I recently attended an orchestra and the theme was ‘’Unacknowledged female playback singers in the Hindi film industry’’.  I got Goosebumps while listening to some old songs of 40s, 50, 60s and 70s……..the anchor and organizer of the show Dwarkanath Sanzgiri had done fantastic research on these lovely singers who were not trained musically but had this God-given gift of lovely voice and some great music directors trained them to sing particular songs and got some of the magical numbers sung by them. Most of these singers were also actresses of the golden era.  They had their peaks in career till Lata Mangeshkar entered the industry and rose as a star in 1948-49. Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosale are trained singers and proved their mastery. But, a fact to note is that these two stars called the shots in the industry and dictated their terms; they would not sing with music directors who would give other playback female singers a chance to sing.

I pay my tribute to some of these lovely singers.

Amirbai Karnataki (1906 – 1965) was a famous actress and playback singer in 1940s and 1950s of Hindi cinema. She was famously known as Kannada Kokila. She is known for her famous song Vaishnav Jan to… She achieved popularity when her songs in film Kismet became a rage. The composer of this film song tracks was Anil Biswas. Amirbai switched over to acting in her later years, she mostly played character roles. Amirbai also composed music for Wahab Pictures’ film Shehnaaz (1948). One of the famous film magazines “Film India” had mentioned in one of its articles that at that time in the 20th century when other singers used to get Rs. 500 for singing a song, Amirbai used to get Rs. 1000 per recording those days.

Oh jaane wale balamwa, loutke aa…
Film: Rattan 1944, Singers: Amirbai Karnataki and Shyam Kumar,
Lyricist: D.N.Madhok, Music Director: Naushad.

Noor Jehan (1926-2000): She was a famous Pakistani singer and actress who worked both in India and Pakistan. A highly versatile singer/actress, Noor Jehan could sing in several languages including Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Sindhi, and had recorded over 10,000 songs in her career. Born into a Muslim family with a rich musical tradition, in British India, she was exposed to the world of glamour world at a young age. She began singing at the age of five and received early training in classical singing under Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. With time she grew up into a beautiful young woman with a golden voice and played her first role as an adult in the Hindi film ‘Khandaan’ which became a huge hit. She moved to Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947 and struggled for a few years to establish herself. With her determination and hard work she went on to achieve great success in Pakistani cinema and music as well. She was given the title of Malika-e-Tarannum (the Queen of Melody) in Pakistan.

Jawan Hai Mohabbat haseen hai zamana….
Film:  Anmol Ghadi 1946, Singer: Noor Jehan,
Tanveer Naqvi, Music Director: Naushad

Shamshad Begum (1919-2013) she had a distinctive spunky voice and was very versatile singer. She sang over 6,000 songs in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and Punjabi languages. She has worked with great music directors like Naushad, S.D.Burman, C.Ramchadra, O.P.Nayyar, Shankar Jaikishan etc. Her songs from the 1940s to the early 1970s are some of the best songs. She had a sharp voice, not very feminine. Shamshad’s talent was first spotted by her school principal when she was in primary school in 1924. Impressed by the quality of her voice, she was made head singer of classroom prayer. At 10, she started singing folk-based songs at religious functions and family marriages. A point to note is that she did not received formal musical training, but she gave some of the most wonderful songs.

Mere Piya Gaye Rangun….
Film: Patanga 1949, Singer: Shamshad Begum,
Lyricist: Rajendra Krishna, Music Director: C. Ramchandra

Suraiya: (1929 -2004) she has a career spanning from 1936 to 1963, Suraiya acted in 67 films and sang 338 songs. She was one of the prettiest actresses of the Hindi cinema and a leading lady in Bollywood in 1940s and 1950s. Most of the heroes of that era had fallen for her. She was so beautiful that Hollywood actor Gregory Peck once came to meet her. She was also called the ‘Mallika-e-tarranum’ of India. Suraiya had everything; beauty, charm, money, fame but she dint marry in her life because she fell in love with Dev Ananad. Both couldn’t marry because of different religions. Dev Ananad moved on and married Kalpana Kartik, but never was happy in his married life and Suraiya remained single till end.

Tara Ri Aara Ri Aara Ri Yeh mausam 
Film: Dastan 1950, Singers: Mohammed Rafi & Suraiya,
Lyricist: Shakeel Badayuni, Music Director: Naushad

Geeta Dutt (1930-1972) was a prominent Indian playback singer and a famous Bengali-Hindi classical artist, born in Faridpur before the Partition of India. Geeta Dutt sang a wide range of songs in different genre. K. Hanuman Prasad took Geeta under his patronage, trained and groomed her in singing and later launched her into singing for movies. In 1946, she got the first break with an opportunity to sing in the mythological film Bhakta Prahlad for which Prasad was the music director. During her recording of songs for the movie Baazi, she met its young up-and-coming director, Guru Dutt. They both fell in love and marriage on 26 May 1953. In 1957, Guru Dutt launched a movie Gauri with Geeta Dutt as its singing star. It was to be India’s first movie in cinemascope but the project was shelved after a few days of the shooting. Geeta Dutt was not happy in her marriage. She started drinking and became alcoholic.  The breakup of Guru and Getta Dutt affected Geeta’s singing career.

Babuji Dheere chalna 
Film: Aarpaar 1954, Singer: Geeta Dutt 
Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri, Music Director: O.P.Nayyar

Suman Kalyanpur (1937): blessed with very soothing voice, Suman Kalyanpur is one of non-controversial singers, she is well respected. She succeeded in achieving recognition of her own and to some extent could break the monopoly of Lata Mangeshkar. She was also the victim of politics in the film industry. It is said that Lata finished competition to her by means foul and refused to sing for those music directors who would give chance to Suman. Exactly the same thing happened to Mubarak Begum, Vani Jayaram, Anuradha Paudwal etc. Given Lata’s clout in the industry, talented Suman Kalyanpur never got her due. Suman has  sung for all top composers of Hindi film industry. She has sung songs of a wide range. Her voice used to be often mistaken to be of Lata Mangeshkar. Suman Kalyanpur’s career started in 1954 and was very popular singer in the 1960s and 1970s. She recorded songs for movies in several languages besides Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Gujarati, Kannada, Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Bengali, Oriya and Punjabi. She is considered among the popular singers of her prime time. She has sung a total of 857 Hindi songs.

Na Tum Hamen Jaano
Film: Baat Ek Raat Ki 1962, Singer: Suman Kalyanpur
Lyricist: Majrooh Sultan Puri, Music Director: S.D. Burman

Sudha Malhotra 1936: One of the pretty playback singers and actress is Sudha Malhotra. Her love affair with lyricist Sahir Ludhiyanvi is famous. When she got married, he walked into her wedding reception party, he had to meet and greet his lover and her husband. Regretting his lost love, the poet composed an ode to unreciprocated love; it became a famous song ‘Chalo ek baar fir se ajnabi ban jaaye hum dono’ in film Gumrah 1963. ‘Tum Mujhe Bhool Bhi Jao’ is Sudha Malhotra’s most popular song. What made the song extra special is that she actually composed it. The song is from film Didi 1959. The original composer N. Dutta due to some problem was indisposed; it is said that Sahir Ludhiyanvi motivated Sudha Malhotra to compose the song because she was well trained in music. Sudha Malhotra put together one of the gentlest ghazals recorded for Hindi films. This was the only song she ever composed for Hindi films. Sahir’s moving lyrics for the song seemed to reflect his own anguish. The song is sung by Sudha Malhotra and Mukesh. It’s a delight to listen.

Tum Mujhe Bhool Bhi Jao 
Film: Didi 1959, Singers: Sudha Malhotra & Mukesh
Lyricist: Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Music Director: Sudha Malhotra

Usha Utup (1947):  who in the 1970s sang at Trinca’s, one of Calcutta’s iconic nightclubs on Park Street; her trade mark is that she is always clad in her trademark Kanjeevaram saris. She has a husky man-like voice. She was never hired to sing for the Hindi film heroine because of the gravity in her voice. She still managed to top the charts on Radio Ceylon with hits like ‘Koi Yahan Naache Naache’ and ‘Hari Om Hari’ One two cha cha cha… Usha has a unique voice. I like this duet of her in film Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Dev Anand initially had chosen Lata Mangeshkar for the Hindi part and Asha Bhonsle for the English part, but Asha couldn’t get the English accent well. Dev Anand and RD happen to watch a show in Delhi where young Usha Iyer (her previous name) was performing. After hearing her, both of them decided to give her a try and the rest is history.

I love you, can’t you see..
Film: Hare Krishna Hare Ram 1971, Singers: Usha Utup & Asha Bhosale
Lyricist: Prakashchandra, Music Director: R. D. Burman  



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