Singer and Housewife: Suman Kalyanpur
Singer and Housewife: Suman Kalyanpur
By MOHAN NADKARNI writing as GURUDEV SHARAN
The Sunday Standard, November 14, 1971
IN a world of cut throat competition like that of the cinema, where the celebrities of yesterday are spurned as mediocrities today and forgotten as non-entitles tomorrow. Suman Kalyanpur has remained among the three top-notchers in Hindi play-back singing.
Comparisons are odious, even invidious. But the undeniable fact is that unlike the phenomenal Mangeshkars, Suman Kalyanpur was not born into music. Nor did she grow in an environment suffused with sound and rhythm.
Even her entry into the cinema was the result of a curious combination of circumstances.
A playback singer with a difference, she is far apart from the tinsel world of glamour and entertainment. Indeed, she is too feminine, too mild-mannered and too modest to be part of it.
And when she is not working, Suman – a devoted wife and fond mother – is happy to be where she thinks every Indian woman ought to be : home sweet home.
Thirty-four-year-old, Calcutta born Suman Kalyanpur comes of an enlightened middle-class Saraswat Brahmin family.
She moved to Bombay with her parents in 1943 and after schooling at St. Columba High School, joined the Sir J.J. School of Arts to pursue her studies in the faculty of fine art. While studying art, she took to play-back singing.
It was therefore quite a revelation to me as I heard her say, in a soft andincredibly musical speaking voice: At no time did I have any idea of lending my voice to the silver screen.
“Nor did I have any particular fascination for films – and believe me, I had not even seen a talkie till I was 15!”
Question: How come?
Answer: I loved to sing even as a child of seven But as I grew, I came to develop an aptitude for drawing and painting, embroidery, flower arrangement, gardening and such other pursuits, Maybe, these diverse interests inhibited any serious pursuit of music.
Later, while in my early teens, Nur Jahan’s voice cast a spell on my musical being. I had a flair for imitation and it became a habit to sing her favourite songs for my own satisfaction.
I also used to sing them to entertain my family members and school mates at domestic get-togethers.
On one such occasion Keshavrao Bhole, the eminent music director of the Prabhat Flim Company and a pioneer in modern Marathi music, heard me. He was then on the staff of AIR Bombay as music producer and lived in a neighbouring flat.
He suggested to my parents that my voice was ideally suited for light music and even offered to coach me. He gave me basic lessons in light music and fixed me up for my maiden broadcast early in 1953.
But I still wanted to be a painter. And that was how after my schooling, I joined the sir J.J. school of Arts.
I stepped into the world of playback singing when I was doing the second year at the art school in 1954.
It all happened at a cultural programme sponsored by the staff and students of our school. I was billed to sing. There were many other youngsters, too. I was just 17 then, shy and diffident.
Among the audience were popular singers and many notables from the filmdom of the time – like Talat Mohammad and Mohammed Shafi. I sang a popular song. It evoked a spontaneous appreciation from the audience.
Shafi, the music director, secmed to be so deeply impressed with my debut that he offered me, then and there, a contract as a playback singer for the film ‘Mangoo’.
Question: Have you had any formal training in music?
Answer: Not quite so, Besides Keshavrao Bhole, I received valuable guidance from Yeshwant Deo. He taught me the subtleties of Marathi lyrical music.
Sudhir Phadke taught me the moulding of songs and embellishments like khatkas and murkies. Then Master Navrang and Abdul Rahman Khan gave me good grounding in light classical music.
The period of guidance from these masters was brief – it varied from three to six months only.
Question: When did you cut your first gramophone disc?
Answer: In 1955, when the Gramophone Company of India (better known as His Master’s Voice) signed me up for a recording. My very first disc contained two Marathi devotions, “Savalya Vithala Tuzya Dari Aale” and “Nanda ghari Nandanvan phulale”.
The two songs set to music by Dashrarath Pujari, the eminent Marathi composer, were and are still rated by connoisseurs and critics among all-time devotional hits.
Question: Do you take any special care of your voice?
Answer: None. But I somehow realized quite early that I should not strain my voice by speaking too loudly. I also guard myself to the utmost against catching chills.
I do not observe any diet except for a day prior to my recording assignments, when I avoid taking fried and cold things.
Question: Do you rehearse before such recording sessions?
Answer: I don’t rehearse if I have to record film songs, but I do put in a little bit of homework when I have to record other types of songs.
Question: What other types of songs have you sung, besides film songs?
Answer: Over the last 17 years I have sung, besides a variety of songs for the Hindi screen, a large number of ditties in several regional languages including Hindi, Marathi, Gujarathi, Kannada, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Chhattisgadhi, Brijbhasha, Punjabi, Bengali and Assamese.
Question: How many discs have you cut so far?
Answer: So far, I have recorded more than 2,300 songs.
Question: Do you sing classical music?
Answer: No – and I don’t think I ever would. For I feel it might affect the natural quality of my voice. Only once, and that too at the suggestion of Abdul Rehman Khan I sang two thumris for HMV.
Question: Who are your favourite Indian singer?
Answer: I deeply admire Bade Ghulam Ali for his emotion soaked artistry. I also like the popular Marathi artiste. Jyostna Bhole, for her bhavgeet and bhaktigeets.
In the domain of film music, I owe a debt of gratitude to the great Nur Jehan for the inspiration I constantly derive from her soulful Mullick, too, have made a lasting impact on my mind.
Question: Any foreign favourites?
Answer: Jim Reeves and Connie Francis. My liking for this type of country music might sound a wee bit off-beat. But then there is so much in common between their crooning and the rage of contemporary Indian song, you see.
I have often heard it said that Suman’s art has suffered because her voice has a tremendous resemblance to that of Lata Mangeshkar.
One may or may not agree with this opinion. For the delicate nuances of Suman’s voice and its lilting sweetness are all her own.
She imparts to her music something much more than a semblance of respectability. No small achievement this in the midst of the ear-splitting, discordant cacophony that passes for popular music today!
It is as a devotional and romantic singer that Suman has perhaps given more than most who flirt with false sentiment. She sustains her music with all the verve and grace of a felt emotion. It moves her listeners by the very texture of its line.
Added to this is a keen vision, deep understanding and a rare sense of design – all of which give her music a distinctive stamp of individuality.
Question: What is your approach to music?
Answer: If is that of an ardent, humble votary. Popular music , to uncompromising purists, may sound a cheap and hybrid form of expression orthodox musicians may find it ticklish, too.
Happily, times have changed and even die hard classicists now concede that singing light music, too, is an art.
I for one feel that light music is quite a serious business. Its essence lies in the portrayal of a poetic idea with a musical imagination. The technique involved is distinct and difficult.
All this calls for some sort of preparation. And that is why I put in rehearsals to be able to understand and interpret the feeling in the poetic theme and the idea of the composer who sets it to tune.
Suman Kalyanpur is one of the few Indian singers to have the opportunity to perform before Western audiences. She is also the first Indian playback artiste to appear on foreign TV.
To her again goes the credit of being the first recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (named after the Father of the Indian cinema) as the Best Playback Singer in 1961.
The same year she also received a gold medal from the Governor of Maharashtra on the occasion of the first anniversary of the State.
The State Government awards for the best playback artiste went to her 1965 and 1966. She also won the Sur Singer Samsad’s Best Singer Award in 1966 and 1970.
Suman Kalyanpur, accompanied by her husband, has made two triumphant tours abroad in the last three years. The first one, in 1969, lasted two months. It was confined to the West Indies and America.
She has just returned from her second tour which lasted four months covering England and America.
Question: What were these tours for?
Answer: My tours were essentially cultural. Of course they helped me to bring precious foreign exchange back home, though the main object was to afford the foreigner an occasion to see as many facets of our rich and varied culture as possible.
And I am sure any good artiste who goes abroad will get a warm welcome, so great is their interest in our art and culture. Equally disarming is their hospitality.
Question: What was your repertoire?
Answer: I had in my repertoire a wide variety of songs in several Indian languages. It ranged from semi-classical and devotional numbers to film hits in keeping with the varying audience preferences.
The programme schedule comprised three parts. I performed in the first and the final one. The middle section featured dances and instrumental music.
The audiences were highly responsive. They seemed to enjoy my singing and I felt elated when they asked for encores time and again.
Question: How do you manage to combine a housewife’s role with the exacting routine of a performing artiste?
Answer: I mostly take my singing assignments only once in a day – either in the morning or in the evening. Thus I can find ample time in devote to my household affairs and even to pursue my childhood hobbies.
Question: Do you seek inspiration from them in your signing career?
Answer: Yes, surely.
Question: Has music been a religious experience for you?
Answer: Yes, to me it is worship. It has deepened my faith in higher values.
Indeed, her personal life reveals a keen awareness of values, where neither money nor fame have spoilt her.
Of slender build with large, expressive eyes, Suman carries her- self with the dignity of a demure, unassuming maiden. She has the pride of her calling out none of its prejudices.
Modest yet confident of pleasant manners but few words she is more willing to listen than to speak.
The petty jealousies of the professional coterie are unknown to her nature. For the pert presumption of some confreres, she would only have pity, not because she is vain but because she is simple.
Patriotic and generous, she has given her music in aid of India’s national defence and development and many projects of social amelioration and charity.
Genial and gay Ramanand Kalyanpur (Nanda to this relations and friends) whom Suman married in 1957, is of course his wife’s most enthusiastic fan.
He keeps track of every press report of her programmes and maintains a complete album of clippings.
Apart from his work and business (he deals in automobile spare parts and carries on an extensive import and export trade) there is nothing that occupies Nanda’s life except his family and music.
The Kalyanpurs have a pretty five-year-old daughter, Charula, whose musical propensities are quite evident even now!