Voices that confuse listeners even 70 years later

Lata Mangeshkar, the legendary Bollywood playback singer who died on Feb. 6, had been singing for 12 years and was already a legend by the time Suman Kalyanpur began her Bollywood career in 1954.

Since then, even the most ardent music lovers have often had to put in that extra effort to distinguish between the two voices.

For instance, this swinging classic from the 1968 film Brahmachari is a staple at all parties when the demand for a “retro” piece comes up. One of the most popular Hindi films songs ever, it was sung by Mohammad Rafi, another evergreen, and Kalyanpur — not Mangeshkar.

The haunting Na tum humein jaano from Baat ek raat ki (1962) similarly leaves many listeners perplexed when told that it was Kalyanpur singing all along. That forces a second go at the song. And that’s when one notices the difference in the way she ends her lines or handles the notes, especially the higher ones.

Over the decades, this uncanny similarity has also sparked rumours of behind-the-scene industry politics that allegedly stymied Kalyanpur’s career. Mangeshkar herself, of course, denied it all.

“When Suman Kalyanpur entered Hindi playback singing, it was my song that she sang. I gave it up for her. I had even rehearsed it. I don’t remember the song, but it was composed by Mohammed Shafi. But there are some people who go around saying Lata didn’t like it,” she once told journalist Rajeev Shukla.

Speaking to Quartz, Kalyanpur said she had never bothered about rumours and comparisons. Born in Kolkata, the 85-year-old now lives in Mumbai. She slowed down her Bollywood career sometime in the 1970s while Mangeshkar carried on till the 2010s.

Mangeshkar’s passing left her with “emptiness.” She shared her thoughts on her senior colleague and her own career. Edited excerpts from the interview:

How close were you both?

We first met at the recording of the song for the film Mangu. I believed she had heard me sing. And while passing by, she said, “You sang well.” I met didi (older sister) a few times mostly towards the beginning of my career. Later on, if we happened to be in the same studio, I would always find her busy talking to someone. I would then refrain from disturbing her. Also, invariably I would be in a hurry to reach home to my daughter and my husband needed to get to work. The last time we met was at the premiere of the film “Lekin” (1991). But for just a few minutes.

Could you tell us about your entry into the playback singing world?

I used to sing well since I was very young. But never thought of it as a career. When I was 13, I performed in small programmes held during Ganesh and Diwali festivals…I had sung a few songs on the radio. In 1953, I sang in a programme and Talat Mahmoodji was present there. I believe he recommended me to HMV (a recording company) for non-film songs.

I got an offer from HMV for Marathi songs which I recorded. Music director Mohammed Shafi heard me there and offered me a couple of songs for Mangu. Due to some issues, the music director changed and only one song was retained in the film. This was the one sung with Hemantda and his wife.

After that, I started getting offers to songs one after the other. I accepted them as they came along. I have sung songs from all genres. But, was very selective so as not to embarrass my family in any manner.

One just cannot escape comparing your voice with that of Mangeshkar’s, given the similarities. In hindsight, how do you feel about it?

My voice is similar to Latatai. But, if keenly listened to, a connoisseur one can tell them apart. I sang every song to the best of my capacity. I never bothered about any comparisons people made. I never imitated anyone since I firmly believed in sticking to my own style of singing.

I always admired Latatai’s sweet and melodious voice since I listened to her before I began singing professionally.

Although I enjoyed singing very much, my daughter and household responsibilities were my priority. I had no time to give an ear to gossip if any.

Who were your favourite composers and lyricists? What attracts you more in a song, lyrics or tune?

I had no favourite music directors or lyricists. Each one had his own style. Both tune and lyrics are important. At first, it is the tune that attracts me and then the lyrics have to compliment the tune. I like clean, meaningful lyrics.

Please tell us something about your personal journey, too…something about your family.

After I stopped singing in films, I had a lot of time to pursue my other hobbies. I love gardening. So I had made a balcony garden with many hanging plants and a rock garden too. I would spend a lot of time cooking, and my puja (prayers). I spend some time crocheting, knitting…all of which I enjoy. My daughter lives next door with her family. I have a very nice son-in-law and two grandchildren with whom I share a wonderful and close relationship.

What was the high point of your career? 

The appreciation that I have received in the form of letters, encores during my shows abroad and in India, the highest awards from states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat. But most of all, it is my fans. Yes, that love, respect and adoration…that was my high point.

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