(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.