Remembering the Queens of Melody
Earlier this year in February, India lost one of its prolific singers Lata Mangeshkar. On this women’s day, here are some other iconic singers from India’s history that we would like to pay tribute to and celebrate.
Named Pazhanikunjaram at birth, Thayi was born in Coimbatore in 1872 to celebrated devadasi singer Vengamaal. She went through rigorous training in music and dance at an early age and performed her arangetram (maiden dance performance) at the age of 11. By the 1890s, she moved to Madras and over time, gave up dancing and focused entirely on music. In 1910, she was solicited by The Gramophone Company. Records were colour coded based on the artist’s popularity and hers were coded violet, indicating that she was among the most popular of the time. In 1911, French musician Maurice Delage heard her sing in Paris and was immediately enthralled. He met her in Madras and dedicated a Western composition to her that was inspired by her music. Thayi died early, in her 40s. She was a prolific artist, who cut around 300 discs in her lifetime. She was popular abroad as well but not much is known about her life anymore. Snippets from her recordings can be found here.
Born in 1885 to Marotrao, a contractor, Sundarabai was a famous Marathi singer, musician and actress. She did not have any formal education but was trained in light music in Satara. She learned Hindustani music in Pune from Shankarrao Ghorpadkar. She received widespread acclaim within and outside Maharashtra. Eventually, she was approached by Marathi thespian Bal Gandharva to compose music for his play Ekaach Pyala in 1920. The songs and ghazals used in the play became a hit. In 1921, she was approached by The Gramophone Company and cut around 12 records for them. Her records were so popular that the company (which became HMV by then) awarded her a gold medal between 1927 and 1928 for highest sales. Samples of her recordings can be found here.
A young devadasi from Mysore, Bangalore Nagarathnamma was a Carnatic singer, cultural activist, courtesan and scholar. She was born in 1878 to Puttu Lakshi and Vakil Subba Rao. She became a singer early in her life and sang in Kannada, Sanskrit and Telugu. She also specialised in Harikatha. She claimed that she was directed to build a memorial in honour of Thyagaraja in a dream. Thereonin, she started saving all her money for this project and lived a simple life. In 1903, her guru Bidaram Krishnappa’s disciples had erected a marble edifice and held annual music festivals in honour of Thyagaraja. However, a dispute arose and there were two rival concerts being held, which in turn, affected the upkeep of the edifice. When she heard of the state of the edifice, Nagarathnamma acquired the land where the samadhi was located, built a larger edifice and installed an idol of the saint. Women were not allowed to perform at the time, preventing Nagarathnamma from participating in the festival despite having paid for the renovation. She organised a parallel festival called ‘Pengal Katchi’ (women’s group) and in 1941, because of her efforts, the groups merged into one and allowed men and women to sing in the festival. Nagarathnamma was a linguist and also dabbled in editing and publishing anthologies and books on poetry. Portions of her recordings are available here.
Born Geeta Ghosh Roy Chowduri, Geeta Dutt was a playback singer and Hindi and Bengali classical artist. She is considered one of the most iconic playback singers of all time in Hindi films. Born in 1930, she got her first opportunity to sing two lines for two songs for the movie Bhakta Prahalad at the age of 16. Impressed with her singing in that movie, in 1947 Sachin Dev Burman asked her to sing for his movie Do Bhai. One of the songs became an instant hit and skyrocketed sales of the album. In 1951, While recording songs for the movie Baazi, she met and eventually married its director Guru Dutt. Her career flourished in the period following this and she sang what became her most famous songs. Eventually, her marriage hit a rough patch, which was exacerbated by rumours of an affair her husband was having with a new leading lady, Waheeda Rehman. Geeta Dutt turned to drinking and the couple also encountered financial difficulties. In 1964, Guru Dutt passed away, which greatly affected Geeta Dutt. She tried to resume singing but her career never recovered and she passed away in 1972. Geeta Dutt has sung over 1200 songs in Hindi films in addition to other languages. She was featured on stamps issued by India Post in 2013 and 2016. Recordings of her songs can be found here and here.
Born in 1919, Shamshad Begum was one of the first playback singers in the Hindi film industry. In 1932, she met Ganpat Lal Batto who she subsequently married in 1934, despite tremendous opposition from both families due to religious differences. She received no formal musical training and was recognised for her voice from the time she was in school. Her family was opposed to her singing ambitions. When she was 12, her uncle secretly took her to Jenophone Music Company for an audition with musician and composer Ghulam Haider. Impressed, he gave her a twelve-song contract. She won a contract with a recording company and her father allowed her to sing on the condition that she would not allow herself to be photographed and that she would wear a burka while recording. Her breakthrough came about when she started singing on All India Radio (AIR) in 1937. She was asked to act, which she was ready to do. Her father, however, threatened to disallow her from singing if she decided to act. She continued singing for radio and never posed for photographs. Shamshad Begum sang for composers such as S.D. Burman, Naushad Ali and O.P.Nayyar. She was the highest-paid female singer from 1940 to 1955 and again from 1957 to 1964. She was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2009. She passed away in 2013. Her songs remain popular and continue to be remixed. Snippets of her songs can be found here.