Kashti ka khamosh safar hai…
Na main dhan chahoon, na ratan chahoon… or
Tum mujhe bhool bhi jaao to yeh haq hai tum ko…
Any lover of film music will recall the magical voice that sang those songs. It is that of Sudha Malhotra. She may not have reached the heights of the Mangeshkar sisters, but she has sung a whole lot of memorable songs, worked with every respected composer of her time, and held and sustained a position of no mean order in a film industry where many a good singer went down under for want of adequate backing.
Today, her voice is still in fine fettle and she still comes up with ghazal, geet and bhajan albums and continues singing in live shows.
EARLY BEGINNING AND END
Making her look back on her career is a little difficult, but with some cajoling, she begins, “I started my music career in Lahore as a child artiste for All India Radio and went on to do stage performances. Ghulam Haider saw me on stage and prophesised, ‘This child is going to become a singer of repute.’
“I remember very vaguely that I sang Noorjehan’s and Kanan Devi’s songs and I was so tiny that they had to make me sit on a table so for the audience to be able to see me. I was a real hit!” And then, after a pause, she adds, “In fact, most of my songs have been hits.”
The film connection began a little later. Sudha used to come to Mumbai to spend her vacations with her grandfather and, she recalls, “My aunt knew Anil Biswas and introduced us. Anilda heard me and gave me a song in Arzoo. The song was the popular number Mila gaye nain… After that, P.N. Arora, A.R. Kardar and others gave me singing assignments. But my base was classical music, in which I had trained. I learnt under people like Laxman-prasad Jaipurwala, Abdul Rehman Khan and Amarnath.”
Her career started very early and ended equally early when she got married (into the Motwane family of Chicago Radio fame) and quit films. But now, as she looks back, she says she’d never have quit if she got to live her life again. “But at that time, the film industry was not considered the best of places, nobody from decent families entered the line. So films were out,” she explains.
Now she says, “If I could relive my life, I’d never have given up my music. I’d have made sure I got the best of both worlds.” However, she didn’t give up singing and continued with it in her own vein.
A HANDFUL OF SONGS
In the time she was a playback singer, Sudha carved a strong niche for herself amidst talents like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Shamshad Begum and Geeta Dutt, among others.
She says with justifiable pride, “Whatever little work I did is still remembered. The last song I sang was also one that I had composed myself: Tum mujhe bhool bhi jao to yeh haq hai tum ko. This song became immensely popular.” (The rest of the numbers in this film, Didi, were composed by N. Dutta). Film music fans might recall the picturisation of this song on Shubha Khote and Sunil Dutt.
Among the other composers she worked with were Jaidev, Roshan, S.D. Burman, Husnlal Bhagatram and others. In Kala Bazaar, when she sang Na main dhan chahoon under S.D. Burman’s baton along with Geeta Dutt and the song became an instant hit. “That was the time when lyricists and composers were so amazingly gifted that anything anyone sang used to stand out,” she says nostalgically.
She reveals, “Towards the end of my career, Sahir (Ludhianvi) gave me a lot of support. ” Kashti ka khamosh safar hai... was by him. As for that fabulous qawwali from the film, Barsaat Ki Raat, Sudha has some fond recollections. “This beautiful qawwali, Na to carvan ki talash hai… na to humsafar ki talash hai, took us a whole night to record.
It was always a pleasure to work with Rafi, Kishoreda and Manna Dey.
“In those days, we rehearsed so much, and did so along with the musicians. So if there was a slight error on the part of a musician, we’d have to do it all over again. So it was work which needed complete concentration. We recorded separately for the film and separately for the record, but the quality of the songs is so good that they are remembered even today. “I sing all my songs on stage even today and there is an audience for songs like Salaame hasrat kabool kar do (from Babur).
Among her personal favourites, she cites Noorjehan. “I loved the way she sang and I used to sing all her songs,” she smiles.
As for more contemporary names, she says “I like Jagit Singh’s voice and I used to like Mehdi Hassan very much. But nowadays, I don’t come across any singer who can touch me.” Incidentally, HMV has brought out an album, The Best of Sudha Malhotra.
NO REMIXES, PLEASE
Today, one sees her on television where she sings melodious ghazals and bhajans.
“The modern type of songs I don’t gel with and I don’t like this business of singing other people’s songs,” she says firmly. “I feel I’ve done my bit and now I’m singing for myself.”
She spends her time teaching music, but says, “I like to teach but not as much as I like to sing and I’m still looking for a student like myself!”
Then she adds softly, “I have been what you might call unprofessionally professional about my career. But music has been my life.” (As told to Lata Khubchandani in late 1980s or 1990s)