There was a time in the history of Hindi cinema when the singer was the song, when the persona of the singer did not exist;the listener heard and was entranced by the song and its words. We have moved a long way from that age of self-effacing artistes. Reality TV and live shows have brought the singer centre stage and made the singer a 'performer' in a manner that playback singers of yore could never have dreamt of.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent death of Shamshad Begum at the age of 94 on 23 April at a suburban hospital in Mumbai. Shamshad Begum who made her debut as a radio artiste and went on to steal millions of hearts with a voice that was as remarkable as it was powerful, died unsung and largely unknown.
Perhaps it is one of the ironies of fate that at a time when Hindi cinema is celebrating its centenary with a series of high-octane, eyeball-grabbing extravaganzas many of its stalwarts continue to live on the fringes of popular consciousness and die - when not in abject poverty and hardship - certainly without any of the benefits that today's stars take very much for granted. Coming from a conservative family, Shamshad chose to shy away from the camera yet could not hide her light under a bushel when it came to her stunningly formidable voice. Over the decades, while her numerous songs continue to be aired, she herself remained unrecognised.
In her heyday, as a playback singer, such was the range and depth of her voice that every note she sang was distinct from that of her near-contemporaries such as the Mangeshkar sisters and Geeta Dutt. Perhaps that is why she has sung songs for the heroine as well as the vamp, the village belle as well as the courtesan. The duet she sang with Mohammad Rafi for the film CID (1956) - Leke pehla pehla pyar - is redolent with the fervour of young love. Then there is the qawwali from Mughal-e-Azam : Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge (sung with Lata Mangeshkar) that is remembered even today for its archness and coquetry. Another of her songs still enjoyed in its remixed version is Kajra mohabbatwala akhiyon mein aisa dala sung with Asha Bhonsle for Kismat (1968); like several of Shamshad Begum's songs this too was composed by O P Nayyar, who possibly knew better than most how to use this powerful voice in the matrix of popular Hindi cinema.
Some of her other songs that were a rage in their time and are still remembered include: Milte hi aankhen dil hua deewana kisi ka with Talat Mahmood for Babul; Chali chali kaisi yeh hawa chali with Usha Mangeshkar for Bluff Master; Kabhi aar kabhi paar laga teer-e-nazar for Aar Paar; O gadiwale gadi dhirey haank re and Holi aaye re Kanhai for Mother India. As anyone who remembers this 'golden era' of Hindi film songs will vouch, if there was the alhadpana (playfulness) of a gurgling brook in Boojh mera kya naam re there was also the sombreness of Naina bhar aye neer, the entreaty of Nazar phero na humse and the poignancy of Chod babul ka ghar in Shamshad Begum's oeuvre. Then there were also the romantic duets such as the one with Kishore Kumar, Meri neendon main tum, mere khwabon mein tum, that effortlessly conjured a far-off world
Years later, it is hard to imagine Saiyan dil mein aana re from the film Bahar or the evergreen hit Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telephoon from Patanga sung by anyone else but Shamshad Begum. Or, Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka...