Shamshad Begum (April 14, 1919 – April 23, 2013) was an Indian singer who was one of the first playback singers in the Hindi film industry. She had a distinctive voice and was a versatile artist, singing over 6000 songs in Hindi and the Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and Punjabi languages. She worked with maestros including Naushad Ali, S. D. Burman, C. Ramchandra and O. P. Nayyar. Her songs from the 1940s to the early 1970s remain popular and continue to be remixed.
Begum was born in Amritsar, Punjab on April 14, 1919, the day after the Amritsar Massacre. Her father was Miya Hussain Baksh. She fell in love with Ganpat Lal Batto, a lawyer, in 1932 and, despite family objections, married him at the age of 15 in 1934. She had one daughter, Usha Ratra, who is married to Lieutenant Colonel Yogesh Ratra. Begum's husband died in 1955 in an accident. Since her husband's death, Begum has lived with her daughter and son-in-law in Mumbai, recently at Hiranandani Gardens in the Powai district. In around 2004, a controversy erupted in the media, when several publications gave the false news of her death, before it was clarified that the Shamshad Begum who had died in 1998 was Saira Banu's (Dilip Kumar's wife) grandmother with the same name.!
Begum's talent was first spotted by her principal when she was in primary school in 1924. Impressed by the quality of her voice, she was made head singer of classroom prayer. At 10, she started singing folk-based songs at religious functions and family marriages. She received no formal musical training. Her singing ambitions, which she held from 1929, met with opposition from her family. In 1931, when she was twelve, her uncle, who enjoyed qawwalis and ghazals, secretly took her to Jenophone (or Xenophone) Music Company for an audition with Lahore-based musician and composer, Ghulam Haider. Begum said in an interview, "I sang Bahadur Shah Zafar's (the poet-ruler) ghazal Mera yaar mujhe mile agar." An impressed Haider gave her a contract for twelve songs, with facilities provided to top singers. It was Begum's paternal uncle who convinced her father, Miya Hussain Baksh, to allow her to sing. When she won a contract with a recording company, her father agreed to let her sing on the condition that she would record in a burka and not allow herself to be photographed. She earned 15 rupees per song and was awarded 5,000 on the completion of the contract on Xenophone. Xenophone was a renowned music recording company, patronised by the rich, and her popularity grew in elite circles in the early 1930s.
Her popular breakthrough came when she began singing on All India Radio (AIR) in Peshawar and Lahore from 1937. Producer Dilsukh Pancholi wanted her to act as well in a film he was producing. Begum readily agreed, gave a screen test and was selected. Her father became angry when he found out and warned her that she would not be allowed to sing if she continued to harbour a desire to act. Begum promised her father that she would never appear before the camera. She continued to sing songs on radio. She never posed for photographs, and few people saw her picture between 1933 and the 1970s. Begum sang for AIR through her musical group 'The Crown Imperial Theatrical Company of Performing Arts', set up in Delhi. The then AIR Lahore helped her to enter the world of movies as they frequently broadcast her songs, which induced music directors to use her voice for their films. Begum also recorded naats and devotional music for a couple of gramophone recording companies. Her crystal-clear voice caught the attention of sarangi maestro Hussain Bakshwale Saheb, who took her as his disciple.
Haider used her voice skillfully in some of his earlier films such as Khazanchi (1941) and Khandaan (1942). By 1940, Begum was already well established on radio. The song "Cheechi Wich Pa ke Chhalla" from Yamla Jatt of 1940 became a huge hit and popularised Pran, singer Begum and composer Haider. Haider continued to compose hit songs which Begum sang for films including Zamindar, Poonji and Shama. Director Mehboob Khan used Begum's voice in Taqdeer (1943), where he introduced Nargis as the heroine. Begum was soon singing for other composers including Rafiq Ghaznavi, Ameer Ali, Pt Gobindram, Pt Amarnath, Bulo C. Rani, Rashid Atre and M. A. Mukhtar, in the pre-independence era. When Haider moved to Bombay in 1944, Begum went with him as a member of his team, leaving behind her family and staying with her Chacha (paternal uncle). After partition, Haider migrated to Pakistan but Begum remained in Mumbai. She had no known Pakistani connection post 1947. Begum became a national star between the early 1940s and the early 1960s, having a voice different from her peers such as Noorjehan (also discovered by Haider), Mubarrak Begum, Suraiya, Sudha Malhotra, Geeta Dutt and Amirbai Karnataki. Her peak period in the Hindi film industry was from 1940 to 1955 and again from 1957-1968.
Begum sang extensively for composers including Naushad, O. P. Nayyar, C. Ramchandra and S. D. Burman from 1946 to 1960. Naushad acknowledged in an interview that he was indebted to Begum in reaching the top, as she was famous before he became known in the late 1940s; after his tracks sung by her became highly popular, his talent was recognised. It was Begum's solo and duet songs sung for Naushad in the late 1940s and early 1950s which made Naushad famous. After Naushad became successful he recorded songs with new singers as well in the early 1950s, but kept working with Shamshad in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Naushad chose his favourite singer Begum once again to sing four out of the twelve songs in Mother India. Begum is credited with singing one of the first Westernised songs, "Meri jaan...Sunday ke Sunday" by Ramchandra. She kept getting more offers to sing songs and was the highest paid female singer from 1940 to 1955 and again post Mother India in 1957 to 1964. In 1949, music directors S. Rajeshwara Rao, M. D. Parthasarathy and Balakrishna Kalla asked her to sing "Jaiyo Jaiyo Shipayon Bazar" for P. Bhanumati in the film Nishan, produced by Gemini Films of Madras, which became highly popular.
Although Burman started composing Bengali music in 1937, he achieved national fame with tracks sung by Begum in Hindi films. Burman was not well established as a music director in Hindi films until 1946; he then asked Begum to sing in his debut Hindi film as music director, Shikari (1946), with the song, "Kuch Rang Badal Rahi". In 1949, came Shabnam, in which Burman asked her to sing duets named "Pyar Main Tumne" and "Kismat Bhi Bhichadna" with Mukesh, which became popular. Shabnam was Burman's biggest hit to that date with Filmistan, and was especially noticeable for its multilingual song "Yeh Duniya Roop ki Chor", sung by Begum and acted by Kamini Kuashal, which became another hit. Burman subsequently asked her to sing tracks in Bazar (1950), Mashal (1950), Bahar (1951), Shahenshah (1953), Miss India (1957), and other films. The song "Jaam Tham Le" from Shahenshah was a trendsetter for Burman compositions.
Begum had met Nayyar during her radio stint in Lahore, when he worked as an office boy delivering cakes for the lead singers. In 1954, when Nayyar got a break as a composer, he approached Begum to record songs for Mangu. Nayyar described her voice as resembling a "temple bell" for its clarity of tone. He worked with her until the late 1960s and gave her many hit songs, including "Ab To Jee Hone Laga" from Mr. & Mrs. '55, "Main Jaan Gayi Tujhe" from Howrah Bridge, "Zara Pyar Karle" from Mangu (1954), "Saiyan Teri Ankhon Mein" from 12' O Clock (1957), "Thodasa Dil Lagana" from Musafirkhana, and many others. Several of her songs from this period remain extremely popular, including those acted by Nigar Sultana, such as "Teri Mehfil Mein" from Mughal E Azam and "Mere Piyan Gaye" from Patanga (1949), as well as "Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re", acted by Vyjantimala, and "Boojh Mera Naam Hai", acted by Minoo Mumtaz. "Milte hi aankhen dil hua" from Babul (1950) had a romantic duet with Talat Mahmood, acted by Dilip Kumar and Munawar Sultana, which also became popular. Her duet with Rafi, "Chhala Deja Nishani" from Bazar (1949) became a mega-hit.
In the late 1940s, Madan Mohan and Kishore Kumar sang as chorus boys for her songs at the Filmistan Studio. Bergum promised at this time that she would sing songs composed by Mohan once he started his career as a music director and would accept a lower fee. She also predicted that Kumar would become a great playback singer. She later recorded duets with Kumar, including "Gori ke Nainon Mein Nindiya Bhari" from Angarey (1954) and "Mere Neendon Me Tum" from Naya Andaz. After her husband's accidental death in 1955, Begum became a recluse and stopped accepting singing assignments, including recordings, for a year. The songs released between 1955 and early 1957 continued to be popular, including songs from films such as C.I.D., Naya Andaz, Baradari, Mr. & Mrs. '55 and other hits.
The well-known later playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar, started to sing when Begum was at the peak of her career, and Begum's break after her husband's death boosted Mangeshkar's career, helping her to be offered high-quality songs. In the early careers of Mangeshkar, as well as her younger sister, Asha Bhosle, between 1944 and 1956, they had often been asked by producers and music directors to imitate Begum's style of singing, because producers could not afford Begum's fees. In their first song together, Mangeshkar was a part of the chorus while Begum was the main singer. From 1949 to 1960, beginning with the song "Dar Na Mohabbat Karle" from Andaz (1949), Mangeshkar and Begum have sung many duets together, with the most famous being "Pyar Ke Jahan Ki" from the 1949 film Patanga, "Bachpan Ke Din" from 1951's Deedar; their last song together was Mughal-e-Azam's song "Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat" in 1960. Begum has sung songs together with Mangeshkar and Bhosle, including "Mubarak Ho Woh Dil Jisko" from Benazir (1964).
After her husband's death, Mehboob Khan approached her and said he wanted a full-throated voice for Nargis in Mother India. The first song she sang after returning to her career was "Pee ke ghar aaj pyari dulhaniya chali" for Mother India. She made a successful comeback, and subsequently recorded many notable songs for films such as Howrah Bridge, Jaali Note, Love in Simla, Bewaqoof, Mughal-e-Azam, Bluff Master, Gharana and Rustom-E-Hind. From 1960, her songs started to be mimed by actresses other than the heroine. From 1965, songs for her in films started getting reduced and she then declared a self-imposed retirement. Some composers continued to ask her to sing songs for films, including Daku Mangal Singh, Upkar, Kismat (1969), Heer Ranjha (1970), Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong (1971), Teri Meri Ik Jindri (1975) and Main Papi Tum Bakhshanhaar (1976). Her song "Kajra Mohabbat Wala" from the 1969 film Kismat remains popular.
From the late 1980s, Begum started giving occasional interviews. Her final interview was in 2012. In 2009, she was conferred with the prestigious O. P. Nayyar award for her contribution to Hindi film music. She was also conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2009. Begum died at her Mumbai residence on the night of April 23, 2013 after a prolonged illness. She was 94. She was cremated in a small, dignified ceremony. Information and Broadcasting minister Manish Tewari said, "The film industry has lost one of its most versatile singers. Shamshadji's style of singing set new benchmarks. Her melodious voice with powerful lyrics gave us songs that have remained popular even today." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said "She was an artist of extraordinary talent and abilities, and the songs she has left behind in her long career, which she started with AIR in 1937, will continue to enthral music lovers. Her daughter Usha Ratra said "She kept herself away from glamour of the industry despite being one of the top singers of her era as she did not like limelight. My mother used to say that artistes never die. She wanted to be remembered for her songs.