I woke up to the prowess of singer Raj Kumari when I was a child and used to tag along with my elder sisters and maternal aunts to watch movies in Ladies Shows held in Lahore’s cinemas. In one of these sessions, I saw the film titled ‘Mehal’ (The Mansion) released in 1949. It was blockbuster film and Madhubala-Ashok Kumar pair was supported by Vijay Lakshami playing the role of a neglected wife Ranjana of Ashok Kumar who played the role of Hari Shankar. Screenplay and direction was given by Kamal Amrohi. Raj Kumari sang three songs for Vijay Lakshami. The major song was ‘Ghabra Kei Jo Hum Sar Ko Takraein Tau Acha Ho’.Raj Kumari sang two other well-known songs for this film “Mein Woh Dulhan Hun” and “Yeh Raat Phir Na Aay Gi”. Composed by Khemchand Parkash and penned by Nakhshab (who later established him as a well-known producer-director in Pakistan). This film gave boost to Raj Kumari and Lata Mangeshkar; the latter sang the evergreen song ‘Aae Ga Aane Waala’. In the movie ‘Mehal’ the deep focus photography is perhaps German Cameraman Wirschings best work in his career at Bombay Talkies. It is complemented by a remarkably advanced soundtrack where Lata excels in the song ‘Dil Nei Phir Yaad Kiya Bewafa Laut Bhi Aa’ at 2 AM when Madhubala haunts Ashok Kumar.This film also established Madhubala (she was 17 at that time) as the main lead actress of 1950s and 1960s films. She had been selected after rigorous auditions by the director against the hit heroine of her time, Suraiya. It has been reported in the media that prior to the release of the movie ‘Mehal’, the records used to feature only the character’s name of the movie. Hence the first lot of records had “Aayega Aane Wala” credited to Kamini, the character played by Madhubala and Ranjana on songs sung by Raj Kumari. The first time when Lata’s song was played on All India Radio, many calls were received to know the singer’s name. All India Radio had to in turn ask the record company and announce Lata Mangeshkar’s name on air. This movie was a supernatural suspense thriller based on reincarnation theme. Later many other films were made on this theme in the West and in India like ‘Qudrat’, ‘Om Shanti Om’, ‘Chances Are, ‘Somewhere in Time’, ‘Defending your Life’, ‘What Dreams May Come’, ‘Madhumati’, ‘Arundhati’ (Telgu film), ‘Karan Arjun’ etc. Critics say that the movie ‘Mehal’ may have been the source of inspiration for the American film ‘The Reincarnation of Peter Proud’ (1975) and the Hindi film ‘Qarz’ (1980), both of which dealt with reincarnation and have been influential in their respective cultures. Qarz in particular was remade several times, as the Kannada film ‘Yuga Purusha’ (1989) and the Tamil film ‘Enakkul Oruvan’ (1984). Raj Kumari’s songs and singing styleRaj Kumari’s song ‘Ik Thais Lagi Aisi Haye Mera Dil, Ik Thais Lagi Aisi Toot Gaya Dil’ is a classic example of pain Raj Kumari oozes out from her singing that the character depicts in the film ‘Mehal’. The antaras are without rhythm, a style mostly followed in those days, followed by music composer Khemchand Parkash also. The instrumental support is weak as was the order of the day. (It was Naushad Ali and Shankar Jaikishen who introduced sixty-seventy piece orchestras later on in their songs). The same expressions are visible in the next song ‘Main Woh Dulhan Hum Raas Na Aaya Jise Singhar, Main Woh Chaman Hum Jis Main Na Aai Kabhi Bahar’. Doing so with a sweet but with smaller voice range was an arduous task. Her contemporaries Shamshad Begum and Amir Bai Karnataki, on the other hand, had strong voices with a high voice ranges. Post ‘Mehal’ and ‘Barssat’ scenario established Lata Mangeshkar as a successful background voice. She was started being preferred by music composers such as Anil Biswas and Naushad Ali because of the young heroines of that time, Lata’s thin voice suited these heroines. There was gradual reduction in work being offered to established voices like Geeta Roy, Shamshad Begum, Amir Bai Karnatki, Raj Kumari, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Juthika Roy, Zeenat Begum, etc. A specimen of combination of old and new voices appeared when famous producer-director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas picked up Raj Kumari and Lata Mangeshkar to sing a duet ‘Zindigi Badli Muhabbat Ka Maza Aane Lage’ for his 1952 film ‘Anhoni’, a story of two look-alike girls;roles played by Nargis. Raj Kumari sang for the negative role and Lata for the positive one. Music was by Roshan Laal and the support cast was Raj Kapoor, Agha, David Abraham, Om Prakash, Achala Sachdev, Badri Prasad, Jankidas, Salma, Shaukat Hashmi, Moti Bina, Habib Alkaf.One of the songs composed by Roshan captivates me is ‘Sun Bairi Balam Sach Bole Re Ib Kaya Ho Ga’ because of the word ‘Ab’ (now) pronounced as ‘Ib’ by Raj Kumari in the film ‘Bawre Nain’(1950). Itwas Kidar Sharma’s film who produced and directed it. Cast was Raj Kapoor,Cuckoo, Geeta Bali, Himmat Rai, Jaswant, Manju, Nazima, Sharda and Vijayalaxmi. Kidar Nath Sharma did his Masters in English from Punjab University and was competent in many fields such as film direction, poetry writing, editing and photography. I shall add the storyline of ‘Bawre Nain’ for the interest of film lovers. Chand lives in a small rural town in India. He is unable to pay the rent, and his landlord evicts him. He re-locates to another town and meets with a young woman named Tara. Both fall in love with each other. Chand is unable to secure employment in this town, and moves elsewhere. Tara waits for several months and since she does not hear from him, she decides to go and look for him, hoping to re-kindle her love. She is shocked and surprised to find him with an attractive woman named Rajni, who claims that Chand is her betrothed and both are to get married soon. Song ‘Kyun Mere Dil Dard Basaya Jawab Do’ is also from this film rendered by Raj Kumari penned by Kidar Sharma. Another melodious song is ‘Piya Aan Basain More Nainen Main, Mori Nindiya Churaei Geyo Re’ from Shyama, Nasir Khan, David, Beera, Lalita Pawar, Badari Prasad starrer film.Lyricist was Prem Dhawen and music was by OP Nayyar. The taans and zamzamas are quite difficult to render in this song and Raj Kumari did well in this song. ‘Pardesi Ghar Aa Jaa’ is a nice song also from Sahu Modak, Hansa, Sankata Prasad starrer film. It is a song said by Prem Adeeb. Sahir Ludheyanvi’s song ‘Bichre Balam Ghar Aaein Gei’ is from Paresh Bannerjee, Shobha Sen, Molina Devi, Master Biresit Baran, Pahari Sanyal, Manju Deystarrer film. The song ‘Kajrari Matwari Do Akhian’ is a captivating melody rendered by Raj Kumari. ‘Saiyyan Tu Ik Baari Aaja’ is also a classical based song. ‘Koi Kis Tarah Raz-e-Ulfat Chupaei’ is Mujra style Ghazal with hand clapping to assist the rhythm from the film ‘Hulchul’.The site Cineplot.com gives interview of Rak Kumari in which she tells Lata Khubchandani “I’ve worked with practically all the composers of my time – Khemchand Prakash, Ghulam Haider, Sajjad Hussain, Husnlal Bhagatram, Naushad, Anil Biswas, O.P. Nayyar, S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman and Khwaja Khurshid Anwar. Among the composers I sang for, I think late Sajjad Hussain was the most difficult – his compositions were intricate and his way of explaining very complex. Take, for example in the film, ‘Khel Khel Main’ where I sang ‘Koi Kis Tarha Raaz-e-Ulfat Chhupaye, Aji Raahein Mili Aur Qadam Dagmagaye’. Most other singers also found him very difficult. I also sang for O.P. Nayyar in ‘Aasman’, pictured on Shyama, ‘Piya Aan Sakhi Mere Nainan Mein Mori Nindiya Churaye’. In the early 1970s, R. D. Burman called me and said, ‘Here’s a song which is just right for you’ and, indeed, it was a pleasure to sing. The song was a ‘Bhajan’ for Gulzar’s ‘Kitaab’, pictured on Dina Pathak: ‘Hari Din Tau Beeta Shaam Hui, Ab Raat Baaqi Kataa Dei’”. Raj Kumari also sang a lot for music director Lallubhai. He gave music to films starring Raj Kumari like ‘Nai Duniya’ alias Sacred Scandal (1934) (Sansaar Leela in Gujarati version), ‘Laal Chitthi’ (Red Letter – 1935), ‘Bombay Mail’ (1935), ‘Bambai Ki Sethaani’ (1935) and ‘Shamsheer-e-Arab’ (Arab Sword-1935). The Punjabi song ‘Vei Main Kajle Di Paani Aan Taar’ sung by Raj Kumari is from the film ‘Posti’ (1950) composed by Sardar Sardul Singh Kuatra. The songs ‘Mahiya Vei Mahiya Qaulan Deya Kacheya Dillan Deya Khoteya’ is a catchy Punjabi number with Asha Bhosle from the film ‘Posti’. Finally the song ‘Chun Chun Ghugharwa’ is with Khemchand Parkash and Zohrabai Ambalewali.Background Raj Kumari’s full name is Raj Kumari Dubey. She was just 10 when she recorded her first song for HMV in 1934 but she started her career as a stage actress cum singer. On stage she had to sing with full throat and shout her dialogues, so the moment she received the offer from Vijay and Shankar Bhatt of Parkash Pictures to just sing, she jumped at the offer and left stage-acting.After she quit Prakash Pictures, she began playback singing for actresses like Ratnamala, Shobhana Samarth (Nutun and Tanuja’s mother), etc. and soon she became the first female playback singer of the Indian Cinema. Others followed suit. Later, she sang songs for the film ‘Neel Kamal’, a Raj Kapoor and Madhubala starrer, and Hulchul (1951); but her two most famous films would be Bawre Nain (1950), where she sang for Geeta Bali. Regarding her fondness for Geeta Bali and director Kidar Sharma, she recalls in her interview ‘In ‘Bawre Nain’, while singing for Geeta Bali, she’d come up to me and say mischievously, ‘Look at me – my actions – and sing accordingly.’ She was so full of life. Kidar Sharma, the director, was one of the most talented men I’ve ever known. It was he who groomed Geeta Bali, Raj Kapoor, Mala Sinha and others. But from all his ‘shishyas’, I think only Geeta Bali managed to pick up the nuances of his teachings.Kidar Sharma had his own way of showing his appreciation. If he liked something you did, he’d give you a two ‘anna’ coin. And, in his entire life, he must have given the coin to just three people – Geeta Bali, Raj Kapoor and I. He treated me with a lot of respect. I sang in his Raj Kapoor-Madhubala starrer ‘Neelkamal’, ‘Bawre Nain’ and several other films’.As reiterated above, many songs came in her way like ‘Mori Nindiya Churaye Gayo’ from the film ‘Aasman’ (music by O. P. Nayyar who wanted Lata to sing this song but due to a misunderstanding he never made a song for her all his life, neither did he invited Raj Kumari for another song), ‘Bhai Vrindavan Mein’ from the album ‘Amar Rabi Gaan Mita Kundu’ but the best one is ‘Najariya Ki Mari Mari Mori Gunyaan’ from Meena Kumari’s film ‘Pakeeza’. Annu Kapoor reported in 92.7 Big FM that Raj Kumari had to sing in chorus to earn two meals a day when she had no work in her advanced singing career. When Naushad noticed her standing in the chorus, he brought her out and promised her a song whenever he got any opportunity to do so. He kept his promise and gave her this break in ‘Pakeeza’. Her singing career therefore can be stated to range from 1934 to 1977. She died in the year 2000 in poverty. She was born in Venarsi in 1924. Raj Kumarimarried very late in life. Her husband was V.K. Dubey who was from Benares (Uttar Pradesh) where he spent a lot of his time there as he owned a shop there, while she settled in Bombay. He later joined her in Bombay.Acting SpreeIn a brief stint at acting Raj Kumari bagged some significant roles in films ‘Aankh Ka Tara’ and ‘Turki Sher’ (1933) and she was the heroine in ‘Bhakt Ke Bhagwan’ and ‘Insaaf Ki Topi’ (1934). Her hero used to be Jayant (real name Zakariya Khan who used to appear as villain in his later films. He was actor Amjad Khan’s father).A born singerRaj Kumari mentioned in an interview ‘I never really had the opportunity to learn singing. But was very good at picking up what my composers taught me. They thought I was a trained singer’.The film people thought that Raj Kumari was a trained singer! She was able to also establish herself as a classical singer and excelled in singing and voice production within the framework of classical forms of thumri and dadra.First songRaj Kumari disclosed in an interview ‘My first film with them was a Hindi-Gujarati bilingual called ‘Sansar Leela Nayi Duniya’. In those days, I often acted opposite Zakaria Khan (late actor Amjad Khan’s father, whose screen name was Jayant). And I used to sing for popular music director, Lallubhai’.Raj Kumari’s last film songRaj Kumari’s last film song ‘Har Din Jo Beeta’was recorded by music composer RD Burman for his film ‘Kitaab’. Raj Kumari also appeared in a British TV programme called ‘Mehfil’ on Channel 4, a Samandar Films production, produced by Firdous Ali and Mahmood Jamal. In this programme she sang a set of her famous film songs and ghazals; the caption on one of the songs, ‘Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayge’, from the film Mehal, cites that the song was pictured on Zohra (and not Madhubala or Vijayalaxmi). The programme was aired on 24 March 1991. I checked and find the song sung by Zohra Bai and Raj Kumari filmed on two singing girls, one sitting and one dancing. It is a captivating melody luring Ashok Kumar to use the night as youth shall pass away. He wakes from the spell when midnight two O’clock clock strikes; continuity in the film’s mystery.Views on Raj Kumari’s PeersRaj Kumari said in her interview ‘I counted among my peers Shamshad Begum, Zohrabai, Juthika Roy, Zeenat Begum, etc. Our voices were very distinct – both Zohra and Shamshad had resounding voices with a high range, while mine was very soft with a smaller range. I sang quite a few songs with Mukesh, the most popular being ‘Mujhe Sach Sach Bata Do Kaya, Kei Kab Dil Mein Samaye Thei’. I did not get much opportunity to sing with Mohammad Rafi – mainly because Lata Mangeshkar was just getting popular at the time and, then, all of us took a backseat. I sang with Nurjehan in ‘Naukar’. While I never sang with K. C. Dey, I did sing songs composed by him, along with Manna Dey, his nephew. Raj Kumari was very nostalgic about her friendship with Zohra Bai. She stated ‘If I had a friend in the industry, it was Zohrabai. We shared many good times – going out together, visiting each other. I sang with her in ‘Mehal’. When Kamal Amrohi was making the film, he said to me, ‘Raj Kumari, I need a voice that sounds like a boy’s to sing with you.’ I replied, ‘Well, then get a boy.’ He said, ‘No, I need a female singer.’ I first suggested Shamshad Begum, but he refused. Then, I suggested Zohrabai and that’s how we sang the duet, ‘Ye Raat Phir Na Aaye Gi, Jawani Beet Jaye Gi’ (1950)’.Published in Daily Times, July 3rd 2018.