Indian classical singers are usually averse to film music. One of the most widely documented pieces of film lore involves Bade Ghulam Ali Khan refusing to sing for K Asif in the 1960 epic romance Mughal-e-Azam. Khan quoted a very high price for his vocal skills, hoping to turn Asif away, but the ambitious filmmaker would not be fooled.

Asif put the doyen’s voice to great use for an important sequence in which court musician Tansen (Surendra) is shown singing the thumri as part of his daily practice in the royal gardens where the lovebirds Salim (Dilip Kumar) and Anarkali (Madhubala) meet. The maestro’s robust vocals floats between octaves in Prem Jogan Ban Ke, composed by Naushad in raag sohni.

Our new series features Indian classical singers who have lent their brilliance to film music. Several exponents belonging to distinguished musical gharanas, such as Begum Akhtar from the Patiala gharana, Chhannulal Mishra from the Kirana gharana and Kishori Amonkar from the Jaipur gharana, have sung for movie composers, providing welcome alternatives to the usual handful of voices.

Parveen Sultana has been one such voice. She has not restricted her training or singing to any particular gharana. Born on May 24, 1950, in Nagaon in Assam, Sultana received her initial training from her father, Ikramul Mazid, and musicologist and classical musician Chinmoy Lahiri in later years. Sultana began performing on stage in 1962. She also studied with Dilshad Khan of the Kirana gharana, whom she later married.

From a young age, Sultana was advised by her father to avoid Hindi film music. She implicitly followed the advice. In a 2016 interview, Sultana expressed her indifference to film music. “I don’t like Hindi film songs,” she said. “I think there is nothing in those tracks that challenges your talent. There is no classical base. Singing for Hindi films is like caging a talented bird.”

Sultana followed the musical trajectory of such maestros as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar and Omkarnath Thakur. Her interest in playback singing has been sporadic, with only a handful of songs in a career spanning over five decades.

In the 1968 Assamese film Morom Trishna, Sultana sang Sopun Rongin Palash Bonot. Film composer Naushad introduced her to Hindi moviegoers in Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam in Pakeezah (1972). The thumri was used in the background.

Sultana’s next song Notun Tumar Soron Dhoni appeared five years later in the Assamese film Sonma (1977).

Sultana returned to Hindi playback only in 1981 for Hamein Tumse Pyar Kitna, composed by RD Burman for the movie Kudrat. The track, in raag bhairavi, was written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and appeared in two versions.

In the solo male version by Kishore Kumar, the singer follows the melody. Burman told a hesitant Sultana to interpret the female version in her style. Sultana took the route most familiar to her. The melody starts with a high-pitched note – a trademark of her voice – and follows with improvised alaaps. Sultana’s rendition is steeped in her classical training.

Kumar and Sultana were both nominated for Filmfare playback awards, and it was Sultana who won the trophy in 1982 for her spirited performance.

Sultana also sang Peetal Ki Meri Gagri in Do Boond Paani (1971) for composer Jaidev and Vaada Tumse for composer Adnan Sami in 1920 (2008), but these melodies are no match for her solo number in Kudrat.

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Hamein Tumse Pyar Kitna from Kudrat (1981).