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The magic of Suraiya

RV Smith | New Delhi |

When Nawab F K Sherwani’s daughter got married, his friend the Chawalwala Nawab invited Suraiya to sing, and despite fever, one could make it to the wedding of Farhana Begum, holding on to mother’s hand. That was in the 1940s, when one was fortunate to hear the legendary singer in her prime and also see the courtesans dance the night away. That function is a fading memory now but not the screening of Anmol Ghadi, held two years later in Jaipur in a predominantly Muslim locality by Danyal Sahib. He put up the screen against the City mohalla wall, and it being a summer evening, people spread their cots to hear and see Suraiya, along with Noor Jahan, the senior of the two reigning screen beauties.

Suraiya had become a magical name by then and everybody was talking about her golden voice that could sway not only the music-loving rajas and nawabs but also the hoi polloi. “Iski zaban mein mithas hai (There’s sweetness in her voice),” commented 80-year-old Keti Baba, the ex-gardener of a nawab’s compound. Jajja Bua agreed with him as she munched her favourite bida ofpaanunder the neem tree, where she sat on a stringed cot, near the beautiful dulhan, Bilqis, while Khaleda Behn spoke or a fanciful musical duet between Saighal and Munawar Sultana. Each scene of the film drew remarks galore, and sometimes when the scenes got hetic.

Master Sahib tried to interpret them to those who kept getting puzzled by the sequence of events. Munni Bua found it difficult to control her son Karim who, like any mischievous schoolboy, kept fidgeting with his mother’s sari or tried to pull his sister’s hair. He, however, began to concentrate on the film when the fighting scene commenced. In those days films did not have “dhishum-dhishum” stuff. Here was a fight with a knife until the Pehalwan sprang up and wrested it from the villain’s hand. When the film ended people picked up their cots and went home, but they kept talking about Suraiya and Noor Jahan for a week after that, with comments on Suraiya’s dominating Nani.

More than 50 years later one had a chance to see the legendary actress again, when she came to receive the Sahitya Akademi award in 1998. That was a glimpse of a much mellowed Suraiya. But she still looked pretty though approaching 70. The wrinkles were hidden under a lavishly rouged face, the hair had been dyed, except for a straying grey one here and there, but the almond eyes were still sparkling and full of life. She conversed in a low voice and declined to sing, saying she had left “mosiqui years ago”.

Someone mentioned Dev Anand but she ignored the comment, and preferred to change the topic by remarking that it was getting late and she had to go back, the reference probably being to her Marine Drive residence, where she led the life of a recluse. What an evening of old memories it was!

Nawab Faiyaz Khan was long dead, so also his eldest daughter and her husband, S K Sherwani. The Chawalwala Nawab did not die a natural death: he had shot his begum in a fit of anger in the 1950s and was hanged on the clinching evidence of his only son.

Suraiya did not speak much about Noor Jahan (nor of Lata Mangeshkar) but from the little she said it was evident that she held her in high esteem. They were both from undivided Punjab ~ Noor Jahan from Kasur (which was to become such an issue during the Indo-Pak war of 1972) and Suraiyu from Lahore, where her uncle Zahoor, the ace villain or the silver screen in the 1930s and 40s was able to win her parents’ approval to become a child actor.

Although Suraiya did not speak about Dev Anand that December day, one still remembers the Latka (limerick): “Chhayi bahar hai / Jiya beqarar hai / Aaja mere Dev Anand,Suraiya bemar hai”. And when one reminisces of Suraiya can Noor Jahan be forgotten? When she came to India in 1980s, 35 years after leaving for Pakistan along with her husband Shauqat Hussain, one had a chance to see her at close quarters. Her name was later linked with cricketer Nazar Mohammad and then General Yahya Khan in a big scandal.

The glamour-girl of yesteryear, despite her many engagements in Delhi, found the time to visit the dargah of Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. Tradition has it that one should visit Hazrat Qutubuddin’s mazar first and other shrines afterwards. Even Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti had ordained that the devotee must first pay respects to Qutub Sahib and then come to his dargah.

So Noor Jahan, accompanied by her pretty daughter, Hina and her husband, Haroon Butt, went to this mazar first. At Nizamuddin’s Dargah Noor Jahan offered a chadar and stood praying with palms open for blessings amid the aroma of joss-sticks. Perhaps the Malika-e-Tarannum prayed that her voice remain ever redolent. Or she sought the saint’s benediction on Hina and her husband ~ health, wealth and happiness. As per tradition, the actress left for Ajmer on a Friday to seek the blessings of the greatest Muslim saint of the East, without a visit to whose shrine no trip to India is complete for the true devotee.

Noor Jahan’s golden voice still resounds in the mind “in jocund or in pensive mood” ~ “Awaaj de kahan hai”, interspersed with Suraiya’s “Nuqta chin hain ghame-e-dil”, which brought out the very soul of Ghalib on her honeyed tongue. Suraiya’s last visit to Jaipur was at the initiative of music composer Naushad, who belonged to this city before making it big in Bombay. At his behest, she was the guest of the niece of the novelist lsmat Chughtai and spent a whole day at her house.

Among those who attended an evening of songs by her was Khalil Mian of Bagh Chaurniwala, a great lover of music and a friend of Nawab Faiyaz Khan. As the trees swayed in the breeze blowing from the hills surrounding the city, Suraiya too swayed in rhythm ~ and the audience with her. When she departed by the night train many of her admirers wondered whether they would hear the legend sing again in a live performance. Her death years later naturally left Jaipur sadder. That Dev Anand couldn’t marry Suraiya because of opposition by her Nani is one of tragedies of filmdom, which finds a parallel in the case or Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, whose father was opposed to their wedding proposal.

Nevertheless, Dev continued to have a soft corner for his old flame and when her favourite actor Gregory Peck made a brief stopover in Bombay, he took him to her house. It was near midnight and Suraiya was fast asleep. He woke her up to give her probably the biggest surprise of her life. Dev had eventually married Kalpana Kartik and Dilip for Sara Banu as the next best thing in their lives. But the way their marriages lasted shows that the same would have been the case had Suraiya and Madhubala become their respective wives.

Even after Suraiya passed away, a red rose was always found on her grave in the Mumbai kabristan. It was a tribute by the lover of her youthful days. All this comes to mind when one relaxes before the TV in the evening for a sundowner while one of Ghalib’s ghazals is being sung. It reminds one of Suraiya’s faultless rendition of the poet’s master-piece, “Nukta chin hain,gham-e-dil/Baath bane na bane”.

In the life of the actress the “Baath” that did not materialize was the affair with her heart throb Dev Anand of the romantic Gregory Peck type hairpuff! So that long past evening with Suraiya still extends up to now.