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The Begum Remembers

They have said her voice is like a temple bell. In the mid-20th century,it got stacked in shelves as 78 rpm records and a young...

They have said her voice is like a temple bell. In the mid-20th century,it got stacked in shelves as 78 rpm records and a young,delighted nation cocked its ears to gramophone reeling out the mischievous Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana or the racy Meri jaan… Sunday ke Sunday. Or it could be Kabhi aar kabhi paar or Kajra mohabbatwala. The songs still echo but somehow the face got forgotten. So on March 31,when 90-year-old Shamshad Begum,in a wheelchair,was awarded the Padma Bhushan,it was time for some much-needed replay.

“Der aaye durust aaye. I have no angst,” says the Begum from her home in Mumbai. “And I was really touched when a young girl like Aishwarya Rai came and met me.” One of the earliest playback singers of Hindi cinema,she was content to remain behind the microphone,shying away from her own premieres and reticent to give interviews. But now that she has decided to open up,her memory is not failing her and her enthusiasm is unflagging. When her daughter Usha Ratra recalls how the filmmaker Mehboob Khan brought her from Lahore to Mumbai in 1942,the Begum adds wryly that she came away because she didn’t want to be a frog in the well. “But Mumbai was a huge ocean full of sharks. You had to deal with a lot of things,” she says.

In her hometown Lahore,she courted fame and fortune even as a 13-year-old,with the composer Ghulam Haider taking her under his wing. “In an audition with him I sang a Zafar ghazal Mera yaar mujhse mile agar,to main jaan uspe fida karu and he asked me to stop immediately,” she says. The next moment,she had a record contract and over the next two years her Punjabi songs topped the charts at 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 any 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,” she recalls.

The moment she set foot in Mumbai,she just fell in love with it. “Mehboob sahab made sure I was comfortable and provided me with a place to live and a car,” she says. After that there was no looking back,with films like Mela (1948),Patanga (1949),Aankhen (1950),CID (1956),Mother India (1957),Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and others hitting the theatre. Not many know that she gave voice to Nargis in her debut film Kismat — in the naughty Daroga ji. The Begum also remembers her first meeting with Raj Kapoor who introduced himself as Prithviraj Kapoor’s son: “He was this 23-year-old boy who wanted to do his first film and asked if I would sing in it. Those days,I was recording back to back,and I told him to come to my house during my lunch break.” After that everyday at lunch,Kapoor would come with Shankar (of the Shankar-Jaikishan duo) and music director Ram Ganguly to hold practice sessions. The result was Aag.

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Kishore Kumar is another favourite. “Bada hi jhalla jaya si (He was extremely dishevelled),” she says in Punjabi,“He began as a chorus singer and used to be really nice to me. Whenever I reached the studio,he would come up to me and ask if he would ever be successful. You can see how successful he became.”

She has worked with the best of music directors like Anil Biswas,Naushad and O.P. Nayyar,but the domination of the Mangeshkar sisters was hard to handle. “They came much later but the music directors started drifting away and she just quit,” says Ratra. “But I have no regrets,” the Begum adds,“God has given me all. My award is today’s children singing my songs.” When she switches on her TV for her favourite reality shows,youngsters unknowingly delight her,as they sing her songs,including that swan song of 1969. Kajara mohabbatwaala… and she breaks out into a smile.

First published on: 12-04-2009 at 03:48:53 am
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