At the start of her singing career, she needed to stand on a stool to be able to reach the microphone but then she went on in her comparatively short career to become the last of Bollywood’s three singing superstars. In her heyday, Suraiya was so popular that she had to stop attending her film premieres to forestall the frenzy her presence evoked.
Yet, at the peak of her career as an actress and singer — where in one role, she brought Ghalib’s ghazals to life for the modern generation and was complimented for it by no less than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Suraiya gradually withdrew from the limelight and just in her early 30s, turned her back on the tinsel world forever.
Once needing a Bombay Police detachment outside her home given the crowds her fame attracted, she, after abandoning films, spent the remaining four decades of her life in semi-seclusion, depriving the world of an angelic screen presence, whose slight air of naivete only added to her charm, and a voice, with an undernote of hesitation and tentativeness, that sounded as melodious as gently tinkling bells.
Born in Lahore on this day (June 15) in 1929, Suraiya Jamal Sheikh was just six when she began singing for All India Radio in Mumbai, where her parents had moved when she was a year old, and had Raj Kapoor and Madan Mohan as her co-artistes.
When she was 7, Suraiya acted in her first film — produced by Nargis’s mother Jaddanbai — and at the age of 13, she attracted the attention of the likes of music maestro Naushad, who picked her to sing for “Rattan” (1942), which went on to become a super-hit, Devika Rani, and even the immortal K.L. Saigal.
As the cliche goes, there was no looking back for Suraiya, who was part of some of the most landmark films of undivided India, especially those featuring her fellow singing superstars — Saigal and Noor Jehan.
Suraiya went to hold her own against Noor Jahan in “Anmol Ghadi” (1946) and while handpicked by Saigal for some of his last films, steadfastly refused to sing duets with him, believing she was no match for him as a singer.
Even redoubtable composers such as Naushad and even Khwaja Khurshid Anwar — who would go to Pakistan after Partition and strike a stellar career there — could not make her sing along with the maestro and were reduced to doing separate songs for them.
It is not known why Suraiya began withdrawing herself from films since the early 1950s and entirely abandoned a promising career at the age of 33. She cited health reasons, especially her low blood pressure, but her turbulent relationship with Dilip Kumar, her aborted romance with Dev Anand, and other such matters are also bandied about as reasons.
Whatever may be the reason, let us focus on some of her melodious songs, which she mostly sang for herself in her screen appearances — 338 odd songs in 67 films between 1936 and 1963.
“Man leta hi angdai” (“Anmol Ghadi”; 1946) was a landmark film for more reasons than one — it being the only one to feature both the female singing superstars of the then Indian cinema, Noor Jehan and Suraiya, together. And while songs like “Jawan hai mohabbat” and “Awaaz de kahaan hai” by Noor Jehan continue to be revered by connoisseurs, Suraiya held her own with “Socha tha kya kya ho gaya”, the song of an effervescent, exuberant love.
“Paapi papiha re pi pi na bol bairi” (“Parwana”; 1947) was one where Suraiya stood strong against Saigal, her fellow singing superstar. Listening to this classical music-based piece, scored by Khwaja Khurshid Anwar on D.N. Madhok’s lyrics, we can only wonder why Suraiya thought she was no match for Saigal.
“Tu mera chaand main teri chandni” (“Dillagi”; 1949) was a hit in its time, and among them who watched it multiple times was a young Punjabi lad who later confessed that he watched it dozens of times, but still could not get enough of Suraiya — we know him as Dharmendra. With songs such as “Murliwale murli baja”, “Char din ki chandni thi phir andheri raat” and “Le ke dil chupke se kiya majboor”, it is easy to see why.
“Yeh mausam aur yeh tanhai”: Singing at a piano was a rite of passage for almost all Indian film actors till the late 1970s, and Suraiya had her own moment in “Dastan” (1950). Here she renders a seemingly frothy, but deeply philosophical piece with her usual freshness, including verses like “Yahan har cheez khali hai muhabbat ke siva pyaare / Yeh duniya aani jaani hai, zaraa hans lo hansaa jao”. The lyricist was Shakeel Badayuni and the music was by Naushad. “Ta Ra Ri Ra Ra Ri”, influenced by western music, is another winner.
“Aah ko chahiye umr asar hone tak” (“Mirza Ghalib”; 1954) resurrected the memory of the famous Urdu poet and Suraiya’s rendition of his ghazals showed their rhythmic and lyrical cadence. At the film’s premiere in New Delhi, Prime Minister Nehru singled her out for special praise, telling her “Ladki, tumne Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya.” The duet “Dil-e-Nadan”, sung by Suraiya and Talat Mehmood, stands the test of time, but it is this ghazal that shows the stuff that Ghalib — and Suraiya — were made of.
“Ye kaisi ajab daastan ho gayi hai”: This song from “Rustom Sohrab” (1963) was Suraiya’s swan song and could serve as a epitaph for her career, especially when she sings “Bujha do bujha do, bujhaa do sitaaron ki shamme bujha do … Yahaan raushni mehman ho gayi hai”. The music was by Sajjad, the lyrics by Qamar Jalalabadi and she was paired with Prithviraj Kapoor in this rendition of the famous Iranian folktale.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)