The Temple Bell falls silent

Shamshad Begum — one of the first female playback singers of the country — had arrived

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi | Published: April 25, 2013 3:58 am

In darkened cinema halls across the nation,during the time of grainy black-and-white movies,as the extremely effervescent Nigar Sultana lip-synced Mere piya gaye Rangoon,kiya hai vahan se telephoone in the superhit film Patanga (1949),the singer’s voice,a thick,textured tone,delighted the audience with its innocent mischief.

Not many knew the singer back then,but the infectious song just stuck,as many heard reruns of it on their boxy radio sets later. Shamshad Begum — one of the first female playback singers of the country — had arrived.

She later went on to become the golden voice of the industry — the voice behind popular songs like Kahin pe nigahen (CID),Holi ayi re kanhayi (Mother India),Chhod baabul ka ghar (Babul) and Sunday ke sunday (Shehnai).

The reclusive singer,whose lilting voice was a part of LPs at every music store in the country in the ’40s and ’50s,died after a prolonged illness on Tuesday afternoon at her daughter Usha Ratra’s Mumbai residence. She was 94.

“We remember Shamshad Begum’s scintillating,dynamic voice that gushed out of radio sets into our hearts,like an arrow dipped in honey. But I have to say that the real Shamshad Begum was not how her voice sounded on screen.

She was an extremely gentle and sober human being. I had once invited her for an award ceremony and she replied,‘I don’t like any kind of pomp and show. I am comfortable with my family’. She had a magnificent voice that came across beautifully in songs such as Gaadi waale (Mother India) and Door koi gaye (Baiju Bawra),” recalled radio anchor Ameen Sayani.

“She was an excellent singer with an extremely powerful and versatile voice. She remained the queen of playback singing for long,and did all kinds of songs for a number of music directors. As a person,she was humble and respected others. Success did not affect her,” said composer Khayyam.

“I haven’t met a finer musician in my life. Though she was older to me,our relationship was extremely friendly. Once my father got me a new salwar kameez which I wore to the studio. She said,‘you look just like my daughter’, and thus began an everlasting friendship,” said yesteryear singer Mubarak Begum,who first met her at a recording studio for a duet for Mohan Sinha’s film Aulad.

“I really wanted to meet her,and tried to do so for the last few years. But her daughter did not allow it. I will always remember her as the singer who would sing with her hand on her ear. She sounded perfect,” said Mubarak Begum.

For many years,Shamshad Begum remained behind the microphone,shying away from her own premieres. Born in Amritsar on April 14,1919,it was in Lahore that she courted fame and fortune as a 13-year-old. It was after she auditioned for music composer Ghulam Haider (who also discovered Noorjehan) and sang the Zafar ghazal Mera yaar mujhse mile agar,to main jaan uspe fida karu that she received a record contract. She was an instant hit at the Lahore and Peshawar radio stations.

“I had no training in classical music,except for singing some Muslim naats in school,and I had an unsupportive family which did not make it easy. I used to lie to my parents and go with my uncle for recording with the Jenaphone Company,which was a sister concern of the Gramophone Company. They paid me Rs 25 for one record that contains about 12 songs,” Begum had said in an interview to this reporter earlier.

After moving to Mumbai,she sang for some of the finest composers like Naushad,S D Burman and Khemchand Prakash. But it was her association with O P Nayyar — who once compared her voice to the temple bell — that led to memorable songs like Kabhi aar kabhi paar and Leke pehla pehla pyar that had the audience queuing up outside record shops.

But after a few years,the Mangeshkar singers entered the scene. Begum’s swan song in 1969,Kajra mohabbat wala,left the audience captivated. “The Mangeshkar sisters came much later,but I have no regrets. God has given me everything. My award is today’s children singing my songs,” Begum had said.

The temple bell has now gone silent.

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