A lot of us remember Deepal Shaw gyrating her hips in an insult of a school uniform skirt, thrusting her bosom into the camera and making all sorts of raunchy gestures to the beat of ‘Kabhi aar kabhi paar’. A lot of us will also remember the entire lyrics of the peppy ‘Saiyaan dil mein aana re’, made extremely popular in its remix avatar, and at all parties, we would’ve have chorused its ‘Chham chhama chham chham’ beat. Some of us might even remember Kajol trying her best to sing ‘Kahin pe nigaahein kahin pe nishana’ in the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, when Shahrukh Khan eases his hand on top of Mandira Bedi’s shy fingers, assuming her to be his lady love. This song then, I feel, became an idiom to tease every person whose targets skipped away from in front of his eyes. Oh, and it is a staple at all wedding antakshari contests too!
Why these songs? Well, that’s because they are united by a voice full of life, which, ironically is being remembered at the time when it has transcended the mortal world. It is even more ironic that while we remember each word of these very hummable songs, only a minority of us will be able to recall the name behind the voice which gave character to these songs. I am talking of the inimitable Shamshad Begum, whose singing was not made up of the velvety, soft, soothing or sugary voice we so admire in our modern day singers. Her voice was husky, unconventional, bold, full of zest and conveyed a sort of mischief, which could be found in each of her renditions. Yesterday, at the age of 94, and much after she left an indelible mark on the Indian music industry, she passed away at her Mumbai residence.
Shamshad Begum forms an important part of my childhood memories. Summer vacations were spent at my maternal grandmother’s house, where, all of her six children (my mother included) were great fans of old Indian music. By old, I do not mean the R. D. Burman numbers, which are as far back as the younger generation’s imagination goes when we utter the word ‘retro’. My family was keen to dig out retro from its very roots, from before the time giants like Mohd. Rafi or Lata Mangeshkar marked their presence. I used to sulk and make faces at the ancient melodies which came out the tape recorder, and it was not until much later that I could briefly remember names of Noorjehan, Uma Devi, Zohra Bai Ambalewali, and then, Shamshad Begum.
It was my eldest mamaji, who left for his heavenly abode last year in a heartbreakingly unexpected manner, who was instrumental in making me develop a taste for old, golden music. This taste has flowered to such an extent that today, I have lyrics of an endless number of classic melodies at the tip of my tongue, and a noticeable share of those melodies belong to Shamshad Begum’s corpus. She was one of the earliest female singers to have become a part of Indian music industry, and was its reigning queen for quite long, well into the fifties, when O. P. Nayyar made her sing immortal melodies in Aar Paar and CID. Along with Geeta Dutt, she is among my favourite singers of all time. What was strikingly unique about her was that in a period where classical values were staunchly adhered to even in film music, her voice brought a rustic and folk touch, which was fresh and lively. Try listening to her songs. They will make you happy, and induce a springy feeling inside you. I do not know which was the first of her songs I heard, but one of the first which caught on my tongue was ‘Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon’. I might not have understood the meaning of the lyrics, but the song seemed funny and entertaining enough to make me enjoy singing it. Simple, with no complicated musical notes, I think songs like these are a triumph on the part of the composer, singer and the lyricists, because they so easily appeal to the audience and in some time, become a part of their culture.
Yes, Shamshad Begum’s songs are a part of our culture now. I have kept saying that she had a lively touch to her voice, but this does not mean she shied away from singing poignant melodies, one of the most memorable being ‘Chhod Babul Ka Ghar’, composed by Naushad. She was born in Amritsar in 1919, and her contributions to Punjabi music are also immense. She has sung romantic songs, wedding songs, bidaai songs, folk songs, solos, duets – there is nothing that can be said enough to effectively eulogise her music career. It can, however, be safely stated that her songs are a touchstone to judge good music. She spent her last days living with her daughter in Mumbai, and as a very delayed recognition of her talent and contributions, was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2009 by the Government of India. Khayyam, in an interview quoted on her official website, had stated about “Her voice was one of its kind and her enunciation was wonderfully clear. She commanded a lot of respect both at the personal and professional level.”
I know many of you would not have ever heard her songs, or at least, not in her voice. It is a little different, or unconventional, from the kind of music all of us are used to hearing. But if you can find some time, here are five recommendations from me to gain an introduction to her world. These are my favourites – songs I can hear over and over again, throughout my life.
Boojh mera kya naam re from CID
Meri neendon mein tum from Naya Andaaz, a duet with Kishore Kumar
Kajra Muhabbat Wala from Kismet, a very entertaining duet with Asha Bhonsle
Yeh duniya roop ki chor from Shabnam, a cute, funny and bubbly song
Saiyaan dil mein aana re from Bahaar – I could not have left out this song at all!
A statistic states, that 70 per cent of remixed songs had originally been sung by Shamshad Begum. That says something about the kind of appeal her melodies have till date.
Another star has set on Indian music industry. May her soul rest in peace.
(Originally written for and published on Scroll 360)