Zohrabai Ambalewali was a one of the prominent singers in the Hindi film industry in the 1940s, along with Rajkumari and Amirbai Karnataki, till the phenomenon called Lata Mangeshkar hit the industry.
She was born in 1918 as Zohrabai Khatoon, in a family of musicians. She began her career at the young age of 13 with HMV. She became known as Ambalewali because her hometown was Ambala in Punjab.
She made her debut singing for Anil Biswas for the film “Gramophone Singer” (1938). Her big break came in 1944 with the release of “Rattan” when the song “Ankhiyan Milake” became a blockbuster. “Rattan” was significant in that it marked the arrival of both Zohrabai and the film’s music director, Naushad. With the onset of playback singing, Zohrabai caught a luck break as music directors could now look beyond actor/singers and now wanted singers who were proficient. Despite a substantial body of work, Zohrabai got typecast in upbeat, fast tempo songs and remained underutilized.
With the onset of Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Roy, and perhaps because of the perceived limitations of her singing, her career tapered off in the 1950s . After a four year break following 1953, she sang her last song “Mere Dard-E-Jigar Ki Har Dhadkan” (“Nausherwan-E-Adil”) in 1957. However, till she died in 1990, she continued to sing at her daughter, kathak dancer Roshan Kumari’s concerts.