Remembering Vocalist Shamshad Begum

Author: Saleem Malik (for Pakistani Publication Muslim, 1996)

Strange are the vicissitudes of life, especially the ups and downs in the world of showbiz that those artistes who used to bask in the sunshine of glory,  glamour  and  fame,  were forgotten  soon  after their eclipse from the chart of popularity.

Ever since the advent to talkies (sound motion pictures) in the  sub-continent,  many  heart-throbs of the millions have now slipped into historical oblivion,  and  very  few  among music  buffs  remember those glittering stars of yesteryears whose glow once brightened the entire firmament of showbiz.

Vocalist Shamshad Begum, whose sparkling melodies used  to cast  hypnotic spells on music buffs and movie-goers some 35 years ago, in now languishing in the murk of obscurity in  a Bombay suburb. Forgotten by the movie moghuls, composers and cine-goers, the septuagenarian crooner is spending the evening of her life almost unnoticed.

Shamshad Begum ruled the roost, first at Lahore and later at Bombay, when Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle were not even introduced in the film-world. She was the first female singer who assumed the status of a legend during her lifetime. With the help of her highly individualistic and charismatic personality, glow and a certain vivacity in her voice, she became the most sought-after female playback singer  in  the late 30s, 40s and 50s.

It was on Dec 16, 1937, when radio made its  debut  from Lahore  and  so did Shamshad Begum.  Singing solos and duets with Umrazia Begum (who later became Mrs. Ghulam  Haider), the  Amritsar-born  Shamshad  Begum captivated the hearts of listeners with the enchanting depth of her voice which  then had no parallel.

When she was in her teens, she shifted  from  Amritsar  to Lahore  where she soon became the first playback singer ever to lend her voice for the movies produced  in  Lahore.   The then AIR Lahore  helped  her  in  penetrating the world of movies as frequent broadcasting of her songs  induced  music directors  to  use  her voice for film songs. Shamshad Begum also recorded naats and devotional songs for a  couple  of gramophone  recording  companies which where then located in Bakshi Market of Anarkali, Lahore.

Lahore-based composer Ghulam Haider used her voice skillfully in  some  of  his earlier films, mostly in Punjabi.  The songs "Kankaan deyaan faslaan pakkiaan nain", when recalled, still  create  nostalgic  fondness  among  senior  denizens. Another  composition  of  Master  Ghulam  Haider  for  which Shamshad  Begum lent her voice was a "aya, hai bulaawa mujhe darbar-e-nabi se", which became very  popular  in  the  late 30s.

When the late Masterji shifted to Bombay in 1944,  Shamshad Begum  went  with  him as a member of his team. Both of them rose to heights of fame in the film capital of  India.  In 1944, when  Mehboob  Khan  launched his historical venture, "Humayun", Shamshad Begum's voice was used by Master  Ghulam Haider  for  the  recording of that movie's songs.  The song "nainaan bhar aaye neer" sung by Shamshad became a superhit.

That was the time when Amirbai  Karnataki  was  considered number  one playback singer in Bombay, and a majority of actresses used to croon songs picturised on them. With the introduction of Shamshad  Begum in the filmworld in Bombay, contemporary composers almost fell over each other in  booking her for the recording of their songs.

For almost three decades, Shamshad Begum reigned supreme in the world of film music in the subcontinent.  Frontline composers like Master Ghulam Haider, Naushad Ali,  O.P.Nayyar, C.  Ramachandra used Shamshad Begum's voice which was then regarded as one of the guarantees for the success of a film.

The stark, almost unbearably tender "Ek tera sahara" (Ghulam Haider  in the film "Shamaa"), the buoyant sophistication of the  song  "Nainaa  bhar  aye neer" (Master Ghulam Haider in "Humayun"), the open sadness of the song "Duniya badal gayi" (Naushad Ali in "Babul), the sparkling  vivacity  of  "Kajra mohabbat  wala"  (O  P Nayyar in "Qismat"), and the pathetic beseeching of a lover in "Ye afsaana nahi  zaalim"  (Naushad Ali  in  "Dard") are some of the extremely poignant reminders of Shamshad Begum's sonic versatility. Her other popular songs  included  "Kabhi  aar kabhi paar laaga teer-e-nazar", "Reshmi salwar kudtaa jaali ka", "Bachpan ke  din  bhula  na dena",  "Chaman  mein  rahkar bhi", which still retain their freshness. With the wide range of her voice, Shamshad's command over her vocal resources sounded complete

Cinemasangeet Editor’s comments:

  • Shamshad Begum had a robust, rustic voice with a candid transparency. Verve, vigour and volume were her vocal strengths.
  • As a small girl, Lata Mangeshkar won her first important prize at a music competition singing a Shamshad-song from Khazanchi.
  • In the 1950s, the same Lata- now a rising star in Hindi film music, so enamoured all top composers with her softer, more erudite, more nuanced rendition-style that Shamshad was soon relegated to sidelines.
  • Even composer O.P.Nayyar- who never used Lata in his music and who was helped by Shamshad in his struggling days, later totally switched over to Asha Bhosle as the premier playback voice. That left this once leading light of playback singing with no other option but to slip into a premature professional decline and fall.

(The article was originally archived on RMIM page by Satish Subramanian.)

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