The Other Lata: Suman Kalyanpur and her almost-famous singing career

When ace composer SD Burman constructed one of his most delicate tunes for Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics Na tum humein jaano, na hum tumhe jaano in the Waheeda Rehman-Dev Anand starrer murder mystery-cum-courtroom drama Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962), he wanted the expression of poetry in both male and the female voices. While Hemant Kumar sang for Anand, Lata Mangeshkar, many thought, had woven her magic once again with her thin voice, the flow, and the slightly shrill high pitch which became an aesthetic barometer of Indian female identity or the “righteous” heroine of the new India. However, the song that was a radio favourite for years to come, wasn’t sung by Mangeshkar. Burman was not speaking to Mangeshkar at the time due to an argument over a re-recording in 1958. So he asked a new voice – a reticent singer named Suman Kalyanpur. “When they heard the song, even many Lata acolytes had difficulty figuring that they were not listening to Lata while the song played in their houses,” senior music critic Raju Bharatan had once told this writer.

A few years later, it wasn’t really a surprise when the famous Doordarshan show Chhaya Geet attributed Kalyanji-Anandji’s popular tune, Na na karte pyar kisi se kar baithe, an Aantakshari staple, to Mangeshkar. No one batted an eyelid, except a 20-year-old girl named Charul Hemmady. She called up the Prasar Bharati office and requested them to ratify the error. The female singer was her mother Suman Kalyanpur. “No one believed me. It sounded exactly like Lataji,” says Hemmady. Aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche (Bramhachari, 1969), one of her more famous duets with Rafi, met the same fate. The songs still echo but somehow the face was often consigned to oblivion.

Kalyanpur seems uncomfortable when asked about the similarity between her voice and Lata’s, but she answers carefully. “I was quite influenced by her. In my college days, I used to sing her songs. Meri aawaaz nazuk aur patli thi (My voice was fragile and thin). Also, when Radio Ceylon relayed the songs, the names were never announced. Even the records sometimes gave the wrong name. Maybe that caused more confusion. Shreya Ghoshal’s voice is also thin, but can people go wrong now? We were living in different times then,” the soft-spoken Kalyanpur, now 85, said in this interview in her Mumbai home in 2015.

Kalyanpur, in her entire career, has rarely agreed to giving interviews. Veteran radio artiste Ameen Sayani had to chase her for close to 45 years before he could record a one-hour show with her in 2005. “She spoke so little. As much as I would try, she answered a lot of questions in monosyllables,” says Sayani.

After repeated requests, she agreed to meet us, but with certain conditions. “No photoshoot. Uncomfortable questions may not be answered.” We agree.

On the third floor of her Lokhandwala apartment in Mumbai, next to her daughter’s house, where she lives alone now, Kalyanpur greets us with a nervous smile. A landscape Kalyanpur painted hangs on the wall. “This is what I do these days. I paint. Cooking is another favourite. Bas issi sab mein din beet jaata hai (The day goes by in all this),” she says. And what about the riyaaz that playback singers swear by? “Kabhi kabhi gunguna leti hoon kuch (Sometimes I hum something). I haven’t been singing for a very long time,” says Kalyanpur, who is remembered for being a “shy girl whose voice had shehed jaisi mithhas (the sweetness of honey)”.

The music industry of Mumbai in the 1960s moved to a different beat. The tunes spawned here would go on to create a sound revolution, one that would be later referred to as the golden era of Hindi film sangeet. This was also the time when the world of female playback singing was dominated by the monopoly of Mangeshkar sisters, more Lata than Asha (Bhosle). “The first five positions were occupied by Lata, but Suman, somehow naturally sounded like Lata. She was also diligent, sharp and had a lovely thin voice. So when Lata was abroad or unavailable, or if the producers could not afford her rate of Rs 100 per song, or if the song suffered because of her refusal to sing with Mohammad Rafi over royalty issues, Suman, the poor man’s Lata, was called in. She was not just a great substitute, she was also extremely hardworking. If Lata was the Marathi Noorjehan, Suman was the Marathi Lata,” Bharatan had said.

She also sang two duets with Mangeshkar before her own songs became popular. Kabhi aaj kabhi kal in the Balraj Sahni starrer Chand (1959) was a Hemant Kumar composition and “not many can spot the difference”. “We were quite cordial to each other and felt like friends. I always felt that there was a lot to talk,” says Kalyanpur, going quiet for almost a minute. Her daughter is quick to add, “That’s how you feel. What about her?” Kalyanpur says, “I was invited for Lekin’s premiere and that was the last time I met her,”

Growing up in a pre-Partition Mumbai, Kalyanpur was the eldest of five sisters. The girls growing up in a conservative house sang because they couldn’t play outside. “It wasn’t considered safe for girls to venture out. Ma and pitaji used to love bhajans. But we were not allowed to sing outside the house. I didn’t have the permission. Singing could be done at home,” says Kalyanpur, who eventually was asked by some neighbours to sing for Ganpati Mahotsav. But it was her neighbor DB Jog’s Marathi film Shauchi Chandni (1953) that got Kalyanpur inside a recording studio. Jog was her father’s friend and permission was granted. The film, however, never took off.

It was at 16, when she was a student at Sir JJ School of Art that iconic singer Talat Mehmood heard her sing at a college function and “gave shabaashi”. He then put her in touch with the recording company HMV. Despite the equivalents of A & R managers of today calling her voice “amateurish”, Kalyanpur bagged a song in Darwaaza (1954) and debuted alongside Mehmood with the delicate and melodious Ek dil, do hain talabgaar. The film was produced by Ismat Chughtai and people noticed. This was followed by Chhodo chhodo mori baiyaan (Miya Bibi Raazi, 1960), Na tum humein jaano (Baat Ek Raat Ki, 1962), Mere sang ga, gunguna (Janwar, 1965), Aajhuna aaye baalma (Saanjh aur Sa km vera, 1963), Tumne pukaara aur hum chale aaye (Rajkumar, 1964).

“Post Independence, everyone was really excited to do something. My father also agreed about me singing but accompanied me to every recording. It was quite conservative at that time as people talked quickly,” says Kalyanpur, who, after getting married in 1958, was accompanied by her husband to every recording session. “I was married into a joint family that had 15 members. I was just glad that they were allowing me to continue. Also, unlike other singers, I wasn’t good at negotiating contracts and talking to people, so that was completely handled by my husband,” says Kalyanpur.

Marriage brought its own big and small pressures and Kalyanpur turned to the same industry to find help. For starters, she learnt how to make a good omelette from composer Roshan’s wife, Ira. “I came from a vegetarian family into a non-vegetarian one. Who could I ask for help? Film industry was like family and apart from happiness that I got singing there, they also helped turn me into a non vegetarian,” says Kalyanpur with a laugh, the first in the conversation. The bigger sacrifice came in terms of becoming selective about the lyrics. “I couldn’t sing cabarets or mujras. I had to be careful if any family member saw and said something negative and hurtful in that orthodox environment,” says Kalyanpur, who never attended premieres or socialised with her colleagues.

Once inside the studio, Kalyanpur hardly interacted with her co-singers, despite singing popular duets, including with the holy trinity – Talat Mehmood, Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh. “Rafi sahab and Talat sahab were extremely quiet people themselves and mostly interacted with my husband. It was Mukeshji who spoke a lot. He loved telling me stories. I suppose he was very well-read,” says Kalyanpur, whose last popular number in the industry was Behna ne bhai ki kalai pe (Resham Ki Dori) in 1974. She sang about 100 songs for composer Usha Khanna. She also sang for composer Anu Malik and Bappi Lahiri in the ’80s but soon bowed out of the industry in 1986, after singing for almost 100 films with some of the finest composers, including Naushad, Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Nashaad among others. Her final song, which was for the film Love 86, actor Govinda’s debut, was never released. “Laxmikant Pyarelal didn’t use her version. They rerecorded it in Alka Yagnik’s voice,” says Charul. She did do an HMV album in 1997, rerecording her old numbers, but the album didn’t get much attention.

“The system was too much to handle. I enjoyed looking after my family and wanted to be away from all kinds of politics and let singing take a backseat,” says Kalyanpur. In her career, she only received a Filmfare nomination. There was also the Lata Mangeshkar Award by Government of Maharashtra in 2010. The Padma Bhushan, announced on Wednesday, is a late but much deserved recognition for the unsung talent.