Singer Suman Kalyanpur: In her own words

As the acclaimed singer celebrates her 80th birthday today (28 January), she relayed to her memories of some of her key songs and recalled her first Hindi song recorded with Hemant Kumar.

Sonal Pandya

One of the first female playback singers to represent India and perform abroad in the US and West Indies, Suman Kalyanpur remembered her first Hindi song, ‘Koi Pukare Dhire Se Tujhe’ that she sang for Mangu (1954). Even now, it remains “etched in [her] memory”.

“I was 16 and when I went into the recording room, I was asked to stand on a foot-high stool to sing. I was wondering why and how I could do that when Hemantda (Kumar) and his wife entered. He was a very tall man. It was [my] solo song which they were both humming. I didn’t know about this earlier, but once I knew I was nervous, but he had such kind words of appreciation and encouraged me to sing, as I was singing in the rehearsal just a few minutes earlier. Lataji (Mangeshkar) was also present in the recordist’s room. On one hand, I was excited to be in the presence of such stalwarts and on the other I was nervous. I’ll never forget that,” she reminisced.

The creative-minded youngster had little to be nervous about. From the time she began singing in the 1950s, Kalyanpur sang hundreds of songs in several different regional languages, including Marathi and Bengali. Her last song for the Hindi film Love 86 (1986) was unreleased. Incidentally, she says her first song, recorded in Marathi, also never saw the light of day. “I first sang a Marathi song for a Marathi film, Shukra Chi Chandni. The music composer was Yashwant Deo. I used to attend his music classes for a short while. The film did not get made. It didn’t go on the floors at all. The music director Mohammad Shafiji had heard my voice and offered me a song in Mangu (1954) which was my first film. That started my journey in something I’d thought I’d never do,” she added.

Born in Kolkata in 1937, a young Kalyanpur went to Dhaka, Bangladesh at age 3 since her father was transferred there for work. A couple of years later, the family returned to Kolkata. Her family moved to Mumbai in 1943. As a fine arts student, Kalyanpur was studying at JJ School of Arts. She had been taking music lessons since she was a teenager simply because she enjoyed singing, not because she thought it was a viable career option.

“Initially, at the age of 13 or 14, I trained under Yashwant Deoji in his class for light music. During the same time, I learned the basics of music from Keshavrao Bhole of Prabhat fame. Later, I also got some training from Tawde Bua, Professor Navrang ji and Khan Sahib Abdul Rehmanji for thumris and ghazals,” she said.

But after singing in Mangu (1954) and Darwaza (1954), Kalyanpur went ahead to sing with all the top composer of the time. She said, “I had the opportunity to work with well-known composers as well as the new ones. I’ve worked with Roshanji, Shankar-Jaikishanji, Madan Mohanji, Naushadji, Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikantji, Pyarelalji, Datta Ramji, Usha Khanna ji and a lot of others who are well-known for their compositions.”

Married early in her career in 1957, Kalyanpur continued working well after and her songs were picturised on all the heroines from Meena Kumari to Nanda and from Tanuja to Sadhana. Among the many milestone songs from career, she recalls her best as ‘Mere Preet Mera Pyaar’ and ‘Bhole Aaj Baar Baar’ from the film Teerth Yatra (1958), ‘Juhi Ki Kali Meri Laadali’ from Dil Ek Mandir (1963), ‘Na Na Karte Pyaar’ from Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), ‘Aaj Hona Hai Balma’ from Sanjh Aur Savera (1964), ‘Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche’ from Brahmachari (1968) and ‘Mere Mehmood Na Ja’ from Noor Mahal (1965).

But Kalyanpur can’t choose a favourite as she said, “It’s like asking her mother to pick her favourite child. All my songs are precious and I have taken up each one as a challenge because I love singing. I have tried my best to make every song sound beautiful by adding my own little harkats [movements] to each one.”

It has been three decades since Kalyanpur last sang for Hindi cinema, but her songs like ‘Na Tum Hamein Jaano’, ‘Dil Ek Mandir’ and ‘Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya’ are still recollected today, largely in part due to Kalyanpur’s melodious and unforgettable voice.