You’ve heard the songs even if you don’t know her name. A prime Bollywood playback singer in the 1940s, Shamshad Begum is the voice behind hits like Kajra Mohabbat Wala, Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon, Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar, Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar — songs that continue to be lazy Sunday favourites, while many from younger generations would have heard some of them as remixes, too.
With her sensuous, lilting voice, Shamshad Begum, one of the first women to sing playback for Hindi movies and senior to both Lata Mangeshkar and Noor Jahan, was much sought after by ace music composers like O.P. Nayyar, S.D. Burman and Naushad. With tens of hundreds of songs under her belt, she was not only versatile but also multilingual, with recordings in Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil and Bengali. She often sang duets with Mangeshkar and her sister, Asha Bhosle.
Born on 14 April 1919, she battled a conservative family in order to pursue her singing career and to marry outside of her religion at the age of 15. Though she displayed talent as a child, she didn’t receive any formal training. But under the mentorship of music composer Ghulam Haider and sarangi maestro Ustad Hussain Baksh, her career began in the late 1930s when she started singing for All India Radio in Peshawar and Lahore.
Her first big break in Hindi cinema came in 1941 with D.M. Pancholi’s Khazanchi, which turned out to be one of the greatest musical hits of its time. Shamshad Begum, who sang all the nine songs in the movie, soon became a household name. Eventually, she shifted to Bombay and recorded songs for movies like Babul, Mother India, C.I.D, Shahenshah, Love in Shimla, Shikari, Baiju Bawra, Andaz, Naya Daur and many others.
In an interview with BBC, Naushad, who used to credit her for his own success, described her as a very soft-spoken and sentimental woman who had no desire for publicity. “She would never get her pictures clicked, and that is why it is so difficult to find photos of her,” said the music director. He also credited the legendary singer’s open-voice training in her early life in Punjab for her success in the music industry.
In 2009, Shamshad Begum was conferred with the prestigious O.P. Nayyar Award for her contribution to Hindi film music. In the same year, she was also conferred the Padma Bhushan. As she received the prestigious award at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, an emotional Shamshad said, “Mujhe duaaon mein yaad rakhna … mein aap logon ke dil mein rehna chahti hoon (Remember me in your prayers. I want to reside in your hearts).”
After a prolonged illness, the singer died aged 94 on 23 April 2013 at her residence in Mumbai, leading to an outpouring of love and grief from Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Madhur Bhandarkar and others.
On the legendary singer’s death anniversary, ThePrint brings you three of her most loved and iconic songs.