Shamshad Begum, a woman who sang much of the early Hindi film industry’s soundtrack, has died in Mumbai aged 94.
Born on April 14, 1919, in Amritsar, Punjab, Begum made her singing debut on Peshawar Radio in Lahore in December 1947. Begum soon became one of Bollywood’s pioneering “playback singers,” first collaborating with composer Ghulam Haider in a career that spanned three decades. Playback singers provide the musical dimension to Bollywood films through crooning the songs lip-synced by actors and actresses in oftentimes colorful, dramatic scenes.
In her distinctly deep, nasally voice, Begum crooned hits such as “Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon” (in the film Patanga, 1949), “Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re” (Bahar, 1951), “Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar” (alongside Mohd Rafi and Asha Bhonsle for the film CID, 1956) and “Kajra Mohabbatwala” (along with Asha Bhonsle in the film Kismat, 1968), among others. Alongside Hindi, she sang tunes in Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and Punjabi, and also collaborated with legendary producers Naushad, OP Nayyar, S.D. Burman and C. Ramachandra, among others. A great selection of some of her biggest hits can be watched here in videos rounded up by The New York Times.
Begum’s hits have stood the test of time, chosen by wedding emcees and remixed by pop stars like Tanushree Dutta, who put a new spin on Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re from the film Bahar. Her talent stood out even in her youth.
"When I joined school in Lahore, we used to sing a prayer before our classes,” Begum told film journalist Lata Khubchandani in a past interview. “All of us sang in chorus. One day the principal announced that there was one voice that stood out. It was mine. I was made to stand on a school bench and lead the school prayer after that."
From the late 1960s, the strength of the voice that catapulted her to fame came to be seen as too powerful for the heroines of Hindi cinema. Towards the end of her career, she sang two songs in her commanding voice for male characters dressed in drag.
In 2009, Begum received the Padma Bhushan, India’s highest civilian honor, as well as the O.P. Nayyar award for her contribution to film music.
Following her death, tributes poured in from all quarters, including one from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said, “Ms. Begum was among the most popular singers of the country for over three decades and captured the hearts of music lovers with her enchanting voice and unique tonal rendition.”
Bollywood A-lister Amitabh Bachchan tweeted, "The golden voice of Shamshad Begum, playback singer of great eminence in some of the most historic film songs… now silent… RIP."