Padma Shree awardee Suman Kalyanpur has had a blessed and cursed career. She had the good fortune of sounding similar to Lata Mangeshkar. But this blessing turned out to be a bane and pain for Suman Kalyanpur as she was branded a poor man’s Lata Mangeshkar.
A similar career pattern can be seen for actress Nanda who forever remained in the shadow of Meena Kumari.
Suman K’s most successful phase eventuated when Lataji stopped singing with Mohammed Rafi for four years in the 1960s. The duets meant for Lataji went to Suman Kalyanpur. In this, her most fecund phase, Suman Kalyanpur sang the chartbusters Aaj kal tere mere pyar ke charche in Brahmachari ,Tumse oh haseena kabhi mohabbat na maine karni tthi in Farz and the timeless semi-classical memorabilia Ajhu na aaye balma in the film Saanjh Aur Savera.All three duets are to this day mistaken by listeners to be sung by Lataji.
Madan Mohan who swore by Lataji’s vocals had to bring in Suman Kalyanpur for the evocative duet Baad muddat kee yeh ghadi ayee with Rafi in Jahan Ara.
So a curse or a blessing? It is not clear how Suman Kalyanpur felt about the constantly constraining comparison to Lataji. But she did manage to forge a career of her own and sang tunes where she held her own. One of her earliest successes in Hindi cinema was Na tum humein jaano in the Dev Anand murder mystery Baat Ek Raat Ki. The number composed in 1962 by Sachin Dev Burman went to Suman Kalyanpur as Burman was sulking with his favourite ‘Lota’ at that time.
Despite the comparisons with the Nightingale which haunted her career, Suman Kalyanpur left her own impression in several songs where she was not asked to sing like Lataji. Mere mehboob na jaa in Noor Mahal is entirely Suman Kalyanpur’s song. Nobody mistakes the voice to be anyone’s but hers.Another enchanting number that Suman Kalyanpur owned was Sharaabi sharaabi in Noor Jehan. The film featured Laraji’s exquisite Raat ki mehfil sooni sooni and yet Suman K held her own.
Again in the plaintive Dil gham se jal rahe hai in Shama, Suman K is her own person .Shama , composer Ghulam Mohammed, who later immortalized himself with Pakeezah , allowed Suman K to share vocal honours with the legendary Suraiya who sang all her songs herself while Suman K sang for Nimmi. It was a major break for the singer, as was Shagoon in 1964 where under the sonorous stewardship of the mighty composer Khayyam, Suman K sang two beautiful solos Bujha diye hain khud apne haathon se and Zindagi zulm sahi.
It is true that Suman Kalyanpur was mostly asked to sing by composers when they couldn’t afford or couldn’t get Lataji to sing. But whenever this dedicated singer got an opportunity to sing she made the best of it.