Remembering Zohrabai Ambalewali

A post on Zohrabai Ambalewali’s song was on my wish-list for a couple years now. But last year I missed the opportunity, and was very keen to grab it this year. I had thought of today’s date, when I found another date mentioned as her death anniversary. A date that was already passed. I let my immediate response of panic subside and inquired about it to Mr Arunkumar Deshmukh. He confirmed 21st February 1990 as her death anniversary.
So here I’m with her songs on her 32nd death anniversary.

zohrabai 1

I’m a huge fan of her voice. How should I describe it? It’s raw, a little husky, but very powerful and expressive. Her full throated voice enchants me. Such thick voices were popular in those days. Her voice cracking slightly at higher notes, it feels sort of rough to the ears. But for me, it’s her uniqueness. She ruled the Hindi films in the 40s. We all know, she was a favourite with Naushad, but when I went through her songs, I realised she has also sung frequently for Govind Ram, Gyan Dutt, Husnalal Bhagatram and Vasant Desai. Though she had a lot of solos and duets to her credit, she had sung trios and quartets as well. I noticed that as her career approached the late 40s, she sang a lot more trios.
With the introduction of the second generation of playback singers, Zohrabai experienced a major setback. Lata’s thin voice became the preferred choice and the coming decade saw the older generation vanishing into thin air.

Zoharabai was born in Ambala (present day in Haryana) in 1922. She was interested in singing (मौसिक़ी) which her parents didn’t wish to support. But her maternal grandfather was fortunately supporting her. So she could take formal training in Indian classical music from stalwarts like Ustad Nasir Hussain and Ustad Ghulam Hussain. In one of the interviews, she mentions that she took the tutelage for six years.
It was at a tender age of 13 – 14, that she cut her first record. It was by The Gramophone record company. She mentions in one of the interviews that though her grandfather was instrumental in her music training , he wasn’t ready to allow her to sing for the records. But he finally did when Zohrabai insisted on her wish. She came to Delhi with her grandfather for the recordings. This could possibly be one of her earlier NFS.

Chhote Se Balma More – non-film song by Zohrabai Ambalewali
We can clearly guess it’s a small girl singing the song. But we can still hear her powerful voice. Though all of the lyrics are not clearly audible, it seems to be a naughty song.

It’s perhaps during these recordings that Mr Bukhari, who was the director of A.I.R., heard her songs. He immediately called her to sing for A.I.R. Zohrabai recalls that she used to be at the studio as early as 6 am and the recordings would continue till late hours at night. Around four of such visits in a month was her routine. She also sang for A.I.R. Peshawar, Lahore and Hyderabad. She mentions in an interview that the artists and singers were treated with utmost honour and respect. As she was a classically trained singer, Zohrabai used to recite thumri, dadra and other Indian classical music forms. At A.I.R., she used to meet other singers, Shamshad Begum, Noorjahan, Zeenat Begum etc, all of whom used to perform there.
She also remembers a trip to Rangoon, when she was sent there by A.I.R. with her family and musicians.

She sang a good number of songs, though she hadn’t joined films yet. It was Anil Biswas who gave her a break in the film Gramophone Singer (1938). Her songs from the film are however not available at present. I could get some of the names of her movies in the early 40s, though none could ring a bell. According to her interview, she was called to Mumbai by V Shantaram, with whom she worked for three months and left the job. The film was perhaps Shakuntala (1943), where she sang a few duets and trios, under the baton of Vasant Desai.

It was with the songs of Rattan (1944) that she got her first major hit. Her name became popular in the entire nation, making her a star singer overnight. Then she never looked back. She sang four solos and a duet in the film. The songs still maintain their roaring popularity. Let’s listen to a couple of songs,

Ankhiyan Milake Jiya Bharmake – Rattan (1944) / Naushad – D N Madhok
The song was lip synced by Swarnalata. I’m very fond of the song and know it by heart, including the interlude pieces. It always has a spellbinding effect on me. The husky raw voice takes my heart away. It’s so beautifully sturn and powerful, yet the expressions are soft.

Sawan Ke Badalon Unse Yeh – Rattan (1944) with Karan Dewan / Naushad – D N Madhok
Though she is impressive in happy, bubbly numbers, her liking was for melancholy songs. She indeed had a lot of sad songs coming her way. This duet with Karan Dewan is among her best duets and for me one of her best sad songs. Karan Dewan wasn’t a great singer and Zohrabai just wins the song single handed. Her voice easily reached high notes, while low notes sound easy as well.

She sang for Naushad in a few more films, Pehle Aap (1944) features my favourites, Chale Gaye Chale Gaye and Saiyan Ji Ne Bheji Chunri
Other films were Jeevan, Geet, Sanyasi, Elaan, Mela, etc. In later years however, her place in Naushad’s team was relegated to just a duet or so. Naatak (1949), Jadoo (1951), etc can be cited as examples. I’ll add one more of the Naushad – Zohrabai combo.

Nainon Mein Naina Mat Dalo – Jeevan (1944) / Naushad – D N Madhok
A very sweet song, though I guess it’s not very popular. But there’s something magical about the song! It makes you spellbound.

We witnessed a big controversy when the song Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai was released in the 90s. But the ‘innocent’ days of the 40s also witnessed a similar incident, when one of Zohrabai’s songs was released. It was written by none other than Josh Malihabadi, a renowned Urdu poet of that era. His simile and metaphors do portray his imagery, still the first does sound provocative.

More Jubna Ka Dekho Ubhar Papi – Man Ki Jeet (1944) / S K Pal – Josh Malihabadi
The song was said to be very popular just after its release, though it obviously faced difficulties due to the explicit lyrics. It was banned in Mumbai, and perhaps also on A.I.R. But Zohrabai has done her job very well. Her expressions are not at all vulgar. But it’s said that its picturisation was also controversial. It was picturised as a dance number on Geeta Nizami, her provocative actions made it an instant hit among the masses.

Piya Ki Bansuriya Hui Kaleje Paar – Chhamiya (1945) with Amirbai Karnataki / Gyan Dutt – Pandit Indra
What an interesting discovery it was for me! I had included it on my Amirbai Karnataki list as well. But I couldn’t help myself. Such a delightful song. Two friends teasing each other, one is expressing her love, the other making her aware of its side effects so to speak. What a catchy rhythm! And even if the video is not available, we can actually imagine two girls singing and teasing each other. Zohrabai’s voice appears more raw than Amirbai’s voice. And it’s the rawness that makes me a fan of both the voices.

Let me now come to one of the highlights of today’s post. Zohrabai was a part of an iconic song, an all female qawwali, first of (or the only one of) it’s sort. Though I like the qawwali, I always fail to differentiate between the three voices. Though I’m well acquainted with the voices of Noorjahan and Zohrabai Ambalewali, I’m not at all familiar with Kalyani’s voice. It was picturised on a very young SHashikala. Anyways, let’s listen to the qawwali. I must thank Tom Daniel for presenting the song with a good quality audio and video.

Aahen Na Bhari Shikwe Na Kiye – Zeenat (1945) with Noorjahan & Miss Kalyani / Hafiz Khan – Nakshab Jarchavi

It’s time now for a lesser known song. I haven’t heard of the film, or the song. But I liked it.

Ratiyan Guzaroon Kaise Hay Ram – Ratnawali (1945) with Surendra / Govind Ram – Ram Moorthi Chaturvedi
I must confess I haven’t heard much of Govind Ram. But the song grew on me slowly. A very beautiful melody and very easy on ear rendition by the singers, mainly Zohrabai. The song is full of excellent Sitar pieces that create an aura.

As the decade of the 40s progressed, Naushad’s focus shifted from Zohrabai to Shamshad Begum, or so I think! So we get more of Shamshad than Zohrabai in the later part of the 40s. And for a film with a couple of superstar female singing actresses, he offered Zohrabai and Shamshad a beautiful duet. Let’s listen to it,

Udan Khatole Pe Ud Jaaoon – Anmol Ghadi (1946) with Shamshad Begum / Naushad – Tanveer Naqvi
Though it’s the only song both singers sang for the movie, for me it’s a good, memorable song. Shamshad sings for Baby Noormahal (Actress Shakil’s sister), while Zohrabai lends her voice to Master N Kabir. The song has a good tune and good renditions by the singers. It’s one of the songs with Tonga rhythm composed by Naushad.

Let me present another of their duets. Ghulam Haider was one of the first composers who endorsed Punjabi folk and rhythm to Hindi films. The added song has a strong Punjabi folk flavour to it. I’m in love with the song the moment I heard it. The singers sing the majority of the song in sync, almost all the lines are sung by both of them. The song has a fast pace and an infectious, catchy rhythm that compels you to tap your feet instantly.

Gori Chali Piya Ke Des – Shama (1946) with Shamshad Begum / Ghulam Haider – Shewan Rizvi

Continuing my zeal in lesser known songs, let me add one.

Aha Barse Ji Barse – Jeevan Yatra (1946) / Vasant Desai – Deewan Sharar
A very melodious semi classical song. Zohrabai renders it in a soft voice not commonly heard. I think the composers always asked for a higher pitch, but she’s so wonderful in soft notes as well.

Mirza Sahiban obviously belonged to Noorjahan and was adorned with her beautiful solos and duets. But when it came to a dance number, the choice was Zohrabai Ambalewali. The song picturised on Cuckoo is very popular, despite being one of the just a couple of songs Zohrabai sang for the movie.

Samne Gali Mein Mera Ghar Hai – Mirza Sahiban (1947) / Pandit Amarnath (& Husnalal Bhagatram) – Qamar Jalalabadi

Bulo C Rani was also one of the composers, who offered her a good number of songs in films like, Karwan (1944), Bela (1947). It was in the latter film that he made her sing ten songs, including a number of solos. I’m glad to add one of those solos,

Pardesi Piya Re Ab Mose – Bela (1947) / Bulo C Rani – D N Madhok
I think that lately the songs of the movie have been popular, as more and more listeners are getting an opportunity to listen to these songs. Fantastic rendition by Zohrabai. Bela was a movie by Ranjit Movietone, directed by Chaturbhuj Desai. Bulo C Rani was a regular with Ranjit, and he offered all the songs to Zohrabai. The songs are good. It’s worth noting that lyricist D N Madhok also wrote the story and dialogues for the movie.

Anil Biswas was the one to introduce Zohrabai to Hindi films. But later he couldn’t offer her many songs. I think there would be just a handful of them. Let me add a song from the movie, Naiya.

Aayi Milan Ki Bahar Re – Naiya (1947) / Anil Biswas – Aslam Noori
This one was a real find for me. What a beautiful melody, wonderful orchestration and to top it all, Zohrabai in her inimitable style. Oh! that husky voice at higher notes!

Toota Hua Dil Gayega Kya – Doosri Shadi (1947) / Govind Ram – Ishwar Chandra Kapoor
Govind Ram was an important composer in Zohrabai’s career. Here’s yet another soulful melody, he composed for her. A broken heart finds an excuse to cry, how could it sing a happy song? The lady in the song complains! And her anguish is well conveyed by Zohrabai.

While Naushad’s choice for the movie was Shamshad Begum, he was spot on to offer this soulful ghazal to Zohrabai. The song is surely one of her best and most popular songs.

Shayad Woh Ja Rahe Hai – Mela (1948) / Naushad – Shakeel Badayuni
Though picturised as a song by a street singer, her way of singing resembles a recital of ghazal in a mehfil. The ghazal steals the show. After listening to it for the first time, it became my most favourite from the movie.

Along with Govind Ram and Gyan Dutt, Hanuman Prasad was also one of her frequent companions. Again, I am not well aware of Hanuman Prasad’s career. Zohrabai sang for him for two or three films, including his last film, Usha Kiran (1952). The latter had several of Zohrabai’s songs, including one solo, one duet. I don’t know if I have chosen one of their best collabs, but here it is,

Main Ja Na Sakoon – Daulat (1949) / Hanuman Prasad – Qamar Jalalabadi
The song’s tune is similar to one of Lata’s songs, but I couldn’t place it. The song may not be popular, but it is a good melody. It starts with a guitar piece and ensures a good song to follow.

Khemchand Prakash also had an association with her. Though I couldn’t accommodate any of her solos under his baton, here’s her duet from the film, Mahal.

Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi – Mahal (1949) with Rajkumari / Khemchand Prakash – Nakshab Jarchavi
An enchanting song. It’s completely overshadowed by the other songs of the movie. It’s picturised on supporting characters of the movie. The woman playing the string instrument is perhaps Leela Pandey (Zohrabai sings for her), and the dancer is Sheila Naik (Rajkumari sings for her). While Lata Mangeshkar got instant recognition with the songs of Mahal, it was a path heading to darkness for the other two singers, Rajkumari and Zohrabai Ambalewali. Rajkumari still went on to sing for a few movies in the 50s, Zohrabai just went into oblivion.

Madhusudan Aacharya wasn’t a popular composer in Hindi films. But he was a multifaceted personality harbouring many talents. He composed for just a single Hindi film, which he himself directed, acted as a male lead, sang three solos and wrote the story too. Zohrabai sang a couple of songs for the movie, one of which finds a place on my list. For more information on Madhusudan Aacharya, here’s a link for a post by Arunkumar Deshmukh.

Do Deepon Ki Diwali Thi – Kinara (1949) / Madhusudan Aacharya – Neelkanth Tewari
It’s a popular song, but certainly a good song. The poignant song has a flowing melody and the pain it portrays appears real. Was it Zohrabai’s own story in the song? Her heydays couldn’t last long, Lata’s tsunami blew her away. Anyways, listen to her soulful rendition.

She had very few songs to her credit in the 50s. One of my favourites from that period is, Samajh Lo Nazar Se Ishara from Kashmir (1951) under the baton of composer Hansraj Behl. It was a part of my post on Hansraj Behl list. So I won’t repeat it. The other one, I recently come across is,

Lelo Lelo Do Phool Jani Lelo – Jadoo (1951) with Shamshad Begum & Rafi / Naushad – Shakeel Badayuni
A jazzy delightful stage performance with a cowboy and two flower vendor girls. Shamshaad sings for Nalini Jaywant, while Zohrabai for the other dancer, Sharda. Rafi enters late for the cowboy, Krishna Kumar, the popular choreographer of the 50s. The song is quite catchy and I loved it. Naushad tried western based compositions for the mivie, Jadoo.
As I said in the beginning, Naushad called her for just an odd song, a trio in the 50s. His assistant, Ghulam Mohammad also followed him to call her for a duet in Amber (1952).

And, to end the post, I present one more lesser popular song by Zohrabai. It is composed in a qawwali style, though it could be a Mujra. I kept on remembering, Basa Lo Apni Nigahon Mein Pyar Thoda Sa, while listening to it.

Yeh Do Aankhen Tujhe – Sandesh (1952) / S Purushottam – Kumud Tripathi
What a powerful voice she had! Enjoy her stern voice with the catchy rhythm of the song. S Purushottam never made it to a popular composer. He composed for just a handful of Hindi films. The film, Sandesh incorporated many singers and Zohrabai perhaps had just one song.

After singing just a single line in Teen Batti Char Rasta (1953), Zohrabai lost interest in playback. Her last song as a playback singer in Hindi films was for C Ramchandra. The film was Nausherwan e Aadil (1957) and the song was,Mere Dard e Dil Ki Dhadkan. It’s disheartening to see such a talent not getting enough opportunities in films.

Zohrabai married at a young age but was very fortunate that her husband, Faqir Mohammad, who was a well-known tabla player, did not object to her singing. After leaving playback for films, Zohrabai sang for the stage shows of her daughter, Roshan Kumari, who’s a renowned dancer. If you want to know more about Roshan Kumari, here’s an article on Richard’s blog.

I tried to highlight a few of her non-popular songs in addition to her most popular ones. I think I succeeded in creating a good mixture of the two categories. I am hopeful that I’ve covered her major associations. And though I was going to highlight her solos mainly, I think I did include a good number of duets as well. Still I know I must have left a few of your favourites.

Please add your favourites to the list.

Disclaimer –
Mehfil Mein Meri, claims no credit for any image, screenshots or songs posted on this site. Images on this blog are posted to make the text interesting. The images and screenshots are the copyright of their original owners. The song links are shared from YouTube, only for the listening convenience of music lovers. The copyright of these songs rests with the respective owners, producers and music companies.

24 Replies to “Remembering Zohrabai Ambalewali”

  1. Dear Anup ji,

    Must say that you have really put your Heart and Soul in composing this Post. Easily one of your best of recent times, if not THE BEST!

    No more comments, till I savour each and everyone of the carefully researched Melodies that you have strung together in a garland of sorts in memory of a Singer we all loved to hear in our formative ages.

    With warm regards

    PARTHA CHANDA

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good selection of Zohrabai’s songs, Anupji – so many there that I love! (And a special thank you for the song from Jaadoo – that’s a particular favourite of mine). Here’s another song, from Chandralekha, that I recently discovered, and liked: Mera husn lootne aaya:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Madhuji for the appreciation. I’m glad you liked the post.
      And, indeed the song from Jadoo is very good, though not popular. I particularly noted one thing that the first couple of verses are done in a single shot. The dance moves and steps are done without a cut. Of course it had nothing to do with Zohrabai, so didn’t mention it in the post.

      Thank you for sharing the song from Chandralekha. Is it based on Punjabi folk? But the film is a remake of a south Indian movie, right?
      Fun to watch the song! Thank you
      🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anup ji,

    As Partha ji has rightly pointed out, it is quite evident in the elaborate post that you have put your heart and soul in making it.

    Rattan happened in 1944 and the Lata tsunami started in 1949. Why Zohrabai did not capitalize on the huge success of Rattan in these 5 years should be pondered upon.

    Maybe, it was the stiff completion from Noorjahan, Shamshad, Surraiya Amirbai, et. al.

    A very good post indeed. Hearty Congratulations and Thanks.

    I would like to add my favorite duet of hers with Mukesh.

    Like

    1. Oh my God!
      Thank you Mahesh ji for your appreciation.
      I want to share an interesting coincidence! When I was researching for this post, I came across a few duets of Mukesh and Zohrabai Ambalewali. Then and there the first thought that crossed my mind was if you happen to visit the post and comment, you would definitely add her duets with Mukesh. And you really did it!
      I’m very happy. Thank you for the beautiful duet. And let me add a duet, from Neelkamal

      Pyar se humko kaleje se

      Thanks a lot for visiting and commenting.
      🙂

      Like

  4. Anup,
    I got fascinated by Zohrabai Ambalewali instantly on hearing the songs of ‘Rattan’ (1944). You have captured most of her famous songs. The year 1944 turned out to be the apogee of her career. She was the main singer in ‘Pahle Aap’ in the year, also composed by Naushad. Here is one very famous solo:

    ‘Chale gaye chale gaye dil mein aag laganewale’

    And a mesmerising duet with Shaymkumar, who was a very prominent singer for Naushad when Rafi was till trying to make a mark.

    ‘Aaja kahin door chalei’

    Since everyone is fascinated by her duets, here is one from ‘Shahenshah Babar’ (1944) with Munshi Azizi, composed by Khemchand Prakash.

    AK

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Anup ji ,
    Lots of thnx for doing post on such talented but now forgotten singer .
    ( Previously , I was too impressed by ur post on Amirbai Karnataki .. nd now this one .. )

    U hv very nicely narrated her career … the speciality of her voice , the popularity , the competition with other singers nd then the Lata tsunami …

    The selection of songs is praiseworthy .

    As AK said , I too was attracted to Zohrabai’s voice from the film Rattan .
    So I wud like 2 add a song from it .

    रुमझुम बरसे बादरवाँ मस्त घटाँए आयी
    पिया घर आजा .. आजा .. पिया घर आजा

    The way Zohrabai sings words like मस्त , घर
    Is wonderful .

    With best wishes ,
    Pramod Godbole .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dr. Anup,

    A vey well-researched and well-written post on Zohrabai, providing a complete life history of the fabulous singer.

    I have a limited interest in the songs of the vintage era but I like some of her songs, those from Rattan, as well as the ones in Mahal and Zeenat.
    And not to forget the Chandralekha number. Glad that Madhuji posted it.
    I have strong memories of watching the movie on DD in late 70s or so during my school days. At that time, the costume drama appeared quite grand and fascinating. Its one of the few films of the 40s that I had enjoyed.
    I always remembered Mera husn lootne aaya, which comes at an interesting point in the film as well as the final drum dance.

    I recently watched another Hindi costume drama from the South – Nishan 1949.
    Here’s one song of Zohrabai from the film – Pardes na jaiyo

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anup, here I am commenting late again (and shame on me this time, since you told me about this post well in advance) 🙂 ), but I did want to mention that I really appreciated this delightfully comprehensive list of songs by Zohrabai Ambalewale – which included old favorites of mine from Anmol Ghadi, Rattan, Mahal, Mela, and Mirza Sahiban, as well as a few that I had never heard before. (And, of course, thank you for the reference to my post about her daughter too! 🙂 )

    And now I’d like to add another one for you… You mentioned Elaan in passing among the films in which she worked with Naushad. Well, I quite enjoyed that one when I saw it several years ago.

    Here, below, is one of a couple of very nice mujras that she sang for in the film; the actress-dancer is Zebunisha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Richard. I’m glad you liked the post. There’s no problem if you comment late.
      And thanks for adding a beautiful Mujra. Yes, the actress is mentioned as Zebunissa in the video description.
      Good song. It was difficult to choose songs, so I had to drop many songs. Glad to see you adding one of those songs.
      🙂

      Like

  8. As far as I can recall, Zohrabai was the first film singer whose name I actually learned. My family was watching “Mela” and heard the beautiful song you have included from it. I had to know who was singing and ran off to the library as quickly as I could to try to look it up!

    “Lelo Lelo Do Phool Jani Lelo” was such a strange delight. I wonder if it takes its musical influence from the Afro-Caribbean dance styles that were becoming popular in the U.S. and Europe at the time. All the visual elements are norteño (his sombrero, the ladies’ escaramuzas, the saguaros, even the burro c: ), but the rhythms are not at all like what we hear in Mexican music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes,
      The song from Mela is absolutely delightful. I just love it.
      And, I had to look for meaning of all the Mexican words. But it has no Mexican flavour at all. But still it’s just delightful.
      🙂

      Like

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