'Aaj machine gaate hain, artiste nahin': How industry politics cut short legendary singer Shamshad Begum's career

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·9-min read
Shamshad begum

Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana (C.I.D)…

Saiyan dil mein aana re (Bahar)…

Kajra mohabbat wala… (Kismat)

Mere piya gaye Rangoon… (Patanga)

O leke pehla pehla pyaar… (C.I.D)

Kabhi aar kabhi paar… (Aar Paar)

… Shamshad Begum’s sprightly songs filtered through Radio Ceylon brewing up mornings along with chai. Full-throated and abandoned, hers was the star voice of the black and white era between the ‘50s and mid-’60s, distinct from that of her peers Noorjehan, Mubarak Begum, Suraiya and Geeta Dutt.

It was her dash of sunshine that elevated Aana meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday (Shehnai) to a downtime ditty. Just as it was her pathos-filled bidaai requiems, Chhod babul ka ghar (Babul) or Pee ke ghar aaj pyari dulhania chali (Mother India), which grew to achieve cult status.

Towards the mid ’60s, partly due to the emergence of new singers, a graceful Shamshad Begum, averse to rivalry, voluntarily retired from showbiz. 

Reciting Quranic verses, mantras and Gurubanis, she sought solace in spiritual pursuits.

Though she once quipped, “Aaj machine gaate hain, artiste nahin!” Shamshad Begum welcomed remixes, her vintage melodies topping rebooted compilations. “Let the young have fun. Duniya ke saath badalna chahiye,” remarked the 90-plus songstress, who remained young at heart…

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Shamshad Begum was born in Lahore on 14 April 1919 in a Punjabi Mann Jatt Muslim family.

She was one of the eight children of Mian Hussain Baksh Maan and Ghulam Fatima. Her ‘surili awaaz’ made the headmistress single her out to recite prayers in the school assembly.

Young Shamshad sang at weddings and religious occasions too. Her conservative father didn’t encourage her. But her musically-inclined uncle Amiruddin took the 12-year-old Shamshad to Jenophone Music Company for an audition with musician Master Ghulam Haider.

Her rendition of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ghazal Mera yaar mujhe mile left the maestro impressed. She signed a 12-song contract with remuneration of Rs 12.50 for each. “Mere sitare urooj (ascent) pe the,” Shamshad fondly recalled the day she met Ghulam Haider.

Soon she began singing on All India Radio (AIR) in Peshawar and Lahore during the late ’30s under mentors Haider and sarangi expert Ustad Hussain Baksh. Haider, in praise of her talent, called her ‘chaumukhiya’ (versatile artiste).

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

Shamshad’s big break in Hindi cinema came with D.M. Pancholi’s Khazanchi (1941). She sang all the nine songs composed by Haider, including the famous duet, Sawan ke nazare hain. Her solo hit numbers included Ek kali nazon ki pali and Diwali phir aa gai sajani.

Director Mehboob Khan wanted Shamshad to sing for Nargis’ debut Taqdeer (1943). But her adamant father refused to send her to Bombay. Mehboob himself went over and cautioned him against reducing his daughter to ‘a frog in a pond’. “Throw her into the ocean and she’ll learn to swim,” the filmmaker’s known to have said. Shamshad’s song Babu darogaji and her duet with Motilal O jaane wale aaja, composed by Rafiq Ghaznavi, were hits. The much-in-demand singer eventually settled in Bombay.

Other composers including Anil Biswas, Sajjad Hussain, C Ramchandra, Chitragupta, Shankar-Jaikishen queued up for her. In keeping with Haider’s advice, she worked with all. “Be like the water which takes the shape of the glass,” he had told her. In accordance with her conservative father’s wishes, she attended the recordings in a burqa.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

She was already at the top when Naushad first signed her for Shahjehan (1946). Her best with him, between 1946-1954, include Jab usne gesu bikharaye (Shahjehan), Hum dard ka afsana (Dard), Aaj kahan ja ke nazar (Anokhi Ada), Chaandni aayi (Dulari), Chhod baabul ka ghar (Baabul), Aag lagi tan man mein (Aan), Door koi gaaye dhun (with Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar) in Baiju Baawra and more.

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

Mela (1948) remains her pinnacle with Naushad with her nine solos covering a medley of moods. In fact, Dharti ko aakash pukare pervades through the film.

Naushad, who always credited her for his success (she sang around 60 songs in 19 films for him), praised her simplicity. “She’d never get her pictures clicked. That’s why it is so difficult to find photos of her,” said the maestro in an interview to BBC. Though Naushad eventually veered towards Lata Mangeshkar, Shamshad remained a niche singer for him.

C. Ramchandra used Shamshad’s voice in Shehnai (1947), Nadiya Ke Paar (1948) and Namoona (1949). Her duet with Chitalkar, Mere piya gaye Rangoon, in Patanga (1949) was a chartbuster as was SD Burman’s Saiyan dil mein aana re in Bahar (1951). Shamshad’s Ek baar tou ban ja mera in Shabnam (1949) hurled Burmanda to the top. He made Shamshad sing the rendition in a dozen ways, symbolising the 12 months. Her talent was unsurpassed in Ye duniya roop ki chor (Shabnam).

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

A private person, Apa (as Shamshad was fondly called), never socialised. Her mantra was, “Na mujhe maska maro, na main maska maroongi.” But she was always keen to help newcomers. In fact, she was considered as the lucky mascot for budding composers. 

Incidentally, strugglers Madan Mohan and Kishore Kumar sang with her as chorus boys. Young Madan wanted a break as a composer. She sang Mohabbat karne walon ka for him in Aankhen (1950). 

Shamshad’s said to have told a novice Kishore Kumar, ‘‘One day you’ll leave your brothers (Anoop and Ashok Kumar) behind’. Years later, Kishore thanked her for the prophecy. “People forget favours, he didn’t forget my words,” recalled Apa. Later, they sang the melodious Meri neendon mein tum (Naya Andaz 1956).

Shamshad and music director OP Nayyar went back a long way. During her radio stint in Lahore, she often spotted an aspiring Nayyar there. Later, he approached her to sing for Aar Paar (1954). Her numbers Kabhi aar kabhi paar in Aar Paar (1954), Boojh mera kya naam re and Kahin pe nigahein kahni pe nishana (C.I.D 1956) and Le ke pehla pehla pyaar (the sad version was sung by Asha Bhosle) in Mr & Mrs 55 (1955) enjoy timeless popularity.

O.P. Nayyar, who compared the purity of her voice to ‘a temple bell’, later moved on to Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle. Her last well-known song for him was Kajra mohabbatwala (Kismet 1968). “When I helped newcomers, I never expected them to give me their songs. I believed only God could give. I was never insecure. Everyone brings his or her own taqdeer,” Shamshad said in a throwback interview.

Despite familial opposition due to religious differences, 15-year-old Shamshad married Ganpat Lal Batto, a Punjabi law student in 1934. She laid down the condition that she’d continue her singing career. They had a daughter, Usha.

Sadly, Ganpat Lal died in a road accident in 1955. The tragedy left Shamshad distraught, her husband being a supportive force in her life. She lost the will to sing. Again, it was Mehboob Khan, who ended the stalemate. The filmmaker wanted an earthy voice for Nargis in Mother India (1957) and convinced Shamshad to sing it.

Ironically, the first number she recorded after the demise of her husband was Pee ke ghar aaj pyari dulhania chali. While recording it, the musicians were left moist- eyed but not Shamshad. “I’m an artiste. Rone ke liye sara din sari raat padhi hai,” said the singer (Filmfare), who then on wore only white.

The film also had her render the classic Holi aayi re Kanhai, the rustic Gaadiwale gaadi dheere hank and the chorus Dukh bhare din beete re bhaiya.

Around this time, Lata Mangeshkar was emerging as the ‘lead’ singer. Shamshad ended up singing for the second leads. That notwithstanding, Lata and Shamshad sang the memorable Bachpan ke din in Deedar (1951), their last song together being Teri mehfil mein kismat in Mughal-E-Azam (1960).

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Shamshad, never unduly ambitious, viewed music as ‘ibaadat’ (devotion). But for someone who sang more than 5000 songs in several languages, her career came to an abrupt end. 

“The more hits I gave, the less work I got,” said the singer. Apparently, her songs were seldom played on radio and even if they were, she was denied credit. But the dignified lady chose not to comment on it. She opted to retire in 1965. "I never approached any music director. I never insisted that I’d sing only the heroine’s numbers. I had no ladai (fight) with anyone (Filmfare),” she said.

Her last songs Kajra mohabbat wala (Kismat 1968) and Nathaniya (Johar Mehmood In Hong Kong 1971) remain popular.

Towards the latter found music in reciting Quranic verses, the Gayatri mantra and praises of Guru Nanak Sahib. And sometimes in praise by the likes of maestro Pandit Jasraj, who reportedly said on a music show, “Well-known artistes have at some point copied Shamshad Begum and Noorjehan.”

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

In 2009, the veteran was honoured with the O.P. Nayyar Award for her contribution to Hindi film music. In the same year, she was conferred the Padma Bhushan. Brought in on a wheelchair, an emotional Shamshad reportedly said, “Mujhe duaaon mein yaad rakhna … mein aap logon ke dil mein rehna chahti hoon!”

After a prolonged illness, the singer passed away on 23 April 2013 at her residence in Powai, where she was living with daughter Usha and son-in-law Lieutenant Colonel Yogesh Ratra. She was 94. But her music is ageless.

Yahoo Tragic Tales series:

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.