ONE of the top playback singers of yesterday and still reigning supreme by virtue of her golden voice, which is truly lovely, Shamshad Begum is strange to say an extremely shy woman abhorring publicity and loathing cameras to such a point that she never has been photographed and vows she never will.
Standing , about five feet three, fair like most Punjabis and inclined to plumpness, Shamshad has a quiet charm and unaffected manner which make for a rare poise that reflects her simple way of life and living—her interests and her pleasures, both being derived from her home and her work. This may seem a drab existence to some, but Shamshad Begun has in her possession a distillation of the true happiness of life, which is essentially simple and profound.
Born thirty-two years ago in Lahore, daughter of Mia Hussein Baksh, a contractor, she comes of a family of three other sisters and four brothers with whom she grew up and went to school in that once beautiful city. She studied right up to the matriculation and left school without bothering to appear for the examination.
In 1934 she married Mr. Batto, a Hindu, who was a friend of the family and was working at the time in Lahore. One of their neighbors happened to be working in the Jienophone (that is how, Mr. Batto said, it was spelt) Gramophone Company in that city, and through him Shamshad got a job there recording popular songs. Later, in 1937, she joined All India Radio, shot up to instantaneous fame, and got her first film contract to do the playback singing for the heroine Ranjana in Dalsukh Pancholi’s “Yamla, Jatt” which was embellished with the lilting music of the famous Ghulam Haider.
SANG FOR KHAZANCHI
After that smashing success she sang for all Pancholi’s pictures, including the box-office hits “Khazanchi,” “Khandaan,” “Zamindar,” “Poonji,” “Shirin Farhad”–she was riding the crest of a wave which had the virtue of combining fame with monetary gain.
Here in 1943, she came to Bombay at the request of Producer-director Mehboob Khan to sing for his picture “Taqdir.” This film starred Nargis in her first big role. From then on Shamshad Begum divided her time between Lahore and Bombay as she had commitments in both places. But, as the latter city developed and grew to be the film center of India, she migrated from Lahore and settled permanently in Bombay in 1945.
Here, as in Lahore, contracts came pouring in, and among the innumerable pictures for which she sang are “Bairam Khan,” “Shehnai.” “Shabnam,” “Babul,” “Chal Chal Re Nau jawan,” and the first all-color production of our industry, Mr. Mehboob’s “Aan,” and in the first Indian feature film in Gevacolor, G. P. Productions’ “Shahenshah,” an oriental fantasy, starring Kamini Kaushal and Ranjan.
Always in great demand for the singing assignments she fulfills so remarkably, Shamshaad Begum likes her work.
HAS PLENTY OF CONTRACTS
She loves being busy and takes on as many contracts as possible–is always punctual, and works willingly till the job in hand is completed to the satisfaction of all concerned. Conscientious as regards her own obligations and the rights of the other person, she has even gone to the studio with a temperature.
Shamshad has sung lyrics in quite a few of our many languages, for apart from knowing Punjabi which is her mother tongue, Urdu and a bit of Hindi and English —she learned the last at school–she has dubbed songs in Tamil, Marathi and even Pushtu!
The amazing thing about her is that she knows no music and has never had any vocal training! Yet her voice is superb, an operatic soprano, clear and strong and controlled, having a purity of tone which is rounded and full, a voice like liquid gold gleaming in the sun..
In her spare time this gifted lady is usually to be found in her home either reading, which is her only hobby, or stitching or cooking. She cooks, her husband told me, beautifully, and he should know as he is mostly in Delhi, the city of the gourmet and the cordon bleu, where his business keeps him for months at a time.
Off and on, Shamshad goes to the cinema, usually to see western films which she prefers to Indian ones. But she does take in an occasional Indian picture, though she never attends a premiere, being allergic to publicity, the public, her fans and the limelight.
Her favorite stars are Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Lalita Pawar; the pictures she liked —”For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Duel in the Sun,” “Dastan,” and “Daag”; and she definitely prefers tragedies.
TAKES HER YEARLY HOLIDAY
Once a year Shamshad Begum takes month’s holiday and goes to Delhi where she forgets her work and settles down to enjoy a brief respite as Mrs. Batto with her husband and sixteen-year-old daughter, who is studying science right now and who hopes to go abroad to medical college. Her parents intend going next year to Switzerland for the double purpose of getting her admitted into college and taking a holiday, which Mr. Batto thinks will be a rare experience for his wife who has never been on a real holiday except for her yearly trips to Delhi.
For the rest, Shamshaad Begum is a simple woman, essentially a home body, with an utter lack of sophistication which is delightfully refreshing. She doesn’t care a bit about clothes, cosmetics or perfumes, and as regards jewellery her husband smilingly remarked that she makes a great deal every year, not to use but to lock up, for she wears only bangles and rings.
The Battos are singularly happy, each with their own work and both full of hope and ambition for their daughter. They are charming, hospitable and frankly eager to welcome visitors.
Mr. Batto said his wife was thinking of retiring some time in the near future when the family would travel in real earnest.
“Retire?” I asked. “Yes,” said Mr. Batto, “she has been working for nearly 14 years.” (This interview was conducted in 1953).