Kaur: A Life Well Sung
Nirupama Dutt –
story was written after a series of interviews with Surinder Kaur in
April, 2000, in her North Riveira home in
is clear summer night sky and the whole family has spread out their charpais
on the sprawling terrace of a
Photo courtesy Iqbal Mahal
attention of the whole family is drawn to the Punjabi song that is heard
faintly as it is being piped from some loudspeaker far away. This summer
night’s tale dates back to 40 years when the
It is past midnight when he returns humming: Lathe di chaddar utte saleti rang mahia ਲੱਠੇ ਦੀ ਚਾਦਰ ਉੱਤੇ ਸਲੇਟੀ ਰੰਗ ਮਾਹੀਆ (the cotton cloth has been coloured grey, my love). He has much to tell and it turns out to be a very exciting night. Something which I can still recall so vividly four decades later. Big brother is full of the songs he heard and he proudly shows us the autography book in which Surinder has written out a line of one of her favourite sons — Nimmi nimmi tārean di lo ਨਿੰਮੀ ਨਿੰਮੀ ਤਾਰਿਆਂ ਦੀ ਲੋਅ (Softly the stars glow) – and signed her name below. The line is from a song by the famous Punjabi poet, Amrita Pritam. This is my first introduction to a voice called Surinder Kaur who can cause such a stir that people do not mind losing a good summer night’s sleep for her music.
Prakash Kaur (left) and Surinder Kaur. In the middle is Deedar Singh Pardesi.
is the magic this singer cast right from the moment she recorded her
first song at the Lahore Radio Station some 57 years ago. But how did
this girl from an orthodox, middle class Khatri Sikh family get to learn
music and actually sing on the radio? For those were times when this art
was restricted to professional singers or tawaifs of ‘ill’
fame from Hira Mandi.
back at what seems long-long ago, Surinder sitting in her little lawn in
her Riviera Apartments home in north Delhi says, “When I was growing
up, girls from respectable families just did not sing except at family
weddings and functions at home. That too only before an all-woman
audience. The only other singing allowed to girls from the Guru Granth
Sahib. Our mother Maya Devi would sing folk songs at home and so the
first lessons in music came from her. My elder sister Prakash Kaur, who
11 years older to me, showed a talent for
singing and wished to learn music. Our father, Jiwan Singh, was a ‘professor’
of chemistry in
Prakash started taking lessons in Hindustani classical vocal music from
Master Inayat Husain who was also to become Surinder’s first Guru. In
Punjabi there is a boli (a short verse sung to the giddha dance)
which says, nachan wale di addi nahi rehandi, Gaon wale da moohn,
Hania taahli te, Ghughi kare ghoon ghoon ਨੱਚਣ ਵਾਲ਼ੇ
ਦੀ ਅੱਡੀ ਨਹੀਂ ਰਹਿੰਦੀ, ਗਾਉਣ
ਵਾਲ਼ੇ ਦਾ ਮੂੰਹ/ ਹਾਣੀਆਂ ਟਾਹਲੀ ‘ਤੇ
ਘੁੱਗੀ ਕਰੇ ਘੂੰ ਘੂੰ (The
heel of a dancer will not rest, the lips of a singer will not shut; my
companion, the dove sits on the branch cooing).
it was with these two singing sisters. Their voice just could not be
silenced, even as relatives tattled and their mothers had to cut a sorry
figure giving all kinds of explanations. “It was not easy to go on
with our practice. The neighbourhood was scandalised
that the daughters of the sardars were singing. So for our riāz,
we would shut the doors, windows and even the ventilators lest the sound
of music travelled outside,” says Surinder.
When Surinder went for audition to Radio Lahore way back in 1943, Prakash Kaur was already a radio singer. “My older sister made things easier for me in a way. Those were the days of Shamshad Begum, Zeenat Begum and Umraia Jaan, all very great singers in their own right but all coming from families of professional singers and thus singing was no taboo for them. Prakash Behanji was the first ‘Kaur’ to break the taboos of her community and sing on the radio. And hold her own among the abundant talent. “I went for auditioning for the children’s programme. But I was chosen for the adults’ section. I naturally felt very proud of myself. I recorded the first song with my sister. We were to sing many duets together in times to come,” recalls Surinder.
The first song they sang together on the radio was a sad soulful number sung when the bride is leaving the parent’s house to make a home with her husband and his family. It captures the tense and intense moments when the mother and daughter sit together for a while before the final parting. It goes thus: Maavan te Dhian ral baithiyan ni maye; Koi kardian galorhian; Kananka lamiyan dhinakyon jamian ni maye ਮਾਵਾਂ ਤੇ ਧੀਆਂ ਰਲ਼ ਬੈਠੀਆਂ ਨੀ ਮਾਏਂ, ਕੋਈ ਕਰਦੀਆਂ ਗੱਲੋੜੀਆਂ; ਕਣਕਾਂ ਲੰਮੀਆਂ ਧੀਆਂ ਕਿਉਂ ਜੰਮੀਆਂ ਨੀ ਮਾਏਂ (Mother and daughter sit together a while talking to each other; the wheat stalks have grown and why were daughters born, my mother).
had heard our mother singing this song in long plaintive tones. For the
recording we gave a livelier beat while retaining its intensity. This
song was on the lips of every Punjabi woman at that time and retains its
popularity till date. It is my favourite song too,” says Surinder, her
voice choking with emotion, “Everyone has daughters and the sad part
it that daughters have to go away one day. I have myself given away
three daughters in marriage. In 1993, I was invited to
is known that the deepest melodies come from those who are suffering the
most: the slaves in chains, martyrs going to the gallows, labourers
bearing a heavy burden, fishermen braving storms in frail boats and
women confined to the four walls of the home. Women’s songs in any
language or culture have to them a special laxative quality.
As for the songs of the soil of
come Surinder was not offered a role in films given her good looks
combined with a great voice for those were the days of singing stars and
Even now in the evening of her life when concerts are few and far between and the stamina is not what it once used to be, the singer still takes out her harmonium and practices every day. Or as she waters the plants in her well-tended garden, she hums to herself, Ni Main jaana rabb de kol ਨੀ ਮੈਂ ਜਾਣਾ ਰੱਬ ਦੇ ਕੋਲ਼ (I have to go to God one day). Written and composed by her in the Sufi style, it is one of the songs very dear to her. And she likes to listen to the music of bade Ghulam Ali Khan Mehdi Hasan, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Tufail Niazi.
most cases the creative career of a woman is cut short the moment she
marries. But Surinder was lucky to find a husband who not only loved her
but also admired her voice. She was married at
After the Partition, the young couple moved to
continued to remain a formidable name in the singing arena. Even though
she had two sisters who sang, Prakash and Narendra, it was she who got
unparalleled acclaim and overshadowed all others as far as the singing
of Punjabi songs went. In the villages they would say, Ajj Surinder
Kaur ne akharha lagana hai ਅੱਜ ਸੁਰਿੰਦਰ ਕੁਰ ਨੇ ‘ਖਾੜਾ
translated this would mean that “Surinder kaur is the star of the ‘wrestling
ring’ today.” Remembering this Surinder laughs and says, “Yes,
singing would often be equated with wrestling in
Eighties brought about a change of tastes in Punjabi music. The beat
changed as did the rhythm and the beginnings of Punjabi pop were made by
Gurdas Mann and Malkit Singh, who danced as they sang to elaborate
electronic music. These were the days of Dil da mamla and Tutak
tutak tutian. So some 20 years after I had been first introduced to
Surinder on a starlit night on the terrace of our
were certainly prophetic words. For when in the fiftieth year of
India’s Independence, HMV brought out a collector’s set of five
cassettes on “50 Years of Punjabi Music,” which had old timers like
Shamshad Begum, Yamla Jat, Rangila and newcomers like Gurdas Mann and
Daler Mehndi, nearly two cassettes were dedicated to the songs of
Prakash and Surinder. Their third sister, Narinder, too sang. “So many
of my people are gone. The greatest loss was the death of my husband
Joginder Singh, who was my friend, philosopher and guide. I can never
recall him saying a harsh word to me. He always called me Surinderji.
There was between us a complete understanding. Now when I find couples
squabbling, even my own daughters and sons-in-law, I just cannot figure
out what they are fighting about. Prakash Behanji’s death was a big
loss to me and so also Narinder’s. But that is life,” she says.
The gate outside her home still bears a nameplate with two names – Joginder Singh and Surinder Kaur. “I moved to this house from
Losing the strong emotional anchor she had in her husband and losing out the large masses to Punjabi pop, Surinder went through some years of depression. Her daughter Dolly recalls, “For a while Mama was very despondent. She felt that she had lost the purpose of life. But we three sisters supported her emotionally. She also turned to prayer and reading the Guru Granth Sahib. This helped her a lot. So also did her many admirers who continued to yearn for her songs.”
So Surinder turned to smaller concerts with more discerning audience. And her fans trail her still. Recently during the SAARC writers’ conference in New Delhi, Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz who was here from Pakistan made a big effort to meet her but she was away to her daughter in Panchkula near Chandigarh. “Surinder hasa great fan following on the other side of the border. Some years ago, she was there and her singing of the Batalvi song – Loki poojan rabb te main tera birharha ਲੋਕੀਂ ਪੂਜਣ ਰੱਬ ਤੇ ਮੈਂ ਤੇਰਾ ਬ੍ਰਿਹੜਾ (People worship God but I worship your memory) was just wonderful. I want to hear the song once more from her,” said Faraz.
says that once a newspaper asked her on what her unrealised wish was.
And she told him that it was to go hack once to
strikes one as one visits her at her home in