‘How can anyone call her unsung?’

Legendary playback singer Shamshad Begum. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf  

Usha Ratra, 75, pauses to clear her choked voice as she reminisces about her ammi, legendary playback singer Shamshad Begum, who died last month. First, she clarifies that her mother died at home, and not in a “Mumbai suburb, in a non-distinct hospital” as some newspapers and channels reported. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you reveal the news of her death to the media a day late?

Ammi decided to die in peace, away from the glare of the media. She wanted people to remember her as the chirpy singer of yore and didn’t want photographs of her body to be published. She believed in taking death gracefully. Besides, there was the religious aspect. As a Muslim, she offered prayers five times a day, but because she had married a Hindu, she chose to be cremated and didn’t want media to talk about it either.

There were reports that she was neglected. What is your reaction?

I am extremely upset. She was largely satisfied with life. She ruled the playback scene for 30 years. Almost all her songs were super hits. About 70 per cent of her songs were turned into remixes 50 years after she stopped singing! She didn’t like the remixes, but felt good that the newer generation remembered her. How can anyone call her unsung?

Did she feel bitter when she stopped getting songs?

She never said anything against any filmmaker or music director. She would tell me, “If you are at the top, you must also come down. When I come down, I will leave film industry with dignity, rather than ask for work.” That’s what she did.

Why did she leave the industry?

She made the reputation of four music directors — O.P Nayyar, Chitragupt, Raj Kapoor and Naushad. After a point, she realised that the more hits she gave, the fewer offers she got. She recognised that someone was playing politics and didn’t want to be a part of it.

One story ought to shed some light: Raj Kapoor came to meet her when he was making Aag, his debut film. He told her, “I am Prithviraj’s son. He told me that you always help newcomers. I can’t afford your fee but want you to sing in my film.” She respected Prithviraj and agreed to sing ‘Milte he aankhain dil hua’. It was a super hit. But Raj never came back to her. He once confessed that Jaikishan, of the composer duo Shanker-Jaikishan, would not allow him to take her on as a singer. Years later, at the press conference of Satyam Shivam Sundaram, he declared before journalists, “She made my life, and I couldn’t do anything for her.”

Her only regret was that her position was snatched from her by means of politics and not healthy competition. She once said, “I would have welcomed if someone had defeated me, but they didn’t have the guts, so they decided to take the other route.”

Tell us about her nature and way of working.

She was very wilful, very passionate. After my father died, she stopped singing. She would cry the whole day and recite the Quran. We thought she would recover soon, but she didn’t. Naushad pleaded with her to not do this to her admirers. Then Mehboob sahib came in 1957, offered her Mother India and said, “You are setting a bad example for your daughter by creating this kind of mourning atmosphere at home.” She had been mourning for three years. She changed her mind and sang ‘Pee ke ghar aaj pyari dulhaniya chali’. The song is still sung at marriages. More popular songs followed in Mughal-e-Azam, Howrah Bridge, Bluff Master and Love in Simla.

She was a principled woman but very shy. She never attended the premiere of her films. At Rs.2,000 a song, she was the highest paid singer of her times.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 9:57:49 AM |

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