Shamshad Begum made the first difference when she was a toddler. The principal of her school, where she had her primary education upto V class noticed the '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 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 unobstrusive singing start in the early thirties when talkie films with songs began to be made. Gifted singers like K L Saigal, Master Nissar, Rafiq Ghaznavi, Govindrao Tembe, Jahan Ara Kajjan, Mukhtar Begum, Zohra Bai of Kapurthala, Jaddan Bai, Gohar Bai, Umra Zia Begum had already made their foray in the realm of Hindi films and film music and were carving a niche for themselves.
It was around that time, Jenophone Record Company was on the look out for fresh voices. Shamshad could sing and sing well but her orthodox and conservative 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 conservative father. Shamshad was at the threshold of her teens and was auditioned by none other than Master Ghulam Haider. The reluctant father had to give in and let his daughter sing but not before imposing certain conditions... that she would go to the studio in a burkha, not attend parties or functions and not get herself photographed. An obedient Shamshad honoured her father's whims even after she got married at the age of fifteen in 1934 to barrister Ganpatlal Batto, a Hindu by religion who incidentally was very fond of photography! Though she never got herself photographed till the late sixties, Shamshad Begum left her imprint in the minds of people through her Punjabi and Hindi songs – earlier for Jenophone company and later in films.
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, tw of her private songs Tere poojan ko bhagwan and Om Jai Jagdish hare (the famous Hindu Arti) 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 – instead, the songs were credited to Hindu names like Radhe Rani and Miss Shanti on the records!
Before making her debut in Hindi films, Shamshad Begum sang in Dalsukh Pancholi's Punjabi film “Yamla Jat” with music by Ghulam Haider. Pancholi's first Hindi film “Khazanchi” had as many as nine songs and Ghulam Haider recorded all the songs in the voice of Shamshad Begum. She was in her earlier twenties then and was neither new to the studio ambience and microphone nor to Ghulam Haider, her mentor. Shamshad Begum is the first and only singer who holds the unique distinction of singing all the songs in the debut film itself!
Shamshad was the favourite of Ghulam Haider though his own wife Umra Zia Begum was also a good singer and with whom Shamshad shared a cordial relation and had sung a number of songs in Punjabi. Ghulam Haider made a difference to the budding career of Shamshad and recorded songs in her ever-dependable agile, expressive and lustrous voice in films like Zamindar, Poonji, Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Humayun, Bairam Khan and Shama. Many of the songs from these films particularly Duniya Mein Gareebon Ko Araam Nahi 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 Ja Raha Hai (Humayun), Ashkon Par Hua Khatm Mere Gham Ka Fasana (Shama) became immensely popular and catapulted her career to greater name and fame.
Shamshad Begum made it big soon after “Khazanchi” and was the most sought after singer of the forties. Impressed with her distinctive voice, 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 singer in his film “Taqdeer” in which he introduced Nargis as a heroine. Soon, alongside 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 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 Bana Le and Jab Usne Gesu Bikhraye (Shahjahan) and songs with maukish and maudlin sentiments like Hum dard ke maaron ka itna hi fasana hai and Ye Afsana Nahi Zaalim (Dard).
And soon 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 lest, the ethereal song-snatch Dharti Ko Akash Pukaare, the first lover's call heard in any film), Chandni Raat (three plaintive romantic duets – Khabar Kya Thi Ke Gham Khaana Padega, Chheen 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 mornful duets like Milte Hi Aankhen and Duniya Badal Gayi 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 Gaao 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).
In many of these films, Shamshad Begum eassured her faith in herself and held her forte against the then upcoming Lata Mangeshkar in any number of 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 Koi Gaaye (Baiju Bawra) to the all-time contentious qawali Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat (Mughal-e-Azam), her last for Naushad.
Besides Ghulam Haider and Naushad, yet another composer who gave Shamshad Begum a new identity and a renewed commercial standing and success was the rebel maestro O P Nayyar. As a young music lover, Nayyar fell head over heels for the bold and bright voice of Shamshad Begum and reveled at the bell-like clarity and river-like fluidity 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 effervescent and beat-oriented 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 (CID), 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 for him to get 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 (he never admitted this in public) to Shamshad Begum for her gesture and at the same time he felt guilty (which he admitted occasionally) that he did not do full justice to the singer (and also Geeta Dutt) he admired and the voice he adored. It was because he was torn between Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle, the former on professional grounds and latter for emotional reasons.
Under Nayyar, Shamshad was fleetingly heard in 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 Pyaar 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'. But it would be more apt and correct to say that Kishore Kumar sang like her for she was senior to him both in age and experience and he looked upon to her with great reverence.
On this it must be mentioned 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 (Patang) 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), Yeh Duniya Roop Ki Chor (Shabnam – S.D. Burman), O Eechak Beechak Churr (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), Laa De Mohe Baalma (Rail Ka Dibba – Ghulam Mohammed) to name a few.
Each of these songs had its own speciality and requirements necessitating Shamshad Begum to resort to unimaginable tonal articulation and modulation, incredible vocal gimmicks and acrobatics and not once did She fail 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 chord of her innumerable admirers and well wishers.
Shamshad Begum sang in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujrati, Tamil and Punjabi in the multi-lingual song Ye Duniya Roop Ki Chor and was at her expressive best when she sneezed and snorted, babbled and warbled all in one go and one take when multi track recording systems were 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 Laa De Mohe Baalma Asmaani Choodiyaan She exhibited her stamina and breath control and sang Mohammed Rafi had to pause for breath after ten lines. Music lovers too heard these songs with unabated breath and the effect on them would be seen 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.
In her illustrious career, Shamshad Begum sang for almost all the composers. 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), Husnlal 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, Hum Log), Nashaad (Naghma), .... the list is endless.
Ever since her husband died young in the year 1955, Shamshad Begum has been living with her only daughter Usha and son-in-law Col Ratra and has been leading a happy and contended life away from the hustle bustle of the music world and the maddening crowd of Mumbai. The only disturibing element in her otherwise peaceful life was when an erroneous (and unpardonable) new item was flashed that “Shamshad Begum had died on 10th August 1998'! Strange, she read the news of her death when she was hale and hearty and very much alive and even attended calls that poured in to condole her death and received visitors who came to pay their last tribute. The Begum who died was a small time actress-singer by the same name and mother of yeteryear actress Naseem Banu's mother and Saira Banu's grandmother.
Shamshad Begum, the singer par expression is back in news with the recent announcement of the prestigious Padma Bhushan conferred on her and the following mass and media adulation and hysteria all of which would be surely reminding her of the significant contribution she made to the Hindi film music world. Perched on her chair, Shamshad Begum must be evoking nostalgia of the by-gone era and its pristine charm and humming to herself:-
Rut Badle Ya Jeevan Beete,
Dil Ke Taraane Hon Na Puraane;
Nainon Mein Banke Sapne Suhane,
Aayenge Ek Din Yahi Zamaane,
Yaad Hamaari Mitaa Na Dena,
Aaj Hanse Kal Rula Na Dena,
O Bachpan Ke Din Bhula Na Dena,
O Bachpan Ke Din Bhula Na Dena.