A Heart Touching Voice
Shamshad Begum’s 100th birth anniversary
Shamshad Begum (14 April 1919 - 23 April 2013) was an Indian singer who was one of the first playback singers in the Hindi film industry. She had a distinctive voice and was a versatile artist, singing over 6,000 songs in Hindi and the Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and Punjabi languages and of them 1287 were Hindi film songs. She worked with maestros including Naushad Ali, S. D. Burman, C. Ramchandra and O. P. Nayyar. Her songs from the 1940s to the early 1970s remain popular and continue to be remixed.
Begum was born in Lahore on 14 April 1919, the day after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place, in a Muslim family and had seven siblings. Her father Miya Hussain Baksh, worked as a mechanic and her mother was an extremely conservative person. She fell in love with Ganpat Lal Batto, a lawyer, in 1932 and, despite family objections, married him at the age of 15 in 1934. She had one daughter, Usha Ratra, who is married to Lieutenant Colonel Yogesh Ratra. Begum's husband died in 1955 in an accident. Since her husband's death, Begum lived with her daughter and son-in-law in Mumbai, recently at Hiranandani Gardens in the Powai district.
At around 2004, a controversy erupted in the media, when several publications gave the false news of her death, before it was clarified that Shamshad Begum who had died in 1998 had the same name as Saira Banu's grandmother did.
Begum's talent was first spotted by her principal when she was in primary school in 1924. Impressed by the quality of her voice, she was made head singer of classroom prayers. At 10, she started singing folk-based songs at religious functions and family marriages. She received no formal musical training. Her singing ambitions, which she held from 1929, met with opposition from her family. In 1931, when she was twelve, her uncle, who enjoyed qawwalis and ghazals, secretly took her to Jenophone (or Xenophone) Music Company for an audition with Lahore-based musician and composer, Ghulam Haider. Begum said in an interview, "I sang Bahadur Shah Zafar's (the poet-ruler) ghazal Mera yaar mujhe mile agar." An impressed Haider gave her a contract for twelve songs, with facilities provided to top singers only. It was Begum's paternal uncle Ameer Khan who convinced her father, Miya Hussain Baksh, to allow her to sing. When she won a contract with a recording company, her father agreed to let her sing on the condition that she would record in a burka and not allow herself to be photographed. She earned 15 rupees per song and was awarded 500 rupees on the completion of the contract with Xenophone. Xenophone was a renowned music recording company, patronised by the rich, and her popularity grew in elite circles in the early 1930s. It was at first Hussain Bakshwale Sahab and later Ghulam Haider who improved her singing skills. Though she had won the Xenophone audition without taking any formal music training, both Hussain Bakshwale Sahab and later Ghulam Haider went on to improve her singing skills afterwards between 1937 and 1939.
Her popular breakthrough came when she began singing on All India Radio (AIR) in Peshawar and Lahore from 1937. Producer Dilsukh Pancholi wanted her to act as well in a film he was producing. Begum readily agreed, gave a screen test and was selected. Her father became angry when he found out and warned her that she would not be allowed to sing if she continued to harbour a desire to act. Begum promised her father that she would never appear before the camera. She continued to sing songs on radio. She never posed for photographs, and few people saw her picture between 1933 and the 1970s.
Begum sang for AIR through her musical group 'The Crown Imperial Theatrical Company of Performing Arts', set up in Delhi. The then AIR, Lahore helped her to enter the world of movies as they frequently broadcasted her songs, which induced music directors to use her voice for their films. Begum also recorded Naats and devotional music for a couple of gramophone recording companies. Her crystal-clear voice caught the attention of Sarangi maestro Hussain Bakshwale Saheb, who took her as his disciple.
Shamshad was at the peak of her career from 1940 to 1955 and was the most in demand female singer and highest paid female playback singer from 1940 to 1955. But after her husband's accidental death in 1955, Begum became a recluse and stopped accepting singing assignments, including recordings, for a year. Even though she had stopped recording her songs, from 1955 after her husband's death, the songs released between 1955 and early 1957 including songs from films such as CID, Naya Andaz, Baradari, Mr. & Mrs. '55 and other hits continued to be popular. At this juncture Mehboob Khan approached her in 1957 and said he wanted a full-throated voice for Nargis in Mother India.
Begum died at her Mumbai residence on the night of April 23 in 2013 after a prolonged illness. She was 94. She was cremated in a small, dignified ceremony.
Today marks the 100th birth anniversary of the legendary singer.