Shamshad Begum: A tribute to a voice long gone
(Hindi translations by Ankush Arora, with help from Havovi Cooper and Uzra Khan. Punjabi translation by Vineet Sharma.)
How do you pay tribute to a singer who faded from public memory, only to revisit the headlines when she died? I was wondering this today after learning that playback singer Shamshad Begum died in Mumbai on Tuesday, just 10 days after her 94th birthday.
I heard her voice for the first time not too long ago: her duet with Lata Mangeshkar in “Mughal-E-Azam” (“Greatest of the Mughals”) — Teri mehfil mein qismat (“My destiny in your court”) — is my favourite song of hers. In this song from the 1960 blockbuster movie, the two greats lent their voices to Anarkali (played by Madhubala) and Bahar (Nigar Sultana), who are vying for Prince Salim’s (Dilip Kumar) affections. The tension between the two characters is almost palpable, accentuated by Mangeshkar’s softness and Begum’s unorthodox, mature voice.
Hours after Begum’s death, Mangeshkar tweeted: “Maine unke saath kafi filmo’n mein gaane gaaye, wo bohot acchhi hasmukh aur sidhi saadhi shakhsiyat thi.” (“I have sung with her for various films; she was a very pleasant, cheerful and a down-to-earth person.”)
Begum, born in Amritsar, recorded her first song in the 1930s in Punjabi: “O sajni, ik duje da palada phad ke, ik ho jayega” (“O beloved, by supporting each other, we are one.”). In an interview more than 20 years ago, the Padma Bhushan awardee sang that number again, and it seemed she had never been gone. There is a nostalgia in her voice that conveys the meaning of her name; Shamshad means “graceful” in Persian.
“I went there, gave a trial, and was admitted like soldiers are recruited in the army,” a visibly amused Begum said of her first audition, which won her a 12-song contract at 12 rupees per song.
I came across many facets of this self-confessed untrained artiste, whose repertoire is a mix of romance, melancholy, innocence, coquetry and wisdom. Despite her absence from the public eye, Bollywood brought her songs back from obscurity with modern-day remixes.
“Kajra Mohabbat Wala” (“Kohl of Love”) – sung towards the end of her career for “Kismet” (“Fate”) in 1968 — is a foot-tapping number that ended up, in its original form, in the 2011 Bollywood film “Tanu Weds Manu“. And while Rockstar’s “Katiya Karoon” (“I’ll spin”) is a fixture at weddings and parties, music lovers may not know that Begum sang the original in Punjabi half a century ago.
But her singing career wasn’t as prolonged as say, that of Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhonsle, who have dominated the music industry for several decades. “A change came about in the industry when a person’s work became less important and manipulation became paramount,” Begum said.
How should we remember Shamshad Begum? A befitting tribute would be her song from “Mela” (“Carnival”) (1948), a song also sung by singer Mukesh for a death scene: Dharti ko akaash pukaare, aaja aaja prem pujaare, aana hi hoga. Is duniya ko chodh ke pyaare jhoothe bandhan tod ke saare. (“The sky calls out to the earth; come, come, O worshipper of love, you have to. Leave this world behind, breaking all those untrue bonds.”)