name and fame. Even now Shamshad remembers, with great awe and admiration, the contribution of her mentor in transforming her from an amateur singer to an avante garde professional.

Impressed with her distinctive voice and songs from “Khazanchi”, Mehboob Khan lured her to Bombay (once again after accepting her father’s conditions of providing her with minimum luxuries like a house, car and servants) and made her sing in his film “Taqdeer” in which he introduced Nargis as a heroine. Soon, along side Ghulam Haider, she started singing for other composers like Rafiq Ghaznavi, Ameer Ali, Pt. Gobindram, Pt. Amarnath, Bulo C Rani, Rashid Atre, M A Mukhtar to name a few in the pre-independence era. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, songs of these composers have become rare and remote and now just adorn the dust-laden shelves of a few connoisseurs of vintage music.

After partition, Ghulam Haider migrated to Pakistan and around the same time, yet another composer who made a big difference to Shamshad Begum’s illustrious career was Naushad. With her youthful and buoyant spirit intact, she swayed her way into the hearts of the maestro and music lovers with her carefree rendition of perennial charmers like Jawani ke daaman ko rangeen banaale and Jab usne gesu bikhraaye (Shahjahan) and songs with mawkish and maudlin sentiments like Hum dard ke maaron ka itna hi fasana hai and Ye afsana nahin zaalim (Dard).

She became a favourite of Naushad too and sang a wide variety of songs in films like Anokhi Ada (dulcet duets Kyon unhen dil diya with Surendra and Bhool gaye kyon deke sahara with Mukesh), Mela (pathos-laden songs like Mohan ki muraliya baaje, Gham ka fasana kisko sunaayen, Taqdeer bani bankar bigdi, Mera dil todnewaale with Mukesh and, not the least, the ethereal song-snatch Dharti ko akash pukare, the first lover’s call heard in any film), Chandni Raat (three plaintive romantic duets – Khabar kya thi ke gham khana padega, Chhen ke dil kyon pher li ankhen, Kaise baje dil ka sitar with Mohammed Rafi), Dulari (feather-weight ditties like Chandni aayi banke pyar and Na bol pee pee more angna), Babul (the mellow and mournful duets like Milte hi ankhen and Duniya badal gayi both with Talat Mahmood and the cult bidaai song Chhod babul ka ghar), Deedar (the soulful serenade Chaman mein rehke veerana, a song composed by Naushad with only Shamshad in mind), Jadoo (the animated and spirited Jab nain mile nainon se with the famous lara loo refrain), Aan (breezy triplets Khelo rang hamaare sang and Gao taraane mann ke with Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar) and Mother India (atmospheric folk-based charmers like Holi aayi re and O gaadiwaale gaadi dheere haank re and yet another bidaai bard Pee ke ghar aaj pyaari dulhaniya chali).

Lata Mangeshkar had already ‘arrived’ in a big way (incidentally she was adjudged winner at the “Khazanchi singing contest” held in Pune) and had displaced any number of singers who were heard in the forties. But Shamshad Begum had faith in herself and held her forte against Lata in duets ranging from the light-hearted Darr na mohabbat kar le (Andaz), the sentimental lamentation Kisike dil mein rehna tha (Babul), the juvenile Bachpan ke din bhula na dena (Deedar), the folk-based Door koyi gaaye (Baiju Bawra) to the all-time contentious qawali Teri mehfil mein qismat (Mughal-e-Azam), her last for Naushad.

O P Nayyar, with his effervescent and rhythmic melodies, gave Shamshad a new identity and a renewed commercial standing and success. As a young music lover, Nayyar fell head over heals for the bold and bright voice of Shamshad Begum and reveled at the bell-like clarity and river-like fluidity of her voice in the songs she sang for Ghulam Haider. Nayyar took a spontaneous decision to make his ‘favourite singer’ sing his songs when he became a music director; he kept the promise he made to himself. Nayyar carried forward the trend set by Ghulam Haider and in his composing repertoire, Shamshad Begum was once again in her full element singing songs like Kabhi aar kabhi paar (Aar Paar), Ab to jee hone laga (Mr. and Mrs. 55), Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana, Boojh mera kya naam re and Leke pehla pehla pyar (C I D), all films of Guru Dutt in which the main female voice was that of his singer-wife Geeta Dutt.

Nayyar had replaced Mohammed Shafi and Roshan in some of the B grade films like “Mangu” and “Mehbooba” after they had composed a couple of songs for each of these films. When some of the big wigs from the industry protested and almost stopped his recordings and played hard on him to get recording dates and singers, an undaunted Shamshad Begum alone salvaged Nayyar out of the situation by lending her vocal support to the chagrin of others. Nayyar remained eternally grateful to Shamshad Begum for her gesture and at the same time felt guilty that he had not done full justice to the singer; it was because he was torn between Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle, the former on professional grounds and the latter for emotional reasons. Nayyar never found the right opportunity to admit his guilt in public but grieved about it and confided in those with whom he was close and comfortable.

Under Nayyar, Shamshad was heard but fleetingly in the later year films like “Chhoo Mantar”, “Musafir Khana”, “Miss Coca Cola”, “Mr. Qartoon M A”, “Shrimati 420”, “Howrah Bridge”, “Naya Daur” and “Kismat” her last with Nayyar. But he relied completely on her for most of the songs in “Naya Andaz” in which Shamshad vied vocally with the versatile Kishore Kumar in songs like Meri neendon mein tum, Tumhi se pyar tumhi se qaraar, Chana jor garam babu and Aaj suhani raat re. It was sheer fallacious on the part of music lovers to refer Shamshad Begum as the ‘female Kishore Kumar’ because of the fun-loving and frothy, flippant and flamboyant, rollicking and rumbustious numbers that ‘she sang like him’. It would be more apt to say that Kishore Kumar sang like her for she was senior to him both in age and experience and he looked upon her with great reverence.

There is no denying the fact that Shamshad Begum was the undisputed queen of this genre of songs viz. Aana meri jaan … Sunday ke Sunday (Shehnai) and Mere piya gaye Rangoon (Patanga) both under C Ramchandra who was the first to tap the fun and mischief element in her bold and bright voice. And more songs followed like Hello hello gentleman (Actress under Shyam Sundar), Ye duniya roop ki chor (Shabnam – S D Burman), Ae eechak beechak bhurr (Bawre Nain - Roshan), Bogi bogi bogi (Humlog – Roshan), Jo tum karo main kar sakta hoon badhke (Ada – Madan Mohan), O madam do se ho gaye ek hum (Ashiana – Madan Mohan), Laade mohe baalma (Rail Ka Dibba – Ghulam Mohammed) to name a few.

Each of these songs had its own specialty and requirements necessitating Shamshad Begum to resort to unimaginable tonal articulation and modulation, incredible vocal gimmicks and acrobatics and not once did she disappoint her composers who had full faith in her expressive prowess. Even when the mike was placed at safe distance in view of her bold and bright voice, she hit the right note, gave the right expression and touched the right cord of her innumerable admirers and well wishers.

Shamshad Begum sang the multi-lingual song Ye duniya roop ki chor (which had five different stanzas in different languages viz. Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and Punjabi) and was at her expressive best when she sneezed and snorted, babbled and warbled all in one go and one take when the multi track recording system was unheard of. She displayed her amazing vocal range in the song Jo tum karo main kar sakta hoon badhke and literally upstaged Kishore Kumar by retorting Main kar sakti hoon tumse bhi badh karke. Yet again, in the song Laade mohe baalma asmaani choodiyan she exhibited her stamina and breath-control and sang effortlessly about fourteen lines at one stretch where as her co-singer Mohammed Rafi had to pause for breath after ten lines. Music lovers too heard these songs with unabated breath and the effect on them was discernible in the form of a faint smile, a light giggle, a wide grin or a full-throated hearty laughter. Shamshad Begum excelled in each of these songs and surpassed her own singing and proved time and again that she was Shamshad Begum – Singer par Expression.

Besides Ghulam Haider, Naushad and O P Nayyar who had a major bearing on her career commercially, other composers for whom she sang include Rafiq Ghaznavi (Taqdeer), Pt. Gobindram (Doosri Shaadi, Ghar ki Izzat, Dil ki Duniya, Nisbat, Bholi), Bulo C Rani (Anjuman, Nazaare, Jogan), Shyam Sundar (Actress, Nirdosh, Bhai Behan), Anil Biswas (Veena), Khemchand Prakash (Rimjhim, Sawan Aaya Re, Bijli, Ziddi), Ram Ganguli (Aag), C Ramchandra (Shehnai, Namoona and Patanga), Hansraj Behl (Chheen Li Azaadi, Sawan), Husanlal-Bhagatram (Jal Tarang, Afsana, Aansoo), S D Burman (Shabnam, Bahar, Chalis Baba Ek Chor), Ghulam Mohammed (Doli, Grahasthi, Pugree, Pardes, Hanste Aansoo, Nazneen, Ajeeb Ladki, Sheesha, Rail Ka Dibba), Roshan (Bawre Nain, Bedardi, Humlog), Nashaad (Naghma)….. the list is endless.

Ever since her husband died young in the year 1956, Shamshad Begum has been living with her only daughter Usha and son-in-law Col. Ratra and has been leading a happy and contented life away from the hustle bustle of the music world and the maddening crowd of Mumbai. The only disturbing element in her otherwise peaceful life was when the press goofed up and carried an erroneous (and unpardonable) obituary of her ‘sad demise on 10th August 1998…’ when she was very much alive and hale and hearty. Strange but true, she read the news of her demise and even attended calls that poured in to condole the ‘grave gaffe’ and received visitors who came to pay their last tribute! Incidentally, the Begum who died was a small time actress-singer by the same name and mother of yesteryear’s actresses Naseem Banu’s mother and Saira Banu’s grandmother.

Shamshad Begum, the Singer par Expression was back in the news with the prestigious Padma Bhushan conferred on her, the resultant mass and media adulation and hype and hysteria… and also with the three live shows organised by KEEP ALIVE (an organization of ‘yours truly’ which strives to resurrect the golden era of Hindi film music and perpetuate the memories of the legends) to commemorate her landmark 90th birthday.

‘Some Shaad’ (Happy) Moments with Shamshad Begum

After an arduous hunt for her contact numbers and a couple of one-sided correspondence, I managed finally, with the help of a friendly couple who lived in her vicinity, to get in touch with her family and get an appointment with Shamshadji. With both excitement and nervousness, we reached her place at the given time and were greeted warmly by her daughter Usha and son-in-law Col. Ratra. There was absolutely no air of strangeness, no signs of reluctance on their part in entertaining us and it was in direct contrast to the impression given about them by people who claimed to be ‘close’ to her and her family.

My nervousness vanished and my excitement grew as my raring and roving eyes waited to get a glimpse of the singer whom I had only heard from childhood. For about ten minutes we exchanged pleasantries which included a little about myself and my brain-child KEEP ALIVE though all the time, with bated breath, I was looking at the corridor from where the grand lady would make her grand entry… and finally, the vigil was over and a frail and fragile cute-looking Shamshadji arrived with the help of a walker smiling all the way like a chirpy little girl oblivion of everything around.

Her cherubic smile greeted me and I reciprocated with a ‘namaste’, gave her the bouquet that I had brought along and bowed down to touch her tiny feet. I couldn’t believe my eyes; tears welled and were waiting to roll down but I kept great control on my mawkish sentiments. She was perched on a chair and sat on it like an obedient and well-behaved child for the next one hour and forty five minutes that I got to spend with her (as against my expectation of not more than fifteen minutes). Due to age she was a little hard of hearing. That helped me get closer to her and I sat at her feet like Hanuman and like an excited child started flaunting my ‘knowledge’ on Hindi films and songs of yore, the great composers for whom she sang, the songs she sang, the expression she gave to those songs… all in one breath which was interrupted by the interesting anecdotes which the mother and daughter shared turn by turn. Her bold, strong, vibrant voice had become feeble but, incredible it may sound, at ninety she was still in her elements, mentally alert, memory in tact, witty and jovial and full of life contrary to the sober and mellowed down image I had of her.

She made fleeting references about her mentor Ghulam Haider with great reverence, about how Naushad terrified Talat Mahmood while recording songs for “Babul” and how she bullied Naushad for making him nervous, about how she rendered the ‘breathless’ or rather ‘breath-taking’ song Laade mohe baalma from “Rail Ka Dibba” effortlessly and how Rafi Sahab felt embarrassed at not being able to sing in one breath the fourteen lines which they both had to sing individually, about how she rendered the multi-lingual song Ye duniya roop ki chor in one take, about how she supported debutant and yet-to-establish composers like S D Burman, Madan Mohan, Chitragupt, O P Nayyar and film makers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. The pride in her tone was devoid of narcissism and self-indulgence or any kind of bitterness. And all these she said with a little prompting from her daughter where her memory gave way and, where their memories failed, I was only too eager to add my bit to the tid-bits.

Shamshadji was baffled at my ‘knowledge’ and when she discovered that I was a Tamilian and yet had great passion for and understanding of Hindi film songs, she started addressing me as ‘Madrasi Genius”. That indeed was a great compliment and, without sounding immodest, I must say I loved the compliment and felt flattered.

Time was flying by and I honestly felt they had given me more than enough time. I tried making my way out once or twice only to find that Shamshadji was still basking in the ‘past’ and looked visibly happy reliving every moment of her glorious past in my company. She said, “Aap ki company achhi lagi”. I felt honoured again and reveled at the fact that I had, in some small way, added some more life to her years. It was a sort of a heart-warming reunion of a long lost grandmother and grandson and the impact of the emotional experience will only get diluted even if I try to express it through the best hyperboles.

She blessed me a number of times and I wanted to ‘live’ my ‘long life’ blessed by her with the sweet memories of this rendezvous. Before I left (of course, with a heavy heart) I promised to send her a CD of her songs. As promised, on her 90th birthday which fell on the 14th April, I sent two CDs consisting about 350 songs immortalized by her at the peak of her career and a huge birthday card signed the way she would have wanted me to as ‘Madrasi Genius’.

On 14th evening, I received a call from her daughter Ushaji and it indeed was a pleasant surprise. Shamshadji had obviously received the birthday card and the CDs as I could hear the strains of the songs in the background. I was told that she was too thrilled to receive such a big card as she had never received one like that all through her life. Shamshadji was on line; I wished her at the top of my voice as I couldn’t and didn’t want to control my excitement. She kept blessing me and thanking me ‘badi mehrbaani aap ki, badi mehrbaani aap ki’. I longed to hear, at least once, the epithet she had given me so fondly but how could I fish for the compliment again? She was too quick to read my mind over the telephone and addressed me in a sotto voce as ‘Madrasi Genius’ and my child-like excitement knew no bounds. I had sent the birthday card only to make her ‘day’ but instead she made my ‘life’. ‘Some Shad’ moments like these come only once in a while but remain deeply entrenched forever.

Manohar Iyer