Born Too Early, Sudha Malhotra

“I wish I was born 15-20 years later”, singer Sudha Malhotra told me some years ago in an interview for WorldSpace Satellite Radio. Now this remark can be seen on two levels. First is the professional one. Right up till the 1960s, great technology was not around. Which means for instance that to record a song, all the singers and musicians would have to make the same time together. And so, if anyone made a mistake during the take, the entire song would have to be recorded again, often entailing hours of delays. Those ultimate twin qawwalis from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), Na to caarvaan ki talaash hai and Ye ishq ishq hai, took as many as 27 continuous hours to receive the final approval. Sudha Malhotra had a prominent part in that historic song. And she was about to get married.

Not only was it difficult for a married girl to find that kind of time, but respectable families looked down upon films. Girls from good families did not generally get into acting or singing, never mind exceptions like Durga Khote, Devika Rani, Lata Mangeshkar and Kanan Bala. As such, through that remark Sudha was perhaps making a veiled reference to her in-laws, who were articulate about her role after marriage: she would immediately end her singing excursions into cinema.

But this wish to have been born later can also be seen at another level, a cosmetic one. Many people see an exciting world around them, wishing they were young again, a condition that affects people—especially women—universally.

While speaking to Sudha, my thoughts went to that Irish dramatist and poet known for his wit: Oscar Wilde. It was famously known that Wilde’s wit was not always his own; he frequently borrowed remarks expressed by others, without crediting them. One day, impressed by a witty remark from a painter, he was unusually candid. “I wish I had said that!” he observed. “You will say it, Oscar, you will”, retorted the painter.

So when Sudha Malhotra said “I wish I was born 15-20 years later”, I thought about that painter’s response to Oscar Wilde and made up my own for the beautiful singer. “But you were born 15-20 years later, Sudha, you were. You do not look anywhere near your age”. She was past 70 then. Today she is past 80. She defies age even now; very much so.

But at one time, like all of us, Sudha was a little child of 3 and 5 and 10. What was she like?

She started young

Sudha Malhotra was born in Delhi to a music-loving mother and a father who was a professor and later the Principal of a college. She spent a little time at Lahore, but at Partition time they moved to Bhopal. She loved to sing even as an infant. It is rumoured that she was singing before speaking intelligibly as a child.

In 1941, when she was 5, she sang on a stage at Ferozepur, facing an audience of many thousands. Her singing on that day was under the orchestration of the great discoverer of singing talent, maestro Ghulam Haider. Then she sang in children’s programs a few times at the studios of All India Radio in Lahore. The credit for discovering the young girl for cinema belongs to master-composer Anil Biswas. Sudha entered both her teens and the Bombay recording studios in 1949 to sing Mila gaye nain for the film Arzoo, released in 1950. Recording over, her family took her back to Bhopal. But it has never been easy to stay away from Mumbai, the Hindi film and recording centre of India. So she came back to sing for Pannalal Ghosh (Anil Biswas’s sister’s husband) the nationalistic song Vande maataram in Andolan (1951), followed by many songs for Ghulam Mohammad in Gauhar (1953), such as Awaaz de raha hai koi aasmaan se. After that, her career took off.

This went on for about 10 years till marriage ended her film career abruptly. In the course of these years, Sudha recorded several hundred songs for a slew of composers, such as Anil Biswas, Bulo C Rani, C Ramchandra, Chitragupt, Dattaram, Ghulam Mohammad, Hansraj Bahl, Hemant Kumar, N Datta, Roshan, S Mohinder, SD Burman, and Vinod. Later on, she also sang non-film tunes, notably for Jagjit Singh. She also worked with many lyricists, like Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Shailendra, Bharat Vyas, DN Madhok, and Majrooh Sultanpuri.

Of these, the name Sahir assumes the greatest importance, because she worked the most with him, but also there have been these rumours of them being in a relationship. Testily did I ask her about these rumours, but she was her usual graceful self. “There was nothing, at least from my side. And I am unaware of his side too” Fair enough I thought. This avenue wasn’t worth getting more into.

After marriage, she moved to Gyan Ghar, in Khar, in suburban Mumbai. It should instead have been called Sangeet Mandir, because the family has been having weekly bhajan get-togethers there, for over 50 years now. It is here that Manna Dey and Pt Purushottamdas Jalota would come and sing devotional songs and win hearts. But why just them? Other gifted bhajan exponents like Hari Om Sharan started their serious work in Gyan Ghar. Anup Jalota too took his musical baby steps here.

Sudha also forayed into ghazals later. It was her ghazal, Aashna hokar agar na-aashna ho jaayega, that Raj Kapoor fell in love with. So much so that he phoned her to please record a song for his upcoming feature Prem Rog (1982). That duet, recorded for Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Ye pyaar tha ya kuchh aur tha remains Sudha Malhotra’s final outing in films.

On the family front, she had a son, her only child. That baby is a grown up man now, with his daughter that Sudha adores, and who she hopes to train to become a singer. In fact, Sudha teaches singing, and any aspiring girl who has the essentials in her can learn from her.

Ignoring songs already mentioned, here are a few more of Sudha’s film songs:

  • Muhabbat ki dhun beqaraaron se (with Jagjit Kaur and Talat in Dil-e-Nadaan, 1953)
  • Kaheen door koyaliya gaaye re (with Lata in Baraati, 1954)
  • Ganga ki reti pe bangla chhawaai de (Mirza Ghalib, 1954)
  • Maalik tere jahaan mein (Ab Dilli Door Nahin, 1957)
  • Maata o maata (Ab Dilli Door Nahin, 1957)
  • Mera jala raat-bhar diya (Chamak Chaandni, 1957)
  • Darshan do Ghanshyam naath (with Hemant Kumar and Manna Dey in Narsi Bhagat, 1957)
  • Hum tumhaare hain zara ghar se nikal kar dekho (with Asha in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, 1958)
  • Aankhon pe bharosa mat kar (with Rafi in Detective, 1958)
  • Dekho mohe laaga solvaan saal (with Asha and Rafi in Solva Saal, 1958)
  • Kaase kahoon man ki baat (Dhool Ka Phool, 1959)
  • Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao (with Mukesh in Didi, 1959)
  • Gham ki badli mein chamakta ek sitaara hai (with Rafi in Kal Hamara Hai, 1959)
  • Kaune rang mungwa (with Suman in Heera Moti, 1959)
  • Salaam-e-hasrat qabool kar lo (Babar, 1960)
  • Kashti ka khaamosh safar hai (with Kishore in Girl Friend, 1960)
  • Na main dhan chaahoon (with Geeta in Kaala Bazaar, 1960)
  • Hum tumhaare ho chuke hain (with Talat in Rangeela Raja, 1960)
  • Alif zabr aa aa (with Rafi in Love in Simla, 1960)

 And a few non-film tracks, listed alphabetically: 

  • Hamaare naam se aabaad honge veeraane
  • Khwaab tha ya khayaal tha, kya tha?
  • Kuchh is ada se aaj wo pehlu-nasheen rahe
  • Meri zubaan se meri daastaan suno to sahi
  • Nimbuva tale dola rakh de musafir
  • Zehaal-e-miskin makun taghaaful (with Mukesh)

Thanks for the lovely music ma’am and Happy Birthday on the 30th of November. You wear your years so gracefully.


Published in DNA Jaipur on 26 November 2017 page 13

24 thoughts on “Born Too Early, Sudha Malhotra

  1. Antara, in fact I am a huge fan of your own knowledge, enthusiasm and writing! Which is also why many of your stories appear here 🙂

    Monica, aabhaar _()_ 🙂

  2. Suman did sing many more. She was a wonderful singer too, and she stayed back in cinema, even after marriage. Right PS 🙂

  3. Yes, she is a wonderful singer. She has also sung so many bhajans in some temples I guess! Her voice quality & singing is great. And she has a wonderful nature too. Good to know so much about her in your well written article. Thanks. And waiting to get many more articles from you.

  4. Superb! Presents a quick and delightful summary of Sudha ji’s musical journey. Will be a reference source for me for my writeups.

    Thanks Manek Sir – your website is developing into a huge ready reckoner for me – I keep coming back to it for the technical, literal, symbolic… information, observations, analysis, insights, perspectives… a new world in every post! 🙂

  5. Her remark about being born 10 to15 years later can also be interpreted (at least by me) as having a clear field without Lataji. Sumanji would perhaps have sung more songs.

  6. The whip that you mention….it is sound and fury too when held by the wife but when held by the husband, it is like the sound of the whip from the Anarkali song – Aa Ja Ab to Aa Ja…..only sound no fury. The spouse still continues dancing 🙂 🙂

  7. That ‘whip’ is the result of fertile male imagination looking to deflect blame. ? Thank you Manek for the answer. Somehow I thought there were a few film songs before the RK one. Glad to have clarified that.

  8. Jee jee, Dr saab, because of the time she was around….families were conservative yet. And you are so right again, fabulous composers: Roshan, Ghulam Mohammad, SD Burman, Dattaram…oh my goodness!

  9. Balbir and Monica, enjoyed your banter on who wields the whip 🙂

    Yes too, that we will be meeting her on the 9th of December at Bhavans Chowpatty, watch a few songs of hers, and speak to her. I have requested Ameen saab to come too, so this should be good.

    About how she returned, she didn’t…not to films I mean, except that one song, and that 28 years after marriage. Plus who could refuse Raj Kapoor? 🙂 The bhajans were never a problem, away from films. Ghazals just happened when their wave came on, in the late 1970s…

  10. I know, Balbir Singh ji – which is why I said this comes in a timely fashion for us in RTS – just before the possible privilege of meeting her in person. Btw – that scenario you paint? Has no bearing on reality :). It’s just a whole lot of exaggeration put out there by husbands who pretend this is what happens. 🙂
    Loved your comment!

  11. Monica, you ask : how did she start recording again? Whilst I don’t know Sudha Malhotra’s take on it, I would expect that a few years after marriage, the wife gains confidence so much so that now the shoe is on the other foot. It is now the turn of the husband to seek permission on many matters. In your own experience, tell me who cowers in the given scenario that I paint? 🙂 🙂

    BTW Manek has suggested a likely live meeting with her at the forthcoming RTS 2017 meet. Let us hope it materialises.

  12. Lovely tribute to a graceful lady and a classy singer. Really enjoyed reading this and reminiscing about some of those melodious songs.

  13. Confirmed by many knowledgeable people in HFM, she sang her first song in the film: Aakhri Paigham (1949). She has sung one solo and two duets. Don’t know why but she has never mentioned it. Her name appears on that film cast too; not sure if it’s the same Sudha Malhotra. But yes, it’s the same voice.

  14. That’s the usual story of married women of that era. I feel that her Wilde-ish remark is probably because of the patriarchal social bindings of that era which barred ladies to enter any profession. Whatever be her personal opinion or feelings, she was lucky to have come across some fabulous composers. Excellent tribute to this lovely lady with golden voice …

  15. This essay comes in a timely fashion, especially for those in RTS. Lovely to learn more about this sweet crooner, Manek. One thing I missed was – you said she left films and singing after marriage. However, she did sing afterwards – how did she start recording again? Just a woman wondering how she managed to get back to her passion…

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