Famous film critic, late Iqbal Masood once wrote in an Urdu daily that one of the biggest tragedies in the history of Hindi film music has been Suman Kalyanpur’s fate, who was rather condescendingly called, Lata manqué or ‘a poor man’s Lata’. So very true. Agreed, at times, Suman Kalyanpur’s voice does sound similar to Lata’s to the uninitiated listeners — but texture-wise it's different from Lata’s voice.
Despite having a mellifluous voice, Suman Kalyanpur’s entire career has been a quintessential illustration of the oft-quoted adage that comparisons are odious. That she could carve a niche for herself and sing more than 750 songs despite being a coeval of the legendary Mangeshkar sisters, Lata and Asha, underlines her presence as an independent singer of great calibre. From the perspective of tonality, Suman had a perfect voice (known as ifa’at in Persio-Arabic musical traditions), neither too thin nor too harsh or husky. Discerning music lovers are aware that it’s quite a challenge for any singer to sing a duet because that needs subtle adjustments in voice, tone and pace to strike a balance with the other singer. Suman had a mastery over that.
Just listen to her Tere hum o sanam tu kahan main kahan (Film: Bachpan, 1963, Rafi-Suman), Thehriye hosh mein aa loon... (Film: Mohabbat Isko Kahte Hain, 1965, Rafi-Suman), Jab se hum tum baharon mein with Rafi or Haan maine bhi pyaar kiya with Mukesh for the film Boond Jo Ban Gayee Moti (1967), to name a few. That doesn’t mean solo numbers were her Achilles’ heel. Na tum hamein jaano... (Film: Baat Ek Raat Ki) or Mere mehboob na ja aaj ki raat... (Film: Noor Mahal, 1965) and many more proved that Suman Kalyanpur could sing solo numbers with equal aplomb.
Suman had a natural sense of music. Her clear diction and intonations helped her get into the soul of a song effortlessly. With perfect ‘sheen’, ‘qaaf’, ‘ain’, ‘ghain’, Suman never faltered and fumbled while enunciating Urdu-Persian words in songs. Dhaka-born, Suman Hemmady (her née) already knew Urdu as Dhaka was a part of East Pakistan at that time. She grew up conversing in Urdu, Bengali and her mother tongue Marathi. That’s the reason, she could sing a number of Bengali songs with élan. A completely non-controversial person, she always kept herself away from politics and pettiness and never held anyone responsible for not getting more numbers.
(The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, cultures, religions and civilisations. He teaches linguistics, psycho-linguistics and philology at world’s premier varsities and contributes to world’s leading publications and portals in various languages.)