There was once a black and white era of sublime dimensions in the world of the arts here in this subcontinent. That world has been in steady erosion, through the ageing, and dying, of the artistes whose songs we once heard and whose performances in movies we once savoured. In the death of Shamshad Begum goes one more symbol of that era. And why do we recall that era? Because Shamshad Begum belonged to the generation of our parents, because our mothers were forever singing her songs and our fathers were obsessed with the melodies of her male counterparts. And we? We were children for whom those songs became part of life. Our mothers bathed us and then wiped us and wrapped us in huge white towels, and on their lips were Shamshad Begum’s songs.
My mother was in intense love with songs. Shamshad’s ‘chaman mein raehke weerana mera dil hota jata hai’ was a song she loved listening to and singing. She had a silken voice and would more often than not break into a cheerful rendition of ‘bachpan ke din bhulana na dena / aaj hanse kal rula na dena’. These were songs which informed our childhood and even when we grew into teenage, they defined our understanding of Urdu music. In my late teens, I had occasion to hear, courtesy of the radio, the Shamshad-Talat Mahmood number, ‘duniya badal gayi / meri duniya badal gayi’. Years later, it would be a song I would sing with Tuntuni in the softness of a falling day. That song, and others, have added quality, indeed richness to the profundity of our friendship. And that, you may rest assured, owes a whole lot to old songs. My mother, for whom music was as necessary as breathing, would agree.
And she would tell you, in her state of artistic excitement, how such songs as those sung by the beautiful Suraiya gave meaning to her life. My mother, like Suraiya, was a beautiful woman too. Her name too was Suraiya. And so when she sang, through the snowfall outside the window of our home in a mountain-ringed garrison town miles and centuries away from her village in Narayanganj, that inimitable number, ‘wo paas rahe ya duur rahe / nazron mein samaye raehte hain / itna to bata de koi hamen / kya pyar issi ko haehte hain’, pure delight punctuated life. There was ‘o duur jaanewale / wada na bhool jaane’, again a Suraiya number that the Suraiya in my mother sang with passion. There was a time when my mother surprised us through humming a few lines — ‘ye na thi hamari qismat ke visaal-e-yar hota’ — from Suraiya as sung in the movie ‘Mirza Ghalib.
Suraiya is dead, both the singer and my mother. Talat Mahmood, whose songs my father and my uncle sang with such happy abandon, has been gone a long time. Mohammad Rafi, who remains the icon we go back to every time we are in need of great music and endless versatility, fell silent ages ago. Kishore Kumar and Mukesh too are gone. Mahendra Kapoor does not live any more. Yet these troubadours of music go on playing — under the stars, in the monsoon rain, in the greyness of sad autumn evenings. When you hum ‘mera jeevan sathi bichchharh gaya / lo khatam kahani ho gayi’, you know of the screaming pain which comes with a cracking of the heart. Rafi’s ‘toote hue khwabon ne / hum ko ye sikhaya hai’ will make your lover, she who abandoned you a long time ago, weep copious tears. Kishore Kumar’s ‘koi humdum na raha / koi sahara na raha / hum kisi ke na rahe / koi hamara na raha’ throws up, in sharp relief, images of love ruined in the autumn of time; and when Mukesh sings ‘tara toote duniye dekhe / dekha na kisi ne dil toot gaya’, it is life which reduces itself to pointlessness before you. You cannot forget Mahendra Kapoor’s ‘aap ayeen to khayalen dil-e-nashaad aaya / kitne bhoole hue zakhmo ka pata yaad aaya’, for the song brings before you love that you once thought was enduring, along with the beloved who is yours no more.
With Shamshad Begum, therefore, passes an era of music that spoke for all of us. Think back on her ‘kabhi aar kabhi paar laaga teer-e-nazar / saiyan ghayel kia re tu ne mora jigar’. A woman is in blossom here, in love, in ecstasy, emotion you might also spot in ‘saiyan dil mein aana re / aa ke phir na jaana re’. Love is a brave calling. It comes to men and women of courage, which is a truth you come across in ‘dar na mohabbat kar le’. And the pain of that innocent subcontinental bride exiting her parental abode for the home she will share with her husband rises in the immensely sad ‘chhorh babul ka ghar’.
If you have been in love, if your heart has cracked into a thousand pieces, if the pieces have been washed away by the waves of the sea or blown away by the wind, go look for the pathos in the Shamshad-Lata number, ‘kisi ke dil mein raehna tha to mere dil mein kyun aaye / basayi thi koi mehfil to iss mehfil mein kyun aaye’.
Shamshad Begum, she of that lost golden era of music, rests in the silence of the grave. Her songs, carried by the breeze, stir through the leaves of the springtime trees. The memories stay on.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.