I heard about the passing away of Shamshad Begum, quite appropriately, on ‘telephoon.’ After all, Shamshad was the one who sang into the nation’s collective memory with Mere Piya gaye Rangoon, Kiya Hai Wahan Se Telephoon, deliberately pronouncing telephone as ‘telephoon’ just as people were prone to doing in the late 1940s. The duet with C. Ramachandra in Patanga became a whole generation’s second most identifiable point with Rangoon, the other obviously being the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was buried in the Burmese capital.

It was a well-deserved phase of heady adulation for Shamshad, a little under a decade after she had made her debut in Hindi films with Ghulam Haider’s Khazanchi in 1941, and more than one and a half decade after she first impressed the listeners with her crystal clear voice on Radio Peshawar in 1933. It was a voice that was to remind famous music director O.P. Nayyar of a “temple bell” and propel the career of the illustrious Naushad, then trying to find his feet in Bollywood, to stratospheric heights.

Born in Amritsar in 1919, Shamshad was a rare, rare artist whose vocal chords put into shade her female contemporaries like Noor Jehan, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Suraiya and later for a brief while, even Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. In an otherwise male-dominated industry, Shamshad, in her own way, helped the careers of Naushad and Nayyar. Both men acknowledged her debt later in their career when they insisted on using Shamshad’s voice for at least one song in their movies.

Shamshad though did not believe in living off crumbs that came her way. She often turned a little slice into a many-layered cake as first Lata, then Asha discovered. While Lata sang all but one song in K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, Shamshad left her imprint in the famous qawwali, Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma ke hum bhi dekhenge. Though Shamshad was initially not happy that her voice was used on Nigar Sultana, playing a supporting actor in the film, with her deep, crackling voice she easily overshadowed Lata in the duet. Incidentally, for Nigar, it was the second time that Shamshad’s voice had proved lucky; she was the girl on whom the famous Mere Piya gaye Rangoon was picturised. Another actress who gained because of Shamshad’s uniquely nasal style of singing was Minoo Mumtaz, the girl on whom the song, Boojh mera kya naam re was shot in Raj Khosla’s CID. Incidentally, Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote the song imagining his village back in Awadh and music director Nayyar felt only Shamshad could do justice to the song. CID though had more than one hit; the bigger hit being Leke pehla pehla pyar. However, not all memories associated with the song are positive. When the film was playing at the famous Jagat cinema in Delhi in 1956, there was a blast near the booking counter just after the song ended in the film. Though it claimed no life, the film’s shows were cancelled and the hall had to down its shutters for repair.

Likewise, Naushad used her voice selectively for Mother India. Again, Shamshad came up with the unforgettable Holi aai re kanhai to make sure that the future generations will remember her on every festival of colours. Around the same time came Naya Daur where Nayyar, again, used Shamshad for Reshmi shalwar kurta jaali ka; this time pitting her opposite Asha Bhosle. The two were to come up with the much more remarkable Kajra mohabbat wala about a decade later in Kismat.

Though she only occasionally got to lend her voice to leading heroines like Nargis, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayantimala and the rest, Shamshad made a good fist of what came her way. Not just Nigar and Minoo but even Cuckoo gained because of her. Shamshad’s rendition of Ek do teen, aaja mausam hai rangeen made Cuckoo a darling of the masses in Awara.

Then there was Kabhi Aar, kabhi paar from Guru Dutt’s Aar-Paar, where like Mughal-e-Azam, Shamshad got only one song but she proved her mettle with it. She had only a handful of romantic duets with the male leads of her time; the more memorable one being with Talat Mahmood, Milte hi aankhen dil hua in Babul. However, another song of the same film stays with cinegoers to this day. Chhod babul ka ghar was a regular at weddings for more than 40 years after it was first used in director S.U. Sunny’s film in 1950. In Baiju Bawra, she more than held her own in the song, Door koi gaye with both Lata and Rafi.

Though she faded away in the 1960s because the listeners opted for a more sweet, syrupy way of singing of Lata and others, she will always be remembered for her full-throated, lively, unhindered way of singing, which was at least in part due to lack of formal taleem in classical music. A fine reader of the mood of the moment, she was unfailingly sensitive to the actors for whom her voice was used. At one time among the highest-paid artistes — she used to charge Rs.15 per song in 1930s — she took pride in her seniority too. Her name often graced the screens and music cassettes before that of Lata, Rafi and the rest. Unlike many of her peers, Shamshad did not allow any bitterness to cloud the autumn of her life, gracefully spending her years with her daughter before succumbing to prolonged illness this week, aged 94. Thanks to her songs which were way ahead of times — many of which are used on dancer floors in remixed versions today — the “temple bell” will toll for long.

SHAMSHAD BEGUM'S MEMORABLE TEN

1. Leke pehla pehla pyar from CID

2. Kabhi aar, kabhi paar from Aar-Paar

3. Mere piya gaye Rangoon from Patanga

4. Saiyan dil mein aana re from Bahar

5. Chhod babul ka ghar from Babul

6. Holi aayi re kanhai from Mother India

7. Teri mehfil mein qismat from Mughal-e-Azam

8. Kajra mohabbat wala from Kismat

9. Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana from CID

10. O Gadiwale, gaadi dheere haak re from Mother India