31 January 2004: Suraiya, Indian singer and actress, died

“Tumne Mirza Ghalib kii ruuh ko zindaa kar diyaa (You have made Mirza Ghalib’s soul come alive)”

— Jawaharlal Nehru to Suraiya

Of all the accolades Suraiya Jamaal Sheikh received in her career as a singer and actor, this one from the Prime Minister in the 1950s must have felt extra special.

Suraiya, as she was popularly known, had no formal training in music but went on to become a star in the 1940s and early 1950s. She died on 31 January 2004, four decades after suddenly retiring from singing, acting — and fame.

Born at Gujranwala in Punjab (today’s Pakistan) on 15 June 1929, Suraiya was sent to Bombay as a child and studied at J.B. Petit High School for Girls. She entered the film world as a child artiste in the 1937 film Usne Kya Socha and then bagged a significant role in the film Taj Mahal, playing the part of a young Mumtaz Mahal.

Blessed with a naturally good voice, she would sing for a children’s programme at the All India Radio. Hearing her, music director Naushad got her on board to sing in films and made some of the biggest hits in the early part of her career possible.

In Ishara (1943) she played the second lead and sang two songs including the solo “Panghat pe muraliya baaje”. She played the lead role in the 1945 film Tadbir after the legendary K.L. Saigal liked her voice and promoted her. She starred opposite Saigal in Omar Khayyam (1946) and Parwana (1947). Her songs in Parwana became quite popular.

Describing those early years in a tribute to Suraiya after her death, Ratna Rajaiah wrote in The Hindu: “Her only competition at the time was the gorgeous Noor Jehan with whom Suraiya shared many things. They were both born in 1929, both had childhoods in or near Lahore and both had voices to match their lovely faces. And both were just 17, when they starred together in Mehboob Khan’s ‘Anmol Ghadi’ (1946). Suraiya, despite playing second lead to Noor Jehan who got the plum compositions from Naushad’s baton . . . held her own with the songs like evergreen ‘Socha Tha Kya, Kya ho gaya, Main Dil Mein Dard Basa La Aayee’ and ‘Man Leta Hai’. And as if fate was setting the stage for a meteor to blaze across the skies, a year later, Noor Jehan immigrated to Pakistan.”

Suraiya was at the height of her popularity between 1947 and 1950.

As the Outlook magazine noted after her death: “She evoked the kind of hysteria [in the late 1940s] that can be compared only with Rajesh Khanna in his heyday from 1969 to 1972. Ask any old-timer and they would confirm that people bunked offices, schools and colleges, even shops closed on the opening day of her films, to see her films first day, first show. Actor Dharmendra is on record as having seen her film ‘Dillagi’ 40 times. Mobs would descend on her if they got wind that she was going to attend a premiere. In many ways, this need to stay away from madding crowds was to come in handy later when she retired to lead the life of almost a recluse.”

This was the phase when she co-starred with Dev Anand in several hit films including Vidya, Jeet, Afsar and Sanam. She was romantically involved with him as well, but turned down a marriage proposal, ostensibly because her grandmother was opposed to an inter-religious match. Much later in an interview in 1972 to the Stardust magazine, Suraiya, who remained single throughout her life, said: “When I refused to marry Dev, he called me a coward. Maybe I was one. I admit I didn't have the courage to take a step I was not absolutely sure of. Perhaps it was a folly, perhaps a mistake . . . or perhaps destiny?” 

The singers and actors she worked with included C.H. Atma, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh and Surendra. In the 1950s, however, there was competition on the horizon in the form of a young woman by the name of Lata Mangeshkar. Also, the era of the actor-singer was coming to an end. Suraiya sang her last song “Yeh kaesii ajab daastaan” in the 1963 film Rustom-e-Sohrab. At the age of 34 she quit the film industry. In the decades that followed she was rarely seen in public. She died on 31 January 2004 after a battle with cancer.

The Guardian in its obituary said: “Suraiya was vivacious and had a passion for literature, especially for Urdu poetry. She was very fastidious about the company she kept. Unmarried, she lived alone all her life in a flat overlooking the sea at Mumbai; by retiring from public view for the last 40 years, she ensured that her image remained forever young.”

Also on this day:

1865 — Shastriji Maharaj, saint and founder of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, was born

1961 — Sri Krishna Singh, first chief minister of Bihar, passed away

1969 — Meher Baba, Indian spiritual guru, passed away

1975 — Preity Zinta, Hindi film actress, was born

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