indian cinema heritage foundation

'Boojh Mera Kya Naam Re'- Shamshad Begum

01 Apr, 2020 | Beete Hue Din by Shishir Krishna Sharma
A recent image of Shamshad Begum. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

‘A jingle bell voice, full of affinity…! What a voice, flowing like the rivers of Punjab…!!’ So said the famous singer O.P.Nayyar(Dharmayug 1st August 1991 / Page 44), for that sweet, clinking voice that kept its face hidden for 30 years, like a fairytale princess who kept bewitching the paramours of film music. Neither a photo nor an interview, distancing herself, far from any kind of publicity. In 1969 she appeared at Mumbai’s Shanmukhanand Hall for the first time creating a frenzy among people to see her. But suddenly after she left the world of movies and was lost in oblivion. Years later in August 1998 she once again made national headlines when all the news mills pronounced her dead. But the one who had died was Naseem’s mother and Saira Bano’s maternal grandmother, namely was some other Shamshad Begum. Despite the truth coming to light, other than a few, most of the newspapers didn’t even try to rectify this error. To the extent that a website called ‘indianmelody.com’ gives out this erroneous information to music lovers till date. Also there was no shortage of people who believed that Shamshad Begum has shifted to Pakistan. Some cognizants from cinema and journalism believed that she still resided at Colaba, her south Mumbai home. But, all these were baseless theories. The truth is that Shamshad Begum was in Mumbai all along but had merely shifted from Colaba to the posh locality of Powai during the mid-decade of 1990 where she still resides currently.  
That sweet, clinking voice that kept its face hidden for 30 years, like a fairytale princess who kept bewitching the paramours of film music. Neither a photo nor an interview, distancing herself, far from any kind of publicity.
Unquestionably Shamshad Begum’s shy persona is just as responsible for these rumors as she has always been wary of mingling with other people. Acquiring an interview or her picture was a long shot, just getting to her in itself was an immense task. She was completely against giving out her telephone number and address. Many a times people ask me how did I manage to find her, so today, for the first time through this write up I am lifting the veil on this narrative because never before has my pen touched paper been published on this account. Actually I was always curious to know more about her. Seeing my passion for the history of Hindi cinema, when senior journalist and Mumbai bureau chief of Hindi Weekly ‘Sahara Samaya’, Mr. Dhirendra Asthana, made me responsible for the papers column ‘Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon’, ‘Baakalam Khud’ and ‘Film Quiz’, I found a new objective in life. During research I came across ‘indianmelody.com’s’ page on Shamshad Begum and that raised many questions in my mind. According to the web page, Shamshad Begum’s age at the time of demise was a 100 years. That means she was born in the year 1898? So did she start singing for films only at the age of 42 (in the year 1940)? Does that mean she recorded her last song (in the year 1968) at the age of 70? NO….! I thought, something does not add up here. 
 
A year went by in just trying to get hold of her phone number. During my conversations with Composer Naushad, senior journalist Udaytara Nair and with Mr. Kshamendra Ganjoo, who was involved in the making of the program ‘Gaata Jaaye Banjara’ which was televised on Doordarshan towards the beginning of the 1990 decade, it became clear that Shamshad Begum was alive and living in Mumbai itself. But her right contact address or phone number was not to be found with any person from the film industry or the corresponding trade union. To the extent that I could not find any information from the ‘Singer’s Association’’ and ‘Music Director’s Association’ either. Disappointed, now, I was left with just one clue and that was the surname of Shamshad Begum’s son in law and his army officer’s rank, information which Mr.Kshamendra Ganjoo had imparted to me during one of our conversations. I remembered having seen Shamshad Begum on the televised program ‘Gaata Jaaye Banjara’ almost 12 years back and hence got in touch with Mr.Kshamendra Ganjoo. According to him, Shamshad Begum was living at Colaba at that time.  
 
To meet the elusive Shamshad Begum, I had to wait for another 6 long months.
My search was made a little easy by Shamshad Begum’s son in law’s rank, his rare surname but above all by the CD of MTNL’s telephone directory. In entire Mumbai there were hardly 8 – 10 telephone users with that surname of which but one had the same army officer’s rank attached to it. The lady who answered the phone at first flatly refused that anyone called Shamshad Begum resides at his number. But I wasn’t one to give up so easily. After a while of convincing and probing, she had to agree to the fact that she is Shamshad Begum’s daughter and that Shamshad Begum lives with her. But to meet the elusive Shamshad Begum, I had to wait for another 6 long months. During this time I spoke to Shamshad Begum’s daughter several times and eventually she managed to persuade her mother for a meeting. But, the preconditions were that the meeting would last for no longer than half an hour, her voice won’t be recorded and no photos are to be clicked. 

Now the biggest question for me was that without any photographic evidence or recorded interview how will I be able to prove that Shamshad Begum is in Mumbai itself and that I have met her? Her conditions had already shut the doors for my fellow cameraman Anil Murarka being present there and I was afraid that if I did try to persuade her otherwise she might refuse to meet me even. Because I had started to understand the psychology of many elder female artists I stared brainstorming and finally found one way of making all this possible. A day before we were scheduled to meet, I called up Shamshad Begum’s daughter and asked her if she would have any problems if I brought my wife along to the meeting? I knew that if my wife accompanied us, the atmosphere would become very homely. And as I had hoped her daughters response was very positive and warm. That’s another thing that I had to work very hard to convince my wife as having seen the glamour world fairly closely she had no illusions about glitz and glamour and the thought ‘you can keep these artificial faces all to yourself honey!’ was now deep rooted in her mind, well…!

A very beautiful, posh area! Strict interrogations by the Security Guards!! Right on time, we were standing in front of the apartment door on the 6th floor of the multistoried building. The door was opened by her son in law. Retired Army Officer. Arresting but a humble personality. He received us with a lot of warmth. We started conversing and when he realized I was from Dehradoon, he became very nostalgic about the time he had spent there almost 50 years ago during his training at the ‘Indian Military Academy’ and got lost in his memories of Dehradoon City, Clement Town, Rajpur, Jharipani and Mussoorie. While we were lost in whimsical thoughts his wife, whom I had been talking to over the phone for the last 6 months, had also joined us. 

After about 20 minutes finally that moment came for which I had been struggling for the past 1 ½ years. Supporting herself on a cane, yesteryears famous singer Shamshad Begum was there, finally, standing in front of us. Saying ‘So, we finally broke through your pertinacity’ I folded my hands in a humble Namaste and she broke out in a smile. ‘Ask me what you want to ask’ –she sat down in a chair saying that. And lost in conversation, the next two and a half hours just flew by. She wove all the pieces of her life in a series of chain starting from her childhood to now which went something like this in her words – 
 
“I was born on the 14th of April 1919 in Lahore. My father used to take housing contracts and among 8 brothers and sisters I was the 5th child. I didn’t receive any formal training in singing. I never realized when I started singing. When I was in school, I would stand on the desk and sing DUA with all the other kids. During Ramzaan, my relatives would come to hear me recite ‘naatein’. I was 12 years old when I accompanied my Chacha (paternal uncle) to ‘Xynophone Company’ which used to make records and where Master Ghulam Haider was working as a music composer and he took my audition. I sang the Sthaai and Antara of the Ghazal Mera yaar mujhe mile agar written by Bahadur Shah Zafar and passed the exam. In the true sense it was Master Ghulam Hyder who molded my voice and taught me the intricacies of singing. At that time many private records sung by me were released and were liked by the public. Released in the year 1935, saw a big sale of my records of the Aarti Om Jai Jagdish Hare, however, my real name did not feature on the record. My first hit song was Haath joda pakhiyaan da kasam khuda ki after which I got so busy that after the 5th standard I had to leave my further studies. Playback had not started till then and there were many opportunities for melodious singers to act in films. Many such opportunities came my way but my strict mother and father refused to relent. I was married at the age of 16 but due to my mother-fathers strict policy of ‘staying behind the veil’ had made shyness a prominent part of my personality.  That’s also the reason that even today I feel very uncomfortable in meeting people or giving interviews or getting my pictures clicked.”
The actor Pran in Yamla Jatt (1940), Shamshad Begum's film debut as a playback singer. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din
 
Shamshad Begum got an opportunity to sing for radio in 1937 and so she went to Peshawar. After 2 years a radio station opened in Lahore and so she came back and started singing for Lahore as well as Delhi and Lucknow radio. By the end of 1930 playback had become an integral part of movies and was used by all.  According to Shamshad Begum during this time Dalsukh M.Pancholi owner of Pancholi Arts in Lahore called her to sing for the Panjabi film Yamla Jatt. The first song that Shamshad Begum recorded for this film was a solo song, Aa sajna dowein rall ke chaliye parle paar. Composed by Master Ghulam Haider this silver jubilee hit film was released in the year 1940. This was also actor Pran’s debut film. 
A poster of the 1941 release Khazanchi. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

Made in the year 1941, Khazanchi  was Shamshad Begum’s first Hindi film. This film was also produced under the banner of Pancholi Arts (Lahore). The songs Ek kali naazon ki pali and Sawan ke nazaare hain sung by Shamshad Begum along with all the 9 songs of the film had become very famous at that time. Master Ghulam Haider was the film's  music composer and Wali Saheb was the lyricist. While in Lahore Shamshad Begum sung songs for films like Pancholi Arts’s Khandan, Zamindar (both 1942) and Poonji (1943) and Shourie Pictures’s Nishani (1942) and then on Mehboob Khan’s invitation to sing for his film Taqdeer she came to Mumbai. Made in 1943, Taqdeer was Nargis’s first film as a heroine.
A poster of Taqdeer, Nargis' first film as a heroine. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din
In a career spanning 30 years, Shamshad Begum has sung more than 1600 songs under the directions of for A-list composers like Master Ghulam Haider, Sachin Dev Burman, Naushad, C.Ramachandra, Madan Mohan and O.P.Nayyar along with many other much talented music composers. As per Shamshad Begum, 1940’s decade was very busy and one of many commitments. And then as and when the new generation of singers and music directors started to establish, her hectic schedule started lessening. She says, “My last recorded song is from film Kismat, made in 1968, composed by O.P.Nayyar wherein i sung a duet Kajra mohabbatwala with Asha Bhonsle, however many previously recorded songs like Pyar kiya to darna kya (Raaton Ka Raja /1970), Teen kanwariyaan…haathon me mehndi racha de koi (Parde Ke Peechhey/1971) and O sanam tere liye jaage hain raat raat bhar, Kar lo jitna sitam and Hamein mitaane aaya jo (Ganga Mang Rahi Balidan/1981) were released later on in the market.”
A poster of Ganga Mang Rahi Balidan. Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din

Shamshad Begum’s husband Ganpat Lal Batto was originally from Dera Ismail Khan and was a lawyer by profession. Shamshad Begum says, “I have been living with my daughter and son in law after my husband passed away in 1955. My son in law got a transfer in 1971 and so I too spent around 7 years with them out of Mumbai in army cantonments like Jalandhar and Mhow. So by the time I returned, my ties with the film world were completely broken. And then slowly and gradually the four walls of my house became my whole world.”
"By the time I returned, my ties with the film world were completely broken. And then slowly and gradually the four walls of my house became my whole world.”
Like I had rightly believed, the atmosphere had become so homely in those 2-1/2 hours that when she came to know that I had in fact carried a camera just in case she readily agreed to have her pictures clicked and published. And if I had come alone this might have not been possible. Raised in a joint family and having spent a large part of her married life in a joint family, my wife effortless and graciously spent the time mingling with the three elders of this family. …and like I believed, my plan was a completely success. I completely accept that if my wife had not been with me every step of the way, then surely even today I would still be fretting in a branch of  ‘Punjab National Bank’ somewhere in the hills of Uttrakhand in some place like ‘Dhopardhar’, ‘Chailusain’, ‘Dunda’ or ‘Ranachatti’ at the most as a reluctant manager. Well….! While taking our leave I thanked Shamshad Begum for the interviews and for letting us click her pictures and told her ‘one day I will also have the privilege of recording your voice’ and on hearing this she burst out laughing. 
 
I submitted a report of this meeting held in one afternoon of 18th September 2004, through Mr. Dhirendra Asthana to ‘Sahara Samay’s’ Noida based editorial section. I was afraid that if someone else published a report on Shamshad Begum’s current status before my report then my hard work of 1-1/2 years will be to no avail and hence I wanted my report to be published as soon as possible. But maybe ‘Sahara Samay’s’ editorial section didn’t realize the importance and the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile ‘Dainik Jagran’s’ Mumbai bureau had come to know of this and wanted to publish it in their newspaper. I requested them to hold on for a while but when after 3 weeks this report was still buried under files at ‘Sahara Samay’s’ Noida office, I had to reluctantly agree to let ‘Dainik Jagran’ publish it. When this report was published on the front page of 12th October’s ‘Dainik Jagran’ by senior journalist Mr. Anand Bharti of my meeting with Shamshad Begum, it shook the media and especially electronic media all over the nation. I was being pressurized to let out Shamshad Begum’s address and phone number. Ultimately on the suggestion of ‘Dainik Jagran’s’ Mumbai bureau and with the permission of Shamshad Begum, I gave a particular channel correspondent her phone number. And then it became a media circus for all channels wanted to get an interview of Shamshad Begum. Eventually the government also came out of its comatose state and in the year 2009 presented Shamshad Begum with a ‘Padma Bhooshan’, and finally earning some good karma for itself in the process!
 
Image Courtesy: Beete Hue Din
Like I had promised Shamshad Begum that ‘one day I will also have the privilege of recording your voice’, it was my good fortune that I saw that day soon enough. Along with a team from ‘Vividh Bharti’ I went to her house to record an interview with her for the program ‘Inse Miliye’, which I consider one of the biggest achievements of my life. Despite this all, Shamshad Begum remains an exception, because till date, my wife still believes in her statement ‘you can keep these artificial faces all to yourself honey!’ 

Acknowledgements : We are thankful to Shri D.B.Samant, Shri Harmandir Singh ‘Hamraz’, Shri Harish Raghuvanshi, Shri Biren Kothari and Shri S.M.M.Ausaja for their valuable suggestions, guidance and help.

Shamshad Begum passed away in Mumbai on 23rd April 2013 at 3.30 PM at the age of 94. Team BHD's heartfelt condolences, may her soul rest in peace. 

(Part of Shishir Krishna Sharma's Beete Hue Din blog series.)

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