I don’t remember exactly when the first time, I heard that sweet, refined and rustic voice of Surinder Kaur. I feel it is the same with every one of my generation since her voice echoes in the airs of the land of five rivers — Punjab, India. But now the nightingale of Punjab is no more on a song. She is silent forever. After playing hide and seek with death for over a month, the legendary singer finally surrendered on an alien land, New Jersey in the United States, early in the morning of June 15 2006.
She was born in a conservative Sikh family of Lahore (Punjab, Pakistan) on November 25, 1929, where singing was considered as a taboo. But her brothers stood by her and helped her to start her journey in 1943 with a program on radio Lahore. This journey was continued for more than six decades and concluded in blessing Punjabi music with a mammoth collection of more than 2000 songs. Some of them are greatest songs ever sung.
Her husband encouraged her and introduced her to the celebrated Punjabi poets of that time like Amrita Preetam, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Prof. Mohan Singh and Nandlal Noorpuri. And she never looked back ever since and by lending her voice to the literary gems by these great poets and made them eternal.
She gave birth to a new style of singing and represented an entire era of Punjabi music. It wouldn’t be overstate if it is said that she is literally worshipped by the people from all walks of life in Punjab. She was among the one that achieved the status of a living legend, during her lifetime.
“There was a time that the singer would sit and perform, and would sway the crowds to get up and dance. Now the singer is expected to perform, while the audience sits back and gawk at them. I come from an era where the voice was important, how can I perform today, when the musical beats and body language are used to captivate the audiences’ attention,” she said in an interview before her death, expressing her regrets about contemporary Punjabi singers.
“The singers of today,” she said, “sadly, do not sing with the strength of their voice and control, but on the beat of the music and orchestra. In our times we used to have only two instruments on stage and we would even avoid giving these instruments a microphone so that voice could dominate. The new generation should also look to improve the selection of songs. It needs a more literary refined touch.”
The lady with the melodious voice once said that the reason for her success is that she never gave up learning. She believed that a life well lived is when it has been a continuous learning process. The folk songs that she sang, she learnt from her mother or other relatives, especially during weddings. But a lot of tunes and songs she picked up from unknown people, as they sat humming these tunes.
The obituary of this great singer will be incomplete if we don’t talk about her sister Parkash Kaur and her companion Assa Singh Mastana. Surinder Kaur had a special bond with her sister. Whenever they sang together the tuning was remarkable. While singing with Assa Singh Mastana she gifted some of the most memorable songs ever listened in Punjabi.
Her daughter, Dolly Guleria, is carrying the family tradition forward, and grand-daughter, Sunaini, too is following their footsteps. The three generations had, in fact, sang together in a Punjabi album in 1995 called “Surinder Kaur- The Three Generations.”
It is sad that physically she in not part of this world but legends acquire an immortal status and this is one voice that is and will always be timeless. The songs sung by her will survive as an integral part of Punjabi culture like the following lines of Keats from “Ode to a Nightingale”:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
by Vishav Bharti
The article claims that Surinder Kaur sang more than 2000 songs. That number is probably exaggerated.