Shamshad Begum: One of the first playback singers

 

When Shamshad Begum entered the British Raj-era film business as a playback singer, that term had not been coined. She was one of an uncredited band of behind-the-scenes vocalists who sang words through actors' lips as they mimed to pre-recorded songs.

The arrival of the first Indian talkie in 1931 created a new profession by repeating the regional theatre's trick of using songs to break up the narrative. Begum straddled the eras of anonymity and playback celebrity. She had a voice that could either melted hearts, or roar and made things right.

A Muslim, she was born in the Sikh-venerated city of Amritsar in 1919. By the age of 13 she was recording for the Jien-o-phone record label. In 1937 All India Radio Lahore opened as Punjab's only radio station. Word went out for local talent; actors, broadcasters and musicians attended. She passed the audition. Initially, she specialised in Punjabi folksongs. Her fame spread because the Lahore signal, especially at night, could reach Bahawalpur, Jhang, Montgomery (now Sahiwal), Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and Rawalpindi.

Punjabi-language film took off slowly from 1934. This started to change with Gul Bakawli (1939) and its follow-up Yamla Jatt (1940). Both had music by the "music director" – in fact the composer – Ghulam Haider. They introduced the 11-year-old child star Noor Jehan, one of the emergent greats and, after Partition in 1947, Pakistan's foremost female playback singer. Yamla Jatt brought Shamshad Begum and a later mainstay of Bombay cinema, the actor Pran together.

Pictures were seen as wartime morale-boosters and Begum found work singing in many of the films shot in Lahore, then the hub of Punjab's regional film industry (later nicknamed "Lollywood"). "Northern Hindustani" – as Punjabi was known for census purposes – was on the brink of greater recognition and she was part of the brave new world of Punjabi arts. A measure of her impact is that Lata Mangeshkar, subsequently hailed as India's greatest female playback singer, won a talent competition in Pune by singing two of Begum's hits from Khazanchi, Haider's 1941 breakthrough film.

Haider moved to Bombay, where national rather than regional reputations were made, and Begum moved there from Lahore to Bombay. She arrived as an established regional singer with a strong reputation and Haider as her mentor. Bombay was the centre of the Hindustani film industry and she sang for both Hindi-language and, to a lesser extent, Urdu pictures.

In 1949 the industry secret that many of the actors and actresses were not doing the singing was blown. In Mahal Lata Mangeshkar was revealed to be the voice of Kamini, played on screen by the leading actress Madhubala. The heartthrob actor-singer KL Saigal and the actress-singer Suraiya were notable exceptions; although Saigal and Begum had sung in Shahjehan (1946), they did not meet. When they eventually did, he praised her singing. It was her lifelong regret that they never sang a duet.

Shamshad Begum became part of the new wave of singers whose names appeared in the opening credits. In an essay on female voices in film song in his book Light of the Universe (2003), Ashraf Aziz memorably described her as "gifted with a robust, sharp, minty voice" and continued that she had had "no difficulty in maintaining a decided edge over [male playback singers] Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar" in, respectively, Mela (1948), Babul (1950) and Naya Andaz (1956).

Of the male playback singers, only Mohammed Rafi counted as her true equal. As evidence of her as a team player, she and Asha Bhosle, Rafi and Manna Dey singing "Dukhbhare Din" in the celebrated melodrama Mother India (1957) takes some beating.

For her, the maxim that applied was the song is the thing. What she delivered for millions was the sheer entertainment value – and, sometimes, mystery – of song. Bombay films represented an alternative or antidote to Hollywood's vulgarity, violence and dubious morals (though Bollywood would change that). Her core legacy from the 1940s to 1960s is firmly rooted in more innocent, less vulgar times. Unusually, Begum chose to sidestep the bright lights and avoided live appearances. She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, in whose home she had lived quietly after her husband's death in 1955.

Shamshad Begum, playback singer: born Amritsar, Punjab, British India 14 April 1919; married 1934 Ganpat Lal Batto (died 1955; one daughter); died Mumbai 23 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Anna Smaill’s debut novel, The Chimes, is a fusion of fantasy and romance
booksMan Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Sport
Ji So-Yun scores the only goal of the game
sport
Arts and Entertainment
One of the Pyongyang posters, the slogan of which reads: ‘Let the exploits of the northern railway conductors shine!’
art
Life and Style
Linguine with mussels and fresh tomatoes
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?