It’s unfortunate but true that the society we live in does not give due respect to performing arts or pay homage to legendary artistes who have given their best to this country. There is a long list of such giants on the art scene who were forgotten and many of them have left the materialistic world waiting all their lives to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Begum Khursheed Shahid is one such distinguished artiste who stands out as the pioneers of PTV. Though she made her mark as a fine actor, she was an accomplished singer, too.
Bold and graceful, she always speaks her mind. In an exclusive sitting with her she talks at length about her long journey from nobody to somebody.
“I was very young, may be about seven, when I actually started acting. We used to live in Delhi where my father was a government servant. I, along with my friends and sisters, used to go to watch Ram Leela, which was a religious sort of theatre, in a huge ground with a little stage area. I watched all actors and their acts with great admiration and developed an interest in acting from there. After coming home, I and my sisters used to take our mother’s colourful dupattas to a neighbouring friend’s house which had a sprawling lawn with marble benches. We used to act out the characters in Ram Leela taking the benches as the stage.
“I was in grade six when a Congress leader, Aruna Asif Ali, who used to hunt for young talent came to our school. My classmates told her about my singing and acting talent and she selected me for a musical performance.
She took me to All India Radio, Delhi, where Feroze Nizami, the famous composer of his time, heard me singing and gave me a poem to learn by heart. He told me to come back the next day so that he could compose it for me but I said I could compose it myself. The next day when I sang the poem he was surprised and said: “This is pure Raag Darbari.” I said I just composed it and had no knowledge of raagas. He really liked it and that was how I gave my first music performance.
“Then I started frequenting All India Radio on Ali Pur Road. It was later shifted to Parliament Street where I interacted with music director Roshan Lal Nagrath, popular Indian actor Hrithik Roshan’s grandfather. He actually discovered the talent in me. He used to make others rehearse for hours while I used to get a short time because he thought I was very sharp and a quick learner. We used to call him bhaiya and later we started visiting his family and I befriended his wife.
“Unlike others, my father was a liberal man and he believed education for girls was a must. He always supported me. We were four sisters and one brother. I think I was the only Muslim girl singing at that time. As I grew up, I also started acting in Radio’s feature programmes which I guess was a gradual shift towards acting. I also did a feature by Mukhtar Siddiqui on All India Radio.
“Then the partition took place and we moved to Lahore. The train journey was full of dangers and bloody clashes. I was hardly sixteen then and everything changed. We moved to our uncle’s house. Far from the city of my birth, acting and singing, life was not the same.
“After a gap of few years I just went to Radio Pakistan one day. I was auditioned and asked to start doing musical programmes by station director Mahmood Nizami. He favoured me with formal lessons in classical music on the premises of Radio Pakistan from Bhai Lal, a noted classical maestro at that time. This was how I honed my skill as a classical singer. One day while travelling I listened to myself singing on the radio.
I was surprised and pleased that I sounded like a true classical singer. This encouraged me to learn more intricacies of classical music. And this quest brought me close to Malika-i-Mausiqi, Roshan Ara Begam, whom I used to call Didi. I admired her a lot and was really inspired by her singing and personality as she was a remarkably humble and humane person. I somehow unconsciously started copying her style of singing and many people acknowledged that I sounded like her on the radio. But I could never even imagine that I was like her as she was a great singer.
“I first saw Roshan Ara Begum performing at Lahore Arts Council. Today’s Alhamra Arts Council used to be a big house with sprawling lawns where all concerts and performances used to take place. While she was singing, I literally went into a trance and was totally mesmerised by her performance. As she was stepping down the stage after the session ended, I picked up her shoes and helped her wear them. She asked about me as this was the gesture only an admirer or a pupil could give. Then I started visiting her in Lala Musa. I observed her closely which helped me improve my singing. Later, she asked me to play Tanpura with her, an offer which I took with great honour. She would ask me to accompany her home or abroad.
“One day I insisted that she should formally take me under her tutelage. She agreed with some reluctance and asked me to sing something. How could I sing in front of her but she insisted that I should sing whatever I had learnt from Bhai Lal. While I was singing, her husband Chaudhry Ahmad Khan, who was sitting in the courtyard, asked “Roshan, who is singing”? She said Khurshid and he remarked: “Wah jhotta pani peenay se itna asr aa jata hai” and praised my singing.
“I also did a lot of quality theatre. There was Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Manto and Sadquain. Almost all theatre performances were held at the same big house on The Mall. Before the launch of PTV in 1964, I was a big name in theatre. When Faiz Ahmad Faiz joined the Lahore Arts Council as secretary, he wanted me to be on the staff. But Justice S.A. Rehman, who was the chairman of the council, opposed it. He told Faiz Sahib that he did not want any good looking woman in the Arts Council staff.
“With the launch of PTV, Aslam Azhar offered me work. I agreed on the condition that I would be the highest paid actor. I had attained much fame at that time and Aslam Azhar kindly accepted the condition. I did my first PTV play “Rus Malai”, which was a comedy. Then I started working regularly in dramas; there’s a long list of PTV classics like Fehmida Ki Kahani Ustani Rahat Ki Zabani.
“I also worked in a Khurshid Anwar film on the insistence of Faiz Sahib. Then I also did a remarkable performance in a Punjabi movie by Ashfaque Malik. I never used glycerin in my entire career to fake tears. To me, my work was truly my ibadat.
“I was awarded Pride of Performance much later, after my juniors had all been awarded and much after my career hits had run and rerun on PTV repeatedly. By that time it had lost all its importance. To this day, I believe I gave my best years to PTV, entering as a youth and leaving it as an aged woman.
“I got married to producer Saleem Shahid at a very early age. The marriage didn’t last long. My husband wanted me to quit my association with the radio which I unwillingly did for some time; however, mounting differences led to our separation. Salman, my only son, was very young at that time. My husband left for BBC London a few years after our marriage, where he stayed till his death. Although my family wanted me to get a divorce and remarry, I decided never to marry again. We never divorced but remained separated till the day my husband died.”