Portions of this interview maybe shared with due credit to Gajendra Khanna and the website
It was the 26th of January, 2012 when my flight landed in the City of Dreams, Mumbai. And, I was here to fulfill a long cherished dream, meeting the golden voice that has delighted, amazed and warmed millions of hearts. Some of my most enjoyed moments have been spent absorbing the images brought forth by her exquisite voice with its unique timbre and expressive quality. Needless to say, I was full of anticipation as I was to meet Shamshad ji who’s my idol and the Ratras who were the source of inspiration and encouragement for work on the site.
As we head towards their Powai residence, my heart is brimming with joy. The air around is relaxed as today is a holiday and we don’t encounter much traffic. The building compound is full of children. They’re all celebrating republic day and lots of tricolours can be seen in their hands. The security person directs us and the lift takes us to the Ratra residence. A big smile from Col Ratra welcomes us. Oh, I am so glad to finally meet him. We have had a lot of discussions on phone and mail earlier. The warmth there shines through his eyes in person also and we’re all glad to be meeting finally. We had discussed it for a long time and it was happening now!
Then, I hear the sweet welcoming voice of Usha ji who’s just entering the room. She’s just the mental image I had made when we used to talk on the phone. She’s caring, warm, welcoming and full of energy as she says, Welcome. So you’re the youngster who’s behind the phone and website! I beam, greeting her, Yes, so we meet finally Usha ji! She gestures us to sit and says, Mummy has just had her bath and is doing her prayers. She will join us shortly.”
As we speak, Shamshad ji enters. She is the vision of the typical Punjabi matriarch, elegantly but simply dressed in a salwar-kameez, clear complexioned with her hair neatly combed. She looks like someone who is at peace with herself and content with life. She gingerly ambles in and greets us with a namaste. I take her blessings and comment that She looks a bit weak as compared to her photos taken during the Padma awards. She says, Yes, I was not well some time back. I was down with a bit of fever but am fine now.
When she hears, I am from Indore she starts smiling. She says, ?hen my son-in-law was in Mhow we often used to go there. I still haven’t forgotten the taste of the Kachoris and Gulab Jamuns I had there! “
We both sit at the dining table for the interview and are soon deep in conversation.
Gajendra(GK): Shamshad ji, tell us about your early days. You were born in Lahore, right?
Shamshad ji(SB): Yes, I was born in Lahore. Some articles erroneously mention that I was born in Amritsar, but the truth is that I was born in Lahore on April 14, 1919. Ours was a simple conservative Muslim Jatt family. My parents Miyaan Hussain Baksh Maan and Ghulam Fatima were very nice people who showered lots of love on us and those are some of my best days in life.
GK: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
SB: I had five brothers and three sisters.
GK: Do you visit them now?
SB: No, I haven’t gone there since over fifteen years. Now, with advancing age, I have to think before going to the next room also! (She laughs with traces of the famous khanak still intact!!).
GK: What was your childhood like?
SB: We were a traditional Muslim Jatt family based in Lahore. There was a lot of love and affection. The times were simple and I look back very fondly towards my days in Lahore.
GK: Tell us a bit about your husband.
SB: His name was Ganpat Lal Batto, who was an advocate (MA, LLB). He was my opposite in many ways but then, opposites attract. I had told him that I will not leave singing after marriage and he respected that. He never stopped me but was personally not very fond of singing (He didn’t let our daughter who had a good voice, sing professionally and wanted her to be a doctor instead). He was a strict father. He loved photography.
GK: It is well known that your uncle Amiruddin had taken you for audition to Jien-o-phone where you had been auditioned by Master Ghulam Haider who trained you. Do tell us about it and the training given to you by him.
SB: Yes, my uncle (chacha) Amiruddin always used to encourage me. When he gave me two paisas as reward for singing well during Moharram, I felt like I had got two lakhs in those days. He was the one who told my father that Jien-o-phone was looking for new talent. It was not considered appropriate for ladies of good families to sing commercially. Uncle told father, that I had a god gift and it would be a sin to curb my talent. He told him to keep conditions but allow me to try. Father was forced to agree but gave the conditions: Only go for singing, don’t get your photographs taken, don’t attend any parties and come home straightaway after recordings. These were the principles I followed throughout my recording career. Uncle took me to the audition which was taken by the company’s composer Master Ghulam Haider. During the audition, I sang a Bahadur Shah Zafar ghazal, Mera Yaar Gar Mile Mujhe Jaan Dil Fida Karoon and some marsiya. Master sahab was impressed by my voice and told me to sign the contract the same day. I was offered a contract to sing twelve songs at a rate of Rs 12.50 each which was a big amount in those times. I asked him, taaleem? (training). He said that I didn’t need formal training and just following his instructions would be enough. I was around 12-13 years old at that time. Master sahab was a great man. He took personal interest in ensuring that we were able to absorb the nuances of singing and music. He himself was very knowledgeable in the use of instruments and his musicians looked up to him. He had his own unique style of training where, while making us sing various kind of songs, he was able to chisel our voices to be able to sing any kind of song. His method of training was hundred times more effective than formal method of training and was akin to polishing of a diamond. I can never forget all that he has done. Mera ustaad jannat mein jhoole (I pray that he enjoy all benefits in heaven). He used to call me his Chaumukhiya (versatile) artist who could do justice to any song. He taught me two very important things. First, Be a good person and second, just like water takes shape of the utensil, you should also mould yourself according to the situation.
GK: Which was the earliest non-film song you remember recording?
SB: It was Jai Jagdish Hare I sang it very well but was shocked to see the name, Uma Devi on it. The company in its commercial wisdom, didn’t want to put a muslim name on a Hindu Arti. I felt bad about it and wanted next song to be one where my own name would appear. My punjabi song, Hath Jodiya Pankhiya Da Kasam Khuda Di was a big hit and the company gave me six rupees above my usual fee.
GK: After training, you went on to sing on Radio, isn’t it?
SB: Yes, music was a very expensive hobby at the time. A gramophone used to cost as much as three hundred rupees while its needle cost rupee one. One can imagine how exorbitant the cost was from the fact that one could buy 40 mann of aata (flour) for one rupee (1 mann=40 ser, one ser was a little more than a kg). Due to this reason, access to the records was limited to the rich while the common man was dependent on the radio for entertainment.
GK: You first went to Radio Peshawar?
SB: Actually AIR had first been setup in Delhi. I had actually got an offer from them to sing there but I could not take up the assignment as I was suddenly taken ill. After that AIR setup a station in Peshawar in 1934 where I, then started singing.
GK: Oh, this is new information for me. I didn’t know you’d got an offer to work at AIR Delhi.
SB: Yes, I worked for nearly three years in Peshawar. Initially, I went for a few programmes only but later I was told to stop shuttling from Lahore and take residence in Peshawar.
GK: Tell us about the Peshawar days. This being the first time you were away from home would have been difficult.
SB: Yes, it was a different experience. My father had sent my eldest brother Fazaldeen, who was really fond of me with me to Peshawar, so that there would be someone to take care of me. For the first time in my life I was forced to wear the burqa for safety.
GK: You mean, you weren’t wearing the burqa in Lahore?
SB: No, It wasn’t necessary. In Peshawar for safety reasons it was required. People had told my father, Pathan chuk lai jaasan (the Pathans will take her away). So, I started wearing the burqa. The common people were wary of the Pathans. Even the Peshawar radio station people had recommended it.
GK: What else do you remember fondly about the Peshawar days?
SB: I very fondly remember the food in Peshawar. I have not forgetten the taste of the naan, teetar, bater and chapli kebab I had there. I used to do the cooking myself but I did not know how to make fulkas (roti) at the time and used to regularly call Naans from outside. My health improved a lot due to the good food there (laughs). Infact, when I was leaving for Lahore and went to the bank, the cashier told me jokingly, Paise kis gal de? Aai si te patli si, hun te laal sui ho gayi ae.(what do you want money for? When you had come here, you were so thin and look at you now, You are taking good health from here!).
GK: Would any of the songs you sung in those days be available?
SB: Unfortunately, No. Even though I may have sung say many hundred songs, they were all directly broadcast and were not recorded. They were all live programs which included ghazals, Nagme and non-film songs. Each day used to see me sing different songs though popular songs would often be requested repeatedly. E.g. My song Ik Baar Phir Kaho Zara which came on the record also. I used to get tired of singing it. I had to sing it at least twice every time!
GK: You were working at radio Lahore once it started. How was it working there?
SB: It was good to be back with family. We used to do our work during the day and return in evenings after it closed. I remember there used to be a Flatty’s hotel where people used to go to eat. All of us artists used to go home in tongas in those days!
GK: You did lots of non-film recordings initially. Unfortunately, many are lost.
SB: Yes, it is sad. Why just those recordings, many of my other songs also got lost for various reasons. I sang songs for Phool(1945) but unfortunately they are not available now for example. Due to Jien-o-phone contract I did a number of film versions only which are lost with the movies too. My many other songs never saw the light of the day too for various reasons.
GK: Tell us about the way songs were made in those days.
SB: We normally used to come in the morning and do our rehearsals. The recordings were done in the evening after six pm when there was not much noise. We did not have proper recording rooms in those days. We used to do recordings on the stages where plays were being staged during the day. There would be wooden boards everywhere with the overpowering smell of saresh (a kind of adhesive) everywhere. We used to clean the place and then do our recordings. In spite of the bad smell, in a situation where it was difficult to open our mouths, we had to create the mood and sing Sawan Ke Nazaare Hain!(laughs). The microphones used to cost Rs 500 in those days and used to have a two finger wide line in them. We had to sing into that line. The singers used to coordinate with the musicians to do the recordings. Perfection in artists was a must as there was not much support from the equipment side. If someone made a single mistake, we had to do it all over again. We used to have numerous rehearsals to ensure everything was right before we went for the recordings. We usually used to have 4-5 rehearsals initially with the composer followed by rehearsals with the music.The whole team used to put efforts to improve the song in every way. We lived for the art and this was our primary focus. Once we felt the song was ready, we used to go to a special studio to record on the feeta(tape for the film version) which would be used in the movie. Since, the quality on the feeta was not considered good enough by recording companies, we would then go to their studio to sing song for the records. This was the case till many years later and in some cases, singers for both were different too! Due to my contract with Jien-o-phone, I couldn’t sing for other record companies. In many cases, my voice would be in the film but the records would be in other singers’ voices. Later HMV bought Jien-o-phone and the situation changed (eliminating my recording restrictions).
GK: How did your film work start?
SB: while I was away, Noorjehan was doing some singing for Master sahab. Her song Shala Jawaniyaan Maane was a big hit. Her Heer Syal song, Soneya desaan vichon desh panjab nai si Oh, jinven phoolaan vichon phool gulaab nai si had also been very popular. She was at an age where her voice was neither of a girl not a lady. They (producers) had decided to wait for her voice to mature. Producer Dalsukh Pancholi ji was a fan of mine and called me to sing.
GK: Oh, so it was not Master Ghulam Haider who called you?
SB: No, He was not the one to call me. He said that he was afraid to call me as he didn’t want people to say that he was making his own camp there. Such a humble man he was. He wanted me to come there on my own merit without any recommendations. By his and God’s blessings, I always got work on my own merit without doing any lobbying or back slapping.
GK: After that your career started growing…
SB: Yes, the movies I did at the time became a hit. We had four silver jubilees in a row including Yamla Jatt and movie Gawandi (which released the same year and was composed by Shyam Sunder. There was another Gawandi in 1941/2 with music by Pt Amarnath). These punjabi movies were quite a big hit. Then later of course Khazanchi came which proved to be a golden jubilee and was a big breakthrough for the team. I must be the only singer in Hindi films who got to sing all the songs in her debut itself. The songs were a big rage. I was told by Master ji that people used to throw coins on the screen when my song Laut Gayi Paapan used to be played and the applause which Sawan Ke Nazaare Hain used to get. We were all very happy because of the success of the film. This was the most popular movie to come out of Lahore film industry at the time. My initial duets were all with Master Ghulam Haider himself.
GK: How did life change for you after Khazanchi?
SB: I got lots of appreciation from everyone. With this film, people all over India got familiar with my voice and it was to open new doors for me. I started singing for composers like Gobindram and Pandit Amarnath in Lahore.
GK: How did the offer for Taqdeer(1943) come up?
SB: It was all thanks to the insistence of Mehboob Khan. He was one of the biggest directors of the time. His films like Jagirdar(1937), Deccan Queen(1936) and Aurat(1940) (which was a milestone) were very popular and some people used to call him Father of Indian Cinema crediting him for his contributions to it. He had heard my songs in Khazanchi and was planning Taqdeer with Motilal and a debutant Nargis as the lead actress. He told his secretary to take my bookings. He told him, Saahab yeh artist book nahi hoti(This artist doesn’t take bookings). He asked him the reason for that. The secretary told him that the singer’s possessive father doesn’t reply and doesn’t let her leave Lahore. Mehboob sahab would not be deterred and he came all the way to Lahore to convince my father. It was a really big thing that one of the biggest producer-directors ever came there to get a new singer to sing for his ambitious movie! He told my father, “Yeh abhi chhoti hai. Bologe baith jaao to baith jaayegi, jo kahoge maan legi. Aapne usse kuen ka mendhak banaya hua hai. Woh to samudra ki machchi hai. Samudra mein daaloge to wahaan bhi tairegi. Aap isse ijaazat nahi denge to jab yeh badi hogi to aapko apna career na aage badhne ke liye zimmedaar maanegi.”(She is young now and will do as you say. She is capable of making a mark in the ocean, why do you want to keep her in a well. If you don’t allow her to spread her wings now, she will blame you when she is older). My father understood his point and gave permission. Mehboob sahab promised to arrange for a house, car and servant for me which he did. I was offered Rs 300 per song for the movie. I came to Bombay to sing for this movie. All the songs were sung by me and became very popular. I promptly ran away back to Lahore after singing the songs.
GK: Oh, I was under the impression that you stayed in Bombay thereafter. How did you come back to Bombay?
SB: Master ji’s nephew Amir Ali got a movie from Navyug called Panna the following year. I came to sing its songs.
GK: Weren’t the records issued in Rajkumari’s voice, though?
SB: Yes, its records were for HMV but I was under contract to Jien-o-phone (Records of my other movies like Khazanchi, Zamindar and Taqdeer’s came on Jien-o-phone so those were in my voice). This situation, like I told earlier, changed when HMV bought Jien-o-phone.
GK: So, what happened in that trip?
SB: Once the songs were done, I came to meet Umraozia Begum and Master ji at their Bombay home for 2-3 days. Soon word spread about my availability there. Many composers including C Ramchandra and Anil Biswas came requesting me to sing their compositions. I told them I already had some commitments in Lahore which I must attend to. I promised to come after 1-2 months. I came for a week then, sang a song each for them and went back.
GK: I don’t remember Amir Ali doing other movies inspite of the quality of the songs…?
SB: Unfortunately, He died young. Panna was a silver jubilee hit and he died just a few days after the movie released. He would have got many movies but fate did not support him.
GK: You sang for and with all stalwarts of the time. Not much is known about many of them. Lets take a few of them.
SB: Sure. In our time dedicated people were there and I am honoured to have worked with so many of them.
GK: One of the composers with whom you were working right from beginning of your film work was Pandit Gobind Ram. Films for which you sang for him include Himmat(1941), Sassi Punnu(1946), Rangeen Zamana(1948), Dil Ki Duniya(1949), Maa Ka Pyar(1949), Nisbat(1949), Sarkar(1951), Jalpari(1952) and Jeevan Nauka(1952).
SB: Yes, I sang a lot for him. He was a very good and simple hardworking person. Many of our films did well celebrating silver jubilees and he gave me lovely songs. We had a healthy respect for each other and shared a professional relationship. In fact, that was my case with everyone. I just did my work and came back home. Maine kadi chaache, maame, puttar nahi banaye. Studio jaati thi, sabko adab arz hai bola, sab theek thaak hai poochha. Phir kaha chalo gaana shuru karte hain, gaana kiya aur seedhe ghar (I never tried to make personal relationships with anyone and concentrated on the work). I was always cordial however. My father used to say, Itne Meethe bhi mat bano ki koi kha jaaye aur itne kadwe bhi mat bano ki thook de(One shouldn’t be so sweet that others take advantage of you and shouldn’t be so sour that people start ignoring). I followed that. I never used to laugh or gossip with people. I was a bit introvert and knew that being a woman I should behave appropriately at all times. Some people thought me to be a proud person but that was not true. I was just a humble person in reality.
GK: So, you were never into socialising etc?
SB: No, like Kabir said, Na Kahoo Sang Dosti Na Kahu Sang Bair (I didn’t have friendship or enmity with anyone). That was the case with me. I never went to anyone’s house. I only made an exception in case of some struggling artists like C Ramchandra who didn’t have any proper rehearsal rooms available. C Ramchandra used to live in a one-room accommodation and I sometimes went for rehearsals there due to this reason. My only professional friend probably was Zohrabai Ambalewali who used to come to my house sometimes. She was the one to visit usually however and I rarely visited her. My daughter Usha and her daughter Roshan Kumari were friends.
Usha ji (U): Yes, we both were friends. Zohra bai wanted Roshan to become a playback singer but she wanted to take up kathak. Mummy had then talked to her, telling her to encourage her daughter to do what she wants to do. Roshan went on to be a kathak exponent like no other. Asha ji also used to come to our house sometimes. I remember one funny incident which happened with her. Once she came to our house. The servant told her that Mummy was bathing and she should wait in the living room. I was in a side room, combing my hair and singing to myself. I had a good voice and Asha thought that its mummy and the servant didn’t know she was out. She was surprised to see me there and told me, Bai tum kitna achcha gaati ho! (How nice you sing). She told me I should sing professionally. My father of course wouldn’t hear of it!
GK: How was your relationship with Noorjehan, who also was Ghulam Haider’s protege?
SB: She was a very nice person and an equally good artist. We were part of the same group since she was very small. We both appreciated each other’s work and had a very healthy respect for each other.
GK: Did you meet her when she came to Mumbai in 1981 for the Mortal Men Immortal Melodies concert?
SB: No, nobody got in touch with me else I would have loved to meet her. Perhaps, due to my being away from the industry, people didn’t know where I was because I was always moving with my son-in-law and daughter. Infact, we never met post-partition.
GK: You were quite close to Umraozia Begum, the wife of Ghulam Haider too, isn’t it?
SB: Yes. When I joined Jienophone, we became good friends. She came as an actress and had an active singing career also.We both sang many songs. A Dholak ke geet program used to be broadcast every evening on the radio in which I used to play the dholak and she also played an accompaniment. One song, Taali De Thalle Bai Ke Aa Maahiya Ve Aa Maahiya Aa Kar Laiyen Dil Diyaan Gallaan used to get lots of requests. I used to call her Zia and met her 15-20 years back when I had gone to Lahore. She was very beautiful and in those times when applying makeup was not common, she always used to be in full makeup. She loved dressing up. She always insisted on wearing matching clothes and accessories due to which sometimes she would arrive late at the radio station. If she got late by a few minutes on some days, we knew it must be due to a missing item! I never used to apply makeup and she used to recommend applying it to me. I remember, one day when I was at their home, she insisted and applied makeup on me. Suddenly some guests came and we were all chatting in the hall. In between, I noticed that she was carefully observing me and wasn’t talking much. When the guests left, she showed me the mirror. It was a hot day and I had absent mindedly smeared the whole makeup with the dupatta. My, I was looking horrible as it was totally spoiled. She never told me again to apply makeup!
GK: That’s a very funny incident you’ve told us. Do tell us about the lahori composer Pandit Amarnath with whom you did movies including Nishani (1942), Shirin Farhad (1945) and Rooprekha(1948).
SB: woh ek bahot laayak aadmi the (He was a very capable man). His goto singer was Zeenat Begum but I also got opportunities to sing for him. He was the best of the three brothers. He did a lot for his brothers.
GK: There is some confusion about Mirza Sahiban(1947) regarding who the actual composer is. Was it Pt Amarnath himself or Husanlal-Bhagatram?
SB: Like I said, Pt Amarnath did a lot for his brothers. He was not keeping well during the recordings. He used to send all the notations for the songs and Husanlal-Bhagatram actually recorded the songs.
GK: You sang many songs for Husanlal-Bhagatram also.
SB: Yes, I worked with them almost throughout their career.
GK: Yes, for example the Sapni song, Sun Bhengeya Ve in 60s (I play it).
SB: (Laughs at the lyrics). Yes, I sang lots of fun-filled songs! They played an important role along with some other composers for bringing punjabi folk music into mainstream Hindi films.
GK: Tell us about Jhande Khan sahab.
SB: I sang for him in Pagli(1943). He was like a maulvi and very religious, a Namaazi. He used to work for the stage earlier before films. He was already around 80 years old when I sang for him. He was very talented and used to make difficult songs. It was not a joke singing for him. At the time, composers did not accommodate singers at all. We had to sing as per their requirements. There would be no change of words or tune to suit the singer at that time, like it is today.
GK: Tell us about Khan Mastana.
SB: He was a very nice person. My song, Ae Hind Ke Meenar in Bairam Khan with him was a big hit. I sang with him in Humayun also. He used to keep to himself. He sang many good songs but unfortunately faded away later.
GK: On Ghulam Mohammad
SB: Woh ek laayak composer the. Bahot hi seedhe aadmi the. Woh bhi pehle stage mein kaam karte the. Badi pictures ki humne saath. (He was a very capable composer and a very simple man. He was associated with stage earlier and we did many films together).
GK: On Feroz Nizami
SB: woh to classical waala tha (He did many classical compositions). Jugnu was a big hit. He was a radio employee and went to Pakistan after partition.
GK: On Bulo C Rani
SB: woh ek seedha bhala aadmi tha. Humne bahot gaane gaaye. Achche se kaam karte the. (He was a simple, good man. We sang many songs for him. He used to do his work well).
GK: On Gyan Dutt
SB: He was an old timer and gave lots of hits.
GK: On Vinod
SB: He was a very good composer. I sang for a number of films with him. I still remember his mother sitting with us during rehearsals. He was a simple man.
GK: Did you know him in Lahore also?
SB: No, I started work with him in Mumbai only.
GK: You sang some very good songs with G.M. Durrani as well. (I play their song Hello Saain Hello from Bade Bhaiya).
SB: Yes (laughs). This song was a hit at that time. We sang many good songs together.
GK: You sang some very good songs with Khurshid Anwar too.
SB: Thode gaane hi gaye. Oh vi bahut laayak composer aaya. Maachis di dibbi te lay banaanda rehnda aaya. (I sang few songs only with him. He also was a very talented composer. I still remember him making tunes on a matchbox!)
GK: You sang a lot for Naushad sahab though.
SB: Yes, I became his main singer after hits songs for Shahjehan.
GK: Do you remember any incident during his recordings.
SB: Yes, I will tell you one such incident. Talat had newly come to Mumbai. He had sung for some composers but had not yet come to the top. Naushad called him to sing the duet, Milte Hi Aankhen Dil Hua Deewana with me. Rehearsals were done for the same. Talat had a very soft voice and a unique tremor which is rare and the highlight of his singing. During the final take Talat became very nervous. Naushad was the top composer by then and I was the top singer. Probably, this thought was running in his mind and as a result his voice became more and more shaky with every take. Naushad was not at all happy and recording was getting delayed. At one stage, Naushad considered even replacing him and told me about this thought. I told him that Talat’s voice was very good but he is getting a little nervous. We have to give him confidence and then recording will be done in time. I told Naushad to give him confidence. I told Naushad to go to the recording room and give the thumbsup sign to Talat with a smiling face no matter how he sings. I told Naushad you please wait and see. You’ll soon get the final take. Once, Naushad went inside, I told Talat that your voice is very beautiful and nice. You are only getting a little nervous. You will ruin your career by being too nervous. For a moment forget that I am the best singer and Naushad is the biggest composer. Say a small prayer in your mind and sing. Consider us just colleagues and do your best. Arre, Agar Marna Hi Hai To Darr Ke Kyon Maro, Lad Ke Maro (If you have to go down, go down fighting not by being afraid). This gave him a moral boost. The first take was remarkably better. Naushad’s thumbsup gave him even more confidence and finally the third take got cleared!
GK: That’s a very good incident you have told us. You were always helping everyone. I read somewhere that your nuskhas (remedies) were a hit with Mukesh too.
SB: Yes. At one time Mukesh had a health issue and as a result was losing recordings. I was unhappy to see him lose money like this while he was still struggling. One day I had a recording with him and asked him about it. He was very reluctant initially and then told me. Uski Naabhi khisak gayi thi. (He had a navel problem). I told him, Is it just this? The solution to this should be known to ladies of your house. It is a common problem with ladies. I told him, Haar pirone waala soot saat dafa ikattha karo aur pair ke bade angoothe se loose-tight baandh do (You tie the thread used to make garlands seven times on your big toe and see it’ll get solved). And, it worked for him. He was very thankful to me for that! I always tried to help everyone. I helped revive Chitragupt’s career by singing for him in stunt films like Sindbad Jahaazi inspite of advices against it as it was not considered good for mainstream singers to sing for those kind of films. Usually, the second rung of singers used to sing for them. Nashad was also facing some tough times. I had sung for him in Dada among other movies. In 1953, I gave him bookings for his movie Naghma. It was a boost for him. To this day he is remembered for my song Kaahe Jaadu Kiya Jaadugar Baalma.
GK: You helped Raj Kapoor by singing for his first project, Aag also.
SB: Yes, he had come to me saying he was Prithviraj’s son and I had helped him. He was greatful to me but said in later years that he was sorry that he couldn’t do more for me. I had helped Madan Mohan, C Ramchandra, O P Nayyar and many other new composers by singing for them. These early hits established their careers. I am happy that God gave me the opportunity to help others while expecting nothing in return.
GK: Kishore is another singer who was very greatful to you.
SB: Yes, he got a major break singing with me in Bahaar and his career took off in a big way from there. He used to profusely thank me for the recognition he got singing with me.
GK: You were close to Mehboob Khan and Mother India songs were very popular.
U: Yes, we are extremely thankful to Mehboob sahab. Not many know, that he gave an impetus to her career not once but twice. My father had died in 1955 which was a big shock to Mummy. She used to keep praying and crying all the time. She left singing for nearly a year at that time. Mehboob Khan was working on Mother India at that time. He insisted that he wanted Mummy only to sing for me. Naushad told him about Mummy not singing but Mehboob Khan asked him to request her. She said No. He told her that if you don’t come I will take you forcibly.
SB: He told me, Jab mere hansne waale gaane gaaye to kya aapko kabhi dukh nahi tha. Aap ek umda artist ho. Aap feelings bahot achchi tarah se mike ke saamne gaa sakte ho chaahe aapke andar jo bhi feelings hon. (It is not ask if you never had sorrows when you were singing my songs filled with happiness. You are an excellent artists and can bring the right emotions on the mike even if the internal emotions running in your mind are different). I had great regard for him and told him that I will not let you down. The rehearsals started. The first song which was recorded during that phase was Holi Aayi Re Kanhaayi which got cleared within one take. I also vividly remember the recording of Pee Ke Ghar. All the artists were crying as I was recording it!
GK: Were you crying too?
SB: (Starts Lauging) Nahin. Main roti to take kaise hota! (No, If I had been crying how would the take have got completed!). I had many hits after that also and with work I revived.
GK: You sang for many of the Madras based studios as well. You seem to have got a very good relationship with them.
SB: Yes, they used to book me and I used to go for nearly 15 days at a time to Madras for my recordings. During those days, it was perennially a studio to hotel and back routine. I used to usually get back around ten to the hotel, sleep and leave for the studios next morning. Due to this reason, I never got the opportunity to see the place much but they appreciated my work a lot.
GK: You also sang for the tamil version of Aan…?
SB: Yes, I did. Unfortunately I don’t know if they are available.
GK: I also haven’t been able to get them. I hope one of the readers will be able to share them with us. Shamshad ji, It is amazing that inspite of all the adulation, you were always very down to earth and professional.
SB: Yes, I was brought up like that. As I said earlier, I followed Kabir’s principle, Na Kaahu sang Dosti, Na Kaahu sang bair (No deep friendship with anyone nor enmity). It worked for me.
U: Yes, she never used to cancel her recordings. I remember she had 102 degree fever one day and yet, insisted on going for the recording. I asked her, why are you going? Do you really need the money? She had started laughing and said, Beta, I am going for the musicians. Recordings of other singers get cancelled and then, they don’t get money and have to go hungry then. They have lots of regard for me and are very happy when they have my recording. They say, if she’s coming, we will get food today. They have this feeling for me and I cannot disregard them. Hence, I always go for my recordings, no matter, how I am personally feeling. This is the kind of person she is. She always had a simple and dedicated nature.
GK: Yes, that’s absolutely true. I have read somewhere that there was a misunderstanding with C Ramchandra during a recording sometime around 1951 for some reason and you closed the songbook never to return to the studios for him.
SB: No, this is a figment of someone’s imagination. No such incident occurred. I sang for him whenever I was called. Infact, it was the producers who used to do our bookings. Composers had a limited role in choosing the singers in most cases. I was singing for him even in second half of fifties. A look at his song list will confirm this fact. Unfortunately, his career was tapering off by then. I had even invited him for attending my show in 1970. He was always greatful to me.
GK: Yes, I have seen some pictures of you from the show. That was when your pictures got published first.
SB: Yes, I did two shows around 1970 and for their publicity I had agreed to do a photo shoot. The photo of me you see in almost all articles was taken at the office of magazine Madhuri. I remember a funny incident related to that. I was going for the shooting of that photo. In the building, I got into the lift along with my daughter and some other people. One girl who was a journalist was animatedly talking about how happy she was that she will get to see me finally. No one recognised me as I hadn’t been photographed earlier. She was talking about seeing me face-to-face in some minutes and I was standing right next to her without her even realising it!
GK: People who have heard you sing in that show still remember you singing all the yesteryear hits and commenting that your voice was as booming as ever. What exactly made you give up singing?
SB: I was not very happy with the way recordings were being done in the later days. I never went behind anyone for work and slowly my bookings started reducing particularly when I gave hits. I used to give a hit. Before it, if I was getting 20 songs, suddenly I would start getting 10 songs and so on. I was thinking about it for sometime. My daughter had also got married by then and was travelling with my son-in-law who was in the army. I had always been singing for the sake of the art because I enjoyed it and not for the money. I had always been very simple and had little expenditure other than food and clothing. I used to wear simple latthe ke suit (salwar kameez made of the lattha cloth). If I were to buy 3-4, they could last me a year. The times had changed. All the old composers had faded away and since I was not getting the same josh during the recordings, seeing the scenario I decided to quit to join my daughter’s family. I was always travelling with them thereafter on their postings including abroad. My daughter and son-in-law have taken very good care of me. I wish everyone has a daughter like Usha and son-in-law like Yograj.
GK: Around what time was this?
SB: This must have been around 1971 as I remember this was some time after I did my shows, although the recorded songs continued to be released till later.
GK: I believe the last released songs of yours were for Ganga Maang Rahi Balidaan(1981) for Prem Dhawan. Was this movie delayed for over a decade or you sang them as a special case for him as an old acquaintance? (I play the song Humen Mitaane Aaya Jo from the movie).
SB: These maybe my last released songs as you say. I really don’t remember when I sang for them. I was always travelling with my family. There is some possibility that I may have sung them as a special case for Prem Dhawan with whom I worked a lot earlier but at this age, I cannot confirm it with 100% certainty.
(Interviewer’s Note: It appears to be a delayed movie going by the age of Junior Mehmood seen in the song picturisations).
GK: I am extremely thankful to you for spending time with us (Nearly six and a half hours sitting in one place!). Before, I take leave, I’d like to ask you one question which probably many fans would like to ask you. Which among your songs are among your favourites?
SB: Maa ko to sabhi bachche pyaare hote hain (A mother loves all her children!). I enjoyed singing all my songs. Singing each song gave its own experience and I consider them equally. Mere kai achche gaane zyaada nahi chale aur kai band bhi ho gaye (Many of my good songs were not so popular. Some unfortunately never got released) but I always tried to do full justice to all of them.
GK: There are many songs which did get lots of appreciation from the public. Which songs appreciation you particularly recall.
SB: I had many hits by the grace of God and I am remembered for them to this day. Their remixes have been enjoyed by the current generation also. My songs like Ek Tera Sahara, Chhod Babul Ka Ghar and Sawan Ke Nazaare Hain are evergreen. I remember Chhod Babul Ka Ghar being played in my daughter’s Bidaai ceremony by the band. I was feeling like crying and then this song sung by me itself started playing to my amusement.
GK: Yes, they are remembered till date. We have heard that you shall shortly receive an award at the Gr8 Women Achievers award function.
SB: Yes, I am very happy to be recognised at this age. It is due to the love of my fans only and are true awards coming to me now.
U: Yes, We are very happy for the recognition she is getting now even if it is a bit belated. When we took her to receive the Padma Bhushan award, she was very happy and received it very gracefully. But just like, she was very professional at recording studios wanting to leave after the recording was over, She was ready to come back after she got the award! Many people came very warmly to congratulate her there. Gursharan Kaur, the PM’s wife was very sweet to us. Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai who were also awarded from the film fraternity came for her blessings along with many others. One interesting incident happened later in the party. My mother was not much interested in watching films inspite of working in the field (if you see the Mughal-e-azam or Mother India premieres for example everyone associated with the films were there except her!). Jaya Bachchan came to wish her and told her, Main Aapki Bahot Badi Fan Hoon! and my mother promptly replied, Main bhi Aapki Badi Fan Hoon! She really meant it sincerely. My mother who doesn’t watch movies usually had watched Koshish for her performance atleast three times!
Shamshad ji proudly showed me the Padma Bhushan award kept in the drawing room. She told me how happy she was to get it saying that very few artists from the older era of the Hindi film industry have got a Padma Bhushan (most got only Padmashri). But she said, She was most happy to have got the love of her fans. She recalled how during her daughter’s wedding, during the bidaai, she was crying and her tears stopped for a moment when suddenly the band started playing Chhod babul ka ghar. Her family has kept many casettes and other material very carefully with them. I saw lots of fan material including articles and posts there too including a poem I had written for her and sent! The Ratras shared some rare pictures with us for the site too for which we are really thankful. As we were leaving, Shamshad ji said, She was really thankful to God for everything he gave her and she has no regrets in life.
At this note, we took leave from Shamshad ji and her family promising to visit them the next time I was in Mumbai. They kindly shared many photos and other material from their personal collection for which we are really thankful. We are really thankful to them for giving us this opportunity. May God bless Shamshad ji and her family with many more years of health and happiness.
One reply on “Shamshad Begum’s Exclusive Interview with Gajendra Khanna”
Nice interview . Thanks!! Please share the photos mentioned at the end