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An alternative universe

india Updated: May 05, 2013 22:26 IST

Shamshad Begum's voice is a significant part of the history of Indian cinema, not only for its inherent artistry, but also for reasons of its marginalisation from popular taste. Her voice - and others like it - formed the backdrop to a broader cultural process in the decades following independence. It is extraordinary to reflect upon the fact that the voice which becomes representative of 'ideal' Indian femininity within Indian popular culture - Lata Mangeshkar's - has no precedence in the great variety of Indian singing traditions, whereas Shamshad Begum's voice - neither 'sweet' nor pre-pubescent - was of the kind that was widely heard. How did voices such as Shamshad Begum's get confined to the margins of popular public taste? This story has different but connected strands.

The first strand concerns the fashioning of the public woman through (what might be called) a post-colonial project of purity. Popular culture of the time fabricated the figure of the Good Woman whose most obvious manifestation was the mother and the wife. The goodness of the Good Woman was usually proved by her antithesis: the filmic vamp. The Good Woman was shorn of any of the complexities of actually existing women: their multiple desires, ambiguities, and personal ambitions. She became the reverential wife, the sacrificing mother and the doting sister. She sang in a 'sweet' voice in order to reflect the 'sweetness' and 'incorruptibility' of character.

Within this world, voices such as those of Shamshad Begum - that hinted at non-stereotypical images of women - had little or no place. Lata Mangeshkar's voice came to personify the Good Woman of the male imagination, whereas Shamshad Begum's was confined to non-heroines and others who were imagined to be atypical or slightly disreputable. It is not surprising that in the 1969 film Kismat, Shamshad Begum sang 'Kajra mohabbat wala' for a male actor (Biswajeet) dressed in women's clothing.

The marginalisation of Shamshad Begum's voice within mainstream Hindi cinema also marks the consolidation of the idea that the ideal relationship between men and women is that of protection, care and sacrifice. Shamshad Begum's voice did not fit in with this scheme of things: it did not ever sound like that of the controllable woman. Its nasality and playfulness always strained against the straightjacketed image of the heroine whose ultimate destiny was to submit to the wishes of the hero. It was, also, the voice of a mature woman, rather than of a controllable little girl. Shamshad Begum's passing coincides with another death: that of the vamp of the big screen.

Now that lead female characters can be seen to be doing the kinds of things that earlier characterised the vamp - live in relationships and initiating seduction, for example - one might expect a loosening of the strictures upon one's voice. Shamshad Begum, the singer whose tenor so strongly represented an alternative and expressive universe, might truly be considered one of most the significant contributors to the making of such an era.

Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal