Rajkumari – Interview
Rajkumari Dubey was just 10 years old when she recorded her first song for HMV in 1934. But she started her career as a stage artiste. She recounts, “Vijay and Shankar Bhatt of Prakash Pictures spotted me during one of my shows. They liked my voice and persuaded me to discontinue acting on stage, as it would spoil my voice. (In those days, there were no mikes and you had to shout to be heard!) So, I quit theatre and became an employee of Prakash Pictures, as an actress and singer.
INTO MOVIES AND MUSIC
My first film with them was a Hindi-Gujarati bilingual called ‘Sansar Leela Nayi Duniya’. In those days, I often acted opposite Zakaria Khan (late actor Amjad Khan’s father, whose screen name was Jayant). And I used to sing for popular music director, Lallubhai.
I began getting fed up with having to keep a watch on my figure and decided to stick to just singing as a career. After I quit Prakash Pictures, I started playback singing for actresses like Ratnamala, Shobhna Samarth, etc. I sang a lot of Gujarati and Punjabi songs.
A BORN PROFESSIONAL
I never really had the opportunity to learn singing. But was very good at picking up what my composers taught me. They thought I was a trained singer! My family has always supported me – when I was an actress and singer. I married very late in life. My husband was from Benares (UP), where he spent a lot of his time (because he owned a shop there), while I was settled in Mumbai. Of course, he joined me later.
NOSTALGIA MY PEERS
I counted among my peers Shamshad Begum, Zohrabai, Juthika Roy, Zeenat Begum, etc. Our voices were very distinct – both Zohra and Shamshad had resounding voices with a high range, while mine was very soft with a smaller range. I sang quite a few songs with Mukesh, the most popular being ‘Mujhe sach sach batado kya, ke kab dil mein samaye the’. I did not get much opportunity to sing with Mohammad Rafi – mainly because Lata Mangeshkar was just getting popular at the time and, then, all of us took a backseat. In ‘Anhonee’, I sang with Lata Mangeshkar – the song was ‘Zindagi badli’. Nargis had a double role, so I sang for one, while Lata Mangeshkar sang for the other. I sang with Nurjehan in ‘Naukar’. While I never sang with KC Dey, I did sing songs composed by him, along with Manna Dey, his nephew.
AN ODE TO SAIGAL
I am a great fan of KL Saigal and Noor Jehan. I had occasion to sing with the former in ‘Bhakt Surdas’ and remember him as a very charming person. I have never understood why people criticised him for his drinking, etc. So what if he felt he couldn’t sing without drinking? It was his personal choice. I remember him telling me, ‘Rajkumari’ji’, I want to take you with me when I go from this world.’
MEMORIES ARE MADE OF GEETA AND KIDAR
In ‘Bawre Nain’, while singing for Geeta Bali, she’d come up to me and say mischievously, ‘Look at me – my actions – and sing accordingly.’ She was so full of life.
Kidar Sharma, the director, was one of the most talented men I’ve ever known. It was he who groomed Geeta Bali, Raj Kapoor, Mala Sinha and others. But from all his ‘shishyas’, I think only Geeta Bali managed to pick up the nuances of his teachings.
Kidar Sharma had his own way of showing his appreciation. If he liked something you did, he’d give you a two ‘anna’ coin. And, in his entire life, he must have given the coin to just three people – Geeta Bali, Raj Kapoor and myself. He treated me with a lot of respect. I sang in his Raj Kapoor-Madhubala starrer ‘Neelkamal’, ‘Bawre Nain’ and several other films.
MY FRIEND – ZOHRABAI
If I had a friend in the industry, it was Zohrabai. We shared many good times – going out together, visiting each other. I sang with her in ‘Mahal’. When Kamal Amrohi was making the film, he said to me, ‘Rajkumari, I need a voice that sounds like a boy’s to sing with you.’ I replied, ‘Well, then get a boy.’ He said, ‘No, I need a female singer.’ I first suggested Shamshad Begum, but he refused. Then, I suggested Zohrabai and that’s how we sang the duet, ‘Ye raat phir na aayegi, ye jawani beet jayegi’ (1950).
I WISH I COULD SING NOW…
I think I was the only artiste who never sang songs that weren’t for films. Though there was a time when I was employed by HMV to sing some Gujarati songs. I was paid Rs. 400 per month and was supposed to do 12 songs a year.
I sung four background numbers in ‘Pakeezah’, of which the most popular was ‘Nazariya ki maari mari mori guiyyan’. This song became so representative of the ‘kotha’. It was also used in ‘Mirch Masala’ – the Naseeruddin-Smita Patil starrer and was played throughout the film (Naseer is shown listening to it over and over again). I must say I enjoyed my career. In fact, even today, I wish I could sing now – I’m bored. But I suppose my days are over.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS…
It was such a beautiful time – when I started singing – the camaraderie, the affection and the respect we received! If I have any regret, it is that I didn’t get an opportunity to work with Madan Mohan. I loved his music. I did sing for him once, but would have loved to do more work with him. But it never happened. In retrospect, I can say I’ve sung all types of songs – ‘geets’, ‘qawwalis’, ‘bhajans’, ‘ghazals’, happy songs, sad ones…
HER SWAN SONG
Practically, the last time one saw Rajkumari perform was when Nurjehan visited India and the TV programme ‘Mortal Men, Immortal Melodies’ was made. Rajkumari sang along with the other singers who had gathered to welcome the nightingale from Pakistan, evoking memories of an era gone by.
I’ve worked with practically all the composers of my time – Khemchand Prakash, Ghulam Haider, Sajjad Hussain, Husnlal Bhagatram, Naushad, Anil Biswas, O.P. Nayyar, S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman and Khurshid Anwar. Among the composers I sang for, I think the late Sajjad Hussain was the most difficult – his compositions were intricate and his way of explaining very complex. Take, for example, ‘Khel Khel Main’ where I sang ‘Koi kis tarha raaze ulfat chhupaye, aji raahein mili aur kadam dagmagaye’. Most other singers also found him very difficult. I also sang for O.P. Nayyar in ‘Aasman’, picturized on Shyama, ‘Piya aan sakhi mere nainan mein mori nindiya churaye’. In the early ’70s, RD Burman called me and said, ‘Here’s a song which is just right for you’ and, indeed, it was a pleasure to sing. The song was a ‘bhajan’ for Gulzar’s ‘Kitaab’, picturised on Dina Pathak: ‘Hari din to beeta sham hui, ab raat baki kataa de’ – As told to Lata Khubchandani few years ago