Notes from the past
Siraj Khan

THE extended presence of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle on the Indian film music circuit ended the careers of many female singers. Yet, the contribution of playback singers such as Shamshad Begum, Sudha Malhotra, Kamal Barot, Usha Mangeshkar, Ruma Guha Thakurta and Mubarak Begum is unforgettable.

The queen amongst them, Shamshad Begum, now leads a quiet life at her suburban Mumbai home with her only daughter and son-in-law. The grand old lady is over 89 years and has been out of the public glare. The last time she had allowed herself to be photographed was some 50 years ago.

Shamshad Begum began her career with the Lahore radio in 1937. The Amritsar-born singer instantly captured the imagination of her listeners with her mellifluous voice and ruled their hearts for at least two decades.

Saiyan dilmain aana re , Boojh mera kya naam re, Teri mehfil main kismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhange are some of Shamshad Begumís smash hits. Her swan song, Kajra mohabbatwala and legendary composer O.P. Nayyarís song Kabhi aar kabhi paar are other popular numbers by Shamshad Begum, which still rule the charts in their remix avatar.

Sudha Malhotra was another magical voice. Born in New Delhi in 1936, she was discovered as a child artiste by Master Ghulam Haider (a prominent music director of the 1940s). Her first break came with Mil gaye nain, composed by Anil Biswas, for the film Arzoo. Salaam-e-hasrat qubool karlo and Kashti ka khamosh safar hai a duet with Kishore Kumar, are the other songs she is often remembered for.

There is another interesting little-known aspect of her life. She is one of the rare female singers to have sung a self-composed song. Sudha has not only given the music for Tum mujhe bhool bhee jao from film Didi, but also sung it with Mukesh.

Sudha was also often linked with famous lyricist, Sahir Ludhianvi, who was said to be in love with her. Unfortunately, his was to be an unrequited love, which has been immortalised in the number, Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jaen. Sudha is now 72 and lives in Mumbai. Barring an occasional ghazal and bhajan programme, she is seldom seen or heard.

Then there is the talented Kamal Barot, who has sung countless duets and qawaalis as the secondary voice. Garjat barsat sawan ayo re with Suman Kalyanpur, Dadi amma dadi amma maan jao with Asha Bhonsle, Hasta hua noorani chehra with Lata Mangeshkar. The list can go on. But her rare solos, too, have been outstanding - Aaj humko hansaye na koyee is haunting. Kamal is now in her 70s but little is known of her recent singing exploits.

Usha Mangeshkar, an accomplished Hindi and Marathi playback singer, has perhaps played second fiddle to her illustrious elder sisters, Lata and Asha all her life. Kahe tarsay and Dekho bijli doli, sung along with Asha Bhonsle, are excellent. Her solo, Sultana sultana and Aplam chaplam with Lata Mangeshkar, are popular even today. Now at 73, she has almost phased out her public singing, although she did make a surprise appearance, singing for Jai Santoshi Ma in 2006.

A person who is known for sheer variety of her accomplishments is Ruma Guha Thakurta nee Ghosh. Born in 1934, she is an actress, singer, dancer and choreographer. In 1951, Ruma married Kishore Kumar. Their son Amit Kumar was born an year later. After her divorce, she settled in Kolkata, where she formed the Calcutta Youth Choir, along with composer Salil Chowdhury and filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Ruma has sung songs with Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar, and Kishore Kumar, acted in over 100 Hindi and Bengali films, and played the lead role in Ganashatru that won an Oscar nomination in 1989. She acted in Mira Nairís The Namesake. At 74 today Ruma still retains her gusto for life.

Mubarak Begum is another singer, whose comeback story is unprecedented. The singer who rendered unforgettable songs such as Kabhi tanhaiyon mein, Mujhko apne gale lagalo and Kuch ajnabi se aap hein, had not sung since 1968, after being sidelined. Early this year Mubarak Begum made her comeback after 40 years. Her stage presence is still infectious. In the past six months, she has performed twice in Pune, Mumbai, Baroda and New Delhi (most recently on July 17) and there are more concerts planned in Kolkata and Chennai.

These women are national treasures. And while decades have passed by since many of them last stepped into a recording studio, the songs they have sung continue to touch the soul. Perhaps, itís time to let them know that they havenít been forgotten.ó WFS