I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Saturday, May 14, 2011

...Of Five Forgotten Voices

One of the many things I try in order to get myself out of ruts like the one I have been in for the past month and a half is to make lists. Lists help me organize the clutter that is my mind and provide me with rudimentary scaffolding on which I can string up the one or two ideas that I may have. More often than not, my blogger's block stems from having an excess of, rather than a dearth of ideas, topics and themes to write about. The photo/video studded posts about my Great Roadtrip remain unwritten, my photographing trips across Lahore remain undocumented and the long-brewing piece on Dylan languishes in the drafts (though that is something I should push to the front of the 'pending' cue given Bob's 70th birthday in less than two weeks time.) So today, on one of those rare occasions called 'a day off', I've decided to force myself to sit down and finish two posts that are all but complete and have only my extraordinary sloth to blame for being kept from the reading public.

The hallmark of a great book is that not only does it enlighten/entertain/inform during the read itself, it opens up new avenues of thought and exploration that go on long after the book's been read. Possibly my most rewarding read of the year has been Raza Ali Abidi's "Naghma Gar", an exhaustive history of songwriting and popular songs in the subcontinent. I've already written about one of the many amazing new songs/musicians/singers that I've discovered after reading about them in the book. A tangential effect has been a re-exploration of some of my favorite musical touchstones from the golden age of Sub-continental film music (which I now think spans three decades rather than just two). One of the things I discovered was that a lot of great music and great talent lies forgotten, and it's not just because of the dusts of time that cover it. Names like Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Rafi sahab, even Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, Shamshad Begum etc are known to most people with mnore than a passing interest in old film music. But there are certain artists that were headed for obscurity even before their careers were over.

The history of Playback singing in Bollywood has been of two or three towering figures, with other artists restricted to secondary billing. There were Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh and Talat and there were the Mangeshkar sisters, and for all practical purposes, that was it. People like Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey, Bhupinder and Mahendra Kapoor among the men and Geeta Dutt, Suman Kalyanpur, Suraiyya, Shamshad Begum etc among the women were more like bit players in the industry and their contributions, though great, can not compare to the handful of "superstars" that reigned over Bollywood film music. An interesting observation is that there was still a sizeable number of men singing in Bollywood, with each having his own distinctive voice suited for his own type of song. Among the women, the story was different.

The arrival on the scene of Lata Mangeshkar (and what an arrival !!) in 1949 sounded the death knell for the careers of a number of playback singers who had been jointly ruling the roost since the mid '30s. Their more 'mature' voices soon lost favour with cinemagoers who preferred the sweeter, younger voice of Lata. Over the years, as the Mangeshkar sisters strengthened their hold over Bollywood playback, the careers of many promising singers fell by the way-side as a result of a combination of professional intrigue and audience tastes. Some names are still remembered as smaller stars on the firmament, but there are a few who shone so briefly that their names have all been forgotten. That is a pity, because even though they shone for a painfully brief moment, they produced a most brilliant light. What follows is a selection of performances from five of the most gifted singers ever to have sung playback, who are now sadly, all but forgotten.

Mubarak Begum

I first wrote about Mubarak Begum three years ago. At the time, she was living in absolute obscurity. At one time, she was among one of the most promising singers of Bollywood with a number of hits under her belt. But her fall into obscurity was sudden. When I heard of her, she was in her seventies, living in a one room house in the Bombay slums with a daughter who suffered from early onset Parkinson's and a son who barely made ends meet as a Taxi-driver. Thankfully, as a result of efforts of a number of her fans, she has been somewhat rehabilitated. She regularly performs and has a steady (though still small) source of income. I still remember the first time I heard her voice, it was hair-raising, crystal clear, sharp as a dagger and very mellifluous. I've heard a few of her other songs, but the one that still moves me the most is the first one I heard, "Kabhi Yanhaiyon Main Yun Hamari Yaad Ayegi" from the film "Hamari Yaad Ayegi". It's a haunting melody, and Mubarak sings it with immense feeling, making an obscure song from an obscure film by an obscure music director one of the great musical performances of the golden age of Playback.

Jagjit Kaur
Another of the 'niche singers' who made a small but extremely important contribution to the Indian playback industry is Jagjit Kaur. The wife of the great music director Khayyam, Jagjit started singing in the mid-fifties, mostly for films scored by her husband. If I were to use just one song to introduce someone to her work, it would be from 1964's Shagun, which features some of the most beautiful music and lyrics of any film from that era. This isn't surprising considering it was scored by Khayyam and had lyrics by the great Sahir Ludhainvi. It also contains Jagjit Kaur's signature tune, one of the greatest songs in Bollywood's history. Picturised on Nivideta, with the luminous Waheeda Rehman and her husband Kanwaljeet providing the requisite emotional backdrop, "Tum Apna Ranj-o-Ghum,Apni Pareshani Mujhe De Do" is an amazing evocation of the love that's been lost but still lingers in the heart, a tenderness that persists despite betrayal and separation.

Jagjit Kaur kept on singing sporadically, again mainly compositions by her husband. Highlights from her later career include "Dekh Lo Aaj Hum Ko Ji Bhar Ke" from 1982's 'Bazar', which again featured brilliant Khayyam compositions, and her duet with Khayyam on his beautiful composition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's "Kab Yaad Main Tera Saath Nahi".

Meena Kapoor

From the wife of one great music director to the wife of another. Meena Kapoor was a semi-successful playback singer who started her career in the late '40s. One of her earliest hits was from 1947's Shehnai, "Sunday Ke Sunday" the super-hit novelty/comedy number that Meena Kapoor sung with Shamshad Begum and the film's music director C. Ramchandra. Early in the fifties, she married the legendary composer Anil Biswas and all but left the film industry, instead dedvoting her time to her family. One of her greatest songs was "Kuch Aur Zaman Kehta Hai" for a film that was significant for a number of reasons. "Choti Choti Baatain" was the last film scored by Anil Biswas, it was a labour of love produced by one of Bollywood's greatest character actors, Motilal and starred him and his wife, the ravishing Nadira in lead roles. Sadly, the film was a failure and Motilal died before seeing it completed. Thus, it was the bookend to four Bollywood careers that had flourished with varying degrees of success.

Zohrabai Ambalewali

One of pre-partition cinema's greatest singers, Zohrabai had one of those full-throated, deep voices that exuded a sort of rustic maturity that was to disappear from Bollywood following the arrival of Lata Mangeshkar. Her greatest songs were for Naushad and  Master Ghulam Haider. The songs of 1944's Rattan are especially beautiful, scored by Naushad in his star-making turn and picturised on Karan Devan and a young Swarnalata (who later migrated to Pakistan to become the country's first female film producer). She didn't sing much after partition, restricting herself to ghazals in stage performances, but her expressive voice lives on in the few recordings that remain. Her greatest hit was from Rattan, a song that catapulted both the singer and the music director to instant fame.


The final artist in this list is the great Rajkumari, one of the most beautiful voices of Indian film. She started her career as a singing actress in the late '30s but soon had to quit acting because in her own words she 'couldn't keep herself off food' and gained a lot of weight. But a loss for the screen was a gain for the listening public as she concentrated on her voice and soon became one of the pre-eminent singers of the pre-partition era. After partition, her career slowed down to a few songs per year. She however had two superhit films to her credit in the immediate post-partition years, 1950's "Bawre Nain" in which she provided playback for the vivacious Geeta Bali, and 1949's Kamal Amrohi masterpiece "Mahal", a film that heralded a great change in the Indian film industry. It thrust a young Madhubala into superstardom and it provided Lata Mangeshkar with her first, career altering hit. Scored by the immensely talented Khemchand Prakash (who unfortunately died rather young), Mahal was an immaculately produced supernatural thriller and early Noir that still holds up more than 60 years later as one of the greatest films produced in the sub-continent. Rajkumari sang one of the film's, and indeed Indian cinema's most haunting songs, "Ghabra Ke Jo Hum Sar Ko Takrayen To Accha Ho"

Unfortunately, after Rajkumari's career fizzled out, she was reduced to penury and made her living singing in the backing choruses on film songs. It was while she was singing on the chorus for another great Kamal Amrohi film, 1972's "Pakeezah" that she was spotted by Naushad, who thought her condition exceedingly pitiful, having worked with her in her heydey. He offered her the chance to sing one of the thumris he had composed for the film and so Rajkumari sang for the first time in nearly two decades.

Rajkumari lived out her last days in strained circumstances, occasionally going on stage to perform songs from her golden days. She died in 2000 at a broken down house in Bombay.

  As a footnote to this list of some of the greatest singers of the 20th Century is another song from Kamal Amrohi's Mahal. It is sung by two of the luminaries mentioned above, Zohrabai Ambalewali and Rajkumari. Everything that made the film a masterpiece is evident in the song - from the haunting melody to the brilliant cinematography to the expressive and emotive performances. Also, the song serves as a final glimpse at the passing parade of Old Bollywood at the brink of a major upheaval, when the faces, voices and names of the pre-partition era were suddenly thrust aside to make way for the new lot that was to rule sub-continental film for the next three decades.

Zohrabai Ambalewali And Rajkumari - "Yeh Raat Beet Jayegi, Jawani Phir Na Ayegi"


  1. Excellent post though the title is not really true. These songs haven't been forgotten. I love all these singers and all these songs.

    The film Mahal is, as you say, a masterpiece and I'm afraid it has been forgotten. Everybody remembers Aayega Aanewala but too few people have seen the film.

    I'd like to point out one error. Motilal was never married to Nadira.

  2. Same here. These songs are some of my favorites from that era, but for an average listener, these songs; or at least the names of the singers, would be difficult to recall. Mahal is definitely an amazing film, from the haunting opening score to the last scene.

    As for the error, I stand corrected.