Shamshad Begum: First Superstar Female Playback Singer
By Asif Javed MD
As a fifteen- year-old burqa clad girl, Shamshad Begum (SB) had gone to All India Radio, Lahore in 1937 for audition. She used to sing devotional songs in private gatherings at the time. Master Ghulam Haider — that legendary musician who had an uncanny ability to spot talented singers -noticed her and asked her to sing a piece. Before asthai was over, he was impressed and offered her a contract.
SB’s place of birth is somewhat uncertain. Some authors mention Amratser while some others call it Lahore. What is not in dispute is the fact that she came from a very conservative background. After initial resistance to professional singing, her father relented and soon she had followed her mentor Master Ghulam Haider to Bombay. SB tasted success quickly and within a few years, overtook all female playback singers of the time; they included formidable names like Zohrabai and Amirbai. And she achieved all this despite having no training in classical music. Years later, the lack of training was to haunt her. In the late 40’s however, SB was the most popular and expensive female singer in India, charging Rs 1000 for a song.
In Bombay, SB became the lead singer for Ghulam Haider as well as Naushad who took her under his wings. Ghulam Haider migrated to Pakistan in 1947 but Naushad continued to use SB's talent and it was under his brilliant compositions that she sang most of her popular songs in movies like Shahjahan, Dard, Dulari, Mela, and Babul. But perhaps, her best song was for an unknown musician, Ram Ganguly, for Raj Kapoor’s first movie, Aag. “Kahe koel shore machae re”, was a huge hit and can be seen on U-tube even today. Ironically, what may have been her finest hour, may also have started her decline too. After Aag, Raj Kapoor had a fall out with Ram Ganguly and decided to use a new musician duo by the name of Shankar Jay kishen for his next movie, Bersat. Shanker Jay Kishen decided to use a new struggling singer from Maharashter—Lata—and dumped SB. By then, Naushad also had been smitten by the Lata bug and used her voice in Andaz ; SB was used sparingly. It seems that like Surayya and Oma Devi, lack of classical training also became SB’s Achilles heel. Belatedly, at someone’s suggestion, she did try to train herself in classic singing but gave up when told that this was going to ruin the natural flow of her voice.
SB’s decline was as swift as her ascendency. Industry insiders had known for a while that no one will be able to stand in front of Lata’s juggernaut. Noor Jahan would have been an exception but like Master Ghulam Haider, she too had moved on to Pakistan. The real humiliation for SB came in Mughal-e-Azam. Both SB and Lata were to sing the famous Qawali “Teri mehfil mein kismet azma ker”. SB was under the impression that she will be singing for Madhubala, the heroine. As it turned out, SB’s voice was given to Nigar Sultana, the vamp and Lata’s to Madhubala. Cultured but ruthless Naushad had given his verdict in a subtle way: Henceforth, Lata was to be his lead singer. By late 50’s, SB was at the periphery and by mid- 60’s, almost forgotten. OP Nayyar did use her voice once in Kismat (1968) in Kajra mohabbat wala but for all intents and purposes, that turned out to be her swan song; SB soon become history. Having seen the writing on the wall, she made a graceful exit and like Surayya before her and never looked back. She was barely fifty at the time.
SB continued to live quietly in Bombay with her daughter and son-in-law, her husband having died in 1955 in an accident. She virtually became a recluse and rarely gave interviews. A few years ago, Javed Iqbal, a music lover, associated with Ivory Club, Faisalabad, wanted to interview her but was dissuaded by Naushad who pointed out that she will not agree to one.
SB’s voice has been described as transparent, nasal hearty, full toned Punjabi style. Naushad once remarked that microphone had an affinity for SB’s voice and as a result, he would keep her at a distance of 9-10 feet from the microphone for proper recording; the distance for Lata was 1-2 feet. The most interesting description of SB’s singing style has come from Ganesh Anantharaman in his book, Bollywood Melodies. He says that SB had a “spirit of abandon before the mike”. Lata once remarked that SB had more sharpness to her voice than melody and could sing only some songs well. Some would disagree with Lata’s assessment but, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder..
SB, who died recently at 95 in Bombay, can arguably be credited with the title of the first superstar of female playback singers. Her reign at the top may have been relatively brief but was long enough for a generation of music lovers in the Indo-Pak subcontinent who were dazzled by her songs, and fondly remember her and the bygone era of their youth.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)