Other people much more qualified have written moving tributes to Shamshad Begum, who died today at 94. I have nothing to add to the praise rightly poured out, except to say that ever since I became interested in Hindi cinema, I have loved her songs, and felt that she was undervalued while alive. This is not a biographical paean, just an inadequate expression of my gratitude for all she gave us, and my sadness at her death.My introduction to the legends of Golden Age playback singers set me on a different path to many in terms of appreciation. I first heard Lata in films from the 90s, by which time her falsetto was a hideous, torturous screech, physically painful to listen to, made all the more so by being paired with actresses young enough to be her great-grandchildren.To this day, I’ve been unable to complete my plans to watch more Karishma Kapoor movies because my ears recoil in pain when Lata’s screeching fills the air. I have since heard and come to love many of Lata’s earlier songs, but in terms of a place in my affections, those 90s films as an introduction guaranteed that she would never take first place
Lata’s sister, on the other hand, I first heard from her heyday, and she remains my favourite female playback singer. After her comes Shamshad, whose distinctive voice makes it easy even for me, with all the musical perception of a dead fish, to jump up with excitement when watching a film and hearing a new song saying “Hey, that’s Shamshad!”. Here is the first song that I reacted to in that way:
I’ve subsequently been educated by several Hindi film buff friends in the many grievous flaws of that film, but all I really remember is all the lovely Shamshad!
Being a fan of both Asha and Shamshad, watching Naya Daur was a real delight for me when reshami salwar started and I realised that my favourites were singing together. When I heard the sad news of her death, this song was the first one I turned to, to remember them both, in what was not their only “drag duet”.
A highlight of the film Tanu Weds Manu for me was when Kangna’s character dances to a song I had not previously heard. Now that I have seen the original picturisation for kajra mohabbat wala I understand why it’s top of so many people’s lists of Shamshad songs, and I know that I need to see Kismat. My two favourites together again, once again blurring gender lines:
Since this is a celebration of Shamshad’s impact on my experience of Hindi cinema, and a look at why her death literally made me shed a tear when other “bigger” names have not, I will conclude this brief tribute with the song that started it for me. The very first time I ever heard Shamshad’s voice made an instant impression, in no small part because in the picturisation of this magnificent qawwali, she “won” the sing-off against the singer I still resented for hurting my ears. I can think of no better way to remember the unique treasure that was Shamshad than by letting her beat Lata one more time, in untainted monochrome – khudaa haafiz, begum: