Remembering singer Parul Ghosh, one of Hindi cinema’s quietest trailblazers

Wife of an illustrious husband, sister of a famous brother, Parul Ghosh made indelible contributions to music. A tribute on her fortieth death anniversary.

In a recap of the year’s significant events in Film India, KA Abbas wrote, “1939 will be sadly remembered “as the year that saw the collapse of Sagar, one of the oldest studios in India…Over the combined ashes of Sagar and General Films…has risen the new concern called National Studios. They claim to have an ambitious programme but time alone will show how far their claims are justified.”

The National Studios experiment was short-lived. Within a few years, Mehboob Khan had moved on to start his own production unit, while another important member of the team, composer Anil Biswas, shifted allegiances to Bombay Talkies. There, he struck gold with Kismet (1943), a blockbuster of unprecedented proportions with a memorable soundtrack. The memorable songs had a huge role to play in its success, including Door Hato, Dheere Dheere Aa Re Baadal and Papiha Re .

Like most people of my generation, I first heard Papiha Re in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar when she recorded the song for a tribute album released in the early 1990s. A haunting melody, Papiha Re was originally sung by Parul Ghosh, Anil Biswas’s younger sister, and remains her claim to fame.

But there is way more to Parul Ghosh than just this one song.

Born in Barisal (in present-day Bangladesh) in 1915, Parul Biswas was the second of three siblings. Their mother had received classical training and was also a proficient keertankar. “My mother’s voice had the melodiousness of the flute and the texture of the shehnai,” Anil Biswas told composer Tushar Bhatia. “I think Parul inherited that quality from her.”

Pannalal Ghosh, the legendary flautist who is credited for taking a humble folk instrument and elevating it to the concert stage, was a close childhood friend of Biswas. “We were two bodies and one soul,” the latter once said. The bond deepened when Ghosh married his best friend’s sister. The groom was only 14, she was nine. Over the next three decades, the paths of the three would be inextricably linked.

Around 1930, Anil Biswas moved to Calcutta where he soon found employment with the Hindustan Recording Company. Later, Pannalal Ghosh too started working there as an instrumentalist. When his brother-in-law moved to New Theatres, Ghosh followed suit.

It was at New Theatres that history was made when director Nitin Bose introduced playback singing in the film Dhoop Chhaon (1935). Main Khush Hona Chahoon, sung by Parul Ghosh, Supraba Sarkar and others, is generally considered to be the first song where the technique was used.

Main Khush Hona Chahoon, Dhoop Chhaon, 1935.

While Suprabha Sarkar became a prominent playback singer, Parul Ghosh slipped off the radar. In 1940, the Ghosh family (they had a daughter now) arrived in Bombay. By then, Biswas, who had left for the city in 1934, had already established himself as a composer.

In Bombay, according to VG Karnad, the Pune-based flautist, and one of Pannalal Ghosh’s senior-most disciples, “First they were staying just opposite KEM Hospital in Parel. Saraswati Devi was the music director in Bombay Talkies in Malad. They were experimenting and trying to popularize playback singing. Amirbai Karnataki and Shamshad Begum used to sing there. Babuji’s wife, Parul Ghosh, was also called and she gave an audition test too.”

Soon, she was on contract with the studio, earning, according to Karnad, “1,000 rupees per month”. To save time on commuting, they shifted to a house in Malad, not far from the Bombay Talkies studio. “Here Babuji had a lot of time at his disposal to practice,” Karnad said. “Mataji managed the income. During this time Mataji gave maximum encouragement to Babuji for practising.”

Pannalal and Parul Ghosh (seated) with VG Karnad and his wife. Courtesy VG Karnad/Vishvas Kulkarni.
Pannalal and Parul Ghosh (seated) with VG Karnad and his wife. Courtesy VG Karnad/Vishvas Kulkarni.

It is with Bombay Talkies’s Basant (1942) that Parul Ghosh finally made her presence felt. While her husband is credited as the music director, it was her brother who had composed the songs. “Anil da was then contracted with National Studios and so they could not use his name,” Tushar Bhatia said. “Later he told me that it did not matter whether his name was there or Pannalalji’s.”

Basant was a major hit for Bombay Talkies which, under Devika Rani, was trying to recover from the untimely death of founder Himanshu Rai. Mere Chhote Se Mann Mein, Humko Hai Pyari Hamari Galiyan and Umeed Unse Kya Thi, all rendered by Parul Ghosh, became very popular. An interesting sidelight is that her daughter Sudha also sang in the film, for Baby Mumtaz (later to become famous as Madhubala).

Bombay Talkies’s next film surpassed even Devika Rani’s wildest expectations. By then, Biswas had quit National and joined Bombay Talkies. “I once asked Anil da why he did not get Parulji to sing all the songs in Kismet,” Bhatia said. “He said, I was the official music director on Kismet; if I gave her all the songs, people would have accused me of favouritism.”

But Biswas did use more of her in subsequent films like Hamari Baat (1943), Jwar Bhata (1944), and Milan (1946). In Jwar Bhata, a film chiefly remembered today for marking the debut of Dilip Kumar, the brother-sister duo delivered one of their finest songs.

Bhool Jaana Chahti Hoon, Jwar Bhata, 1944.

Tushar Bhatia discovered Parul Ghosh in his early teens. “My grand-aunt had left me her record collection,” he said. “One of the records was of the film Milan. I used to keeping listening to its songs.”

Bhatia later became close to the Biswas family and was also a dear friend of Anand Murdeshwar, Parul Ghosh’s grandson. “Anand and I were probably Parulji’s biggest fans. We only talked about her.”

Bhatia feels she had a more rounded voice as compared to some of her contemporaries. “It’s a voice that is typical to Bengal, with its whole tradition of folk music and Rabindra Sangeet,” he said. “You saw something similar with Kanan Devi and Geeta Dutt. There was no showbaazi, it was all about expression.”

Anil Biswas and Pannalal Ghosh were not the only music directors to make use of her voice. In Hamari Baat (1943), she sang five songs for Naushad, including Aaye Bhi Woh Gaye Bhi Woh, a very popular song in its time. Other composers she sang for included Rafiq Ghaznavi, C Ramchandra, Pandit Gobindram and MA Rauf Osmania.

Suhani Beriyaan Beeti Jaayen, Milan, 1946.

It is around 1947 that Parul Ghosh withdrew from the scene. “[She] chose the life of an average Hindu housewife,” wrote the noted music critic Mohan Nadkarni, “looking after domestic affairs, attending to her illustrious husband and her two daughters, Sudha and Noopur.” Summing up her career, he wrote:[It] was admittedly much too brief, but no less significant. That was the time when public opinion was not still completely reconciled to the idea of a non-professional artiste, who was also a housewife, taking to a career in the celluloid world.”

It is probably pertinent to note here that, on some of the gramophone records from that era, Parul Ghosh is simply referred to as ‘Shrimati Ghosh’. The last time we hear that voice is on the soundtrack of Aandolan (1951), where the songs were composed by her husband. She sang two songs, including a popular rendition of Vande Mataram.

The same year, her younger daughter Noopur succumbed to smallpox. “That day I was carrying a Glaxo milk usual for the child,” Karnad recalled. “When I reached Malad, Guruji was sitting in the verandah where there used to be a jasmine creeper. He embraced me and started crying, ‘Karnad, how can I play now…’”

Humne Tumne Kiya Tha Jo, Tohfa, 1947.

In Sharad Maholay’s Andheri home hangs a portrait of his guru Pannalal Ghosh. It was painted by a maternal uncle of his. A bit actor in films, it was this uncle who had advised Maholay, then aged 17, to approach the flautist directly: “Go to Malad and ask anyone, they will guide you to the house.”

Maholay did as told and landed up in the Malad house one morning in 1955. He was accepted into the fold, and started visiting the house for lessons.

For Maholay and his fellow students, Parul Ghosh was ‘Mataji’. She usually stayed in the background, ensuring things ran smoothly in the household. The renowned flautist and disciple of Pannalal Ghosh, Nityanand Haldipur said: “I used to not eat meat. And then one day she told me, you need strength to play the flute; if you don’t eat meat, how are you going to play? I said, if I eat, I am going to throw up. Don’t worry, I will clean it up; but you must eat. So she cooked meat and I ate. I liked it. Achcha laga na? she asked me. She was a great cook.”

But sometimes they also saw another side to her. “Once I playing a bandish in Raag Shudh Basant,” Haldipur said. “She asked me if I knew the words of the bandish. I shook my head. She told me, if you don’t know the words, how can you play it well? She then taught me the words.”

Parul Ghosh with Pannalal Ghosh and some of his disciples. Image credit: VG Karnad/Vishvas Kulkarni.
Parul Ghosh with Pannalal Ghosh and some of his disciples. Image credit: VG Karnad/Vishvas Kulkarni.

In 1956, Pannalal Ghosh accepted an offer to become the conductor of the All India Radio Vadya Vrinda (orchestra). The family moved to Delhi. It was here he passed away in 1960 after a massive heart attack. He was only 48.

Parul Ghosh came back to live in the house in Malad. “She collapsed both mentally and physically after Guruji’s death,” said Nityanand Haldipur. He recalls an incident on Ghosh’s first death anniversary: “There was a small tribute concert of sorts at the house. I started playing a composition in Raag Yaman. She was inside and apparently asked Nikhilji [Nikhil Ghosh, the table player and younger brother of Pannalal Ghosh] who was playing. He came out, lifted me up and took me inside. There, she hugged me and started crying.”

Ghosh’s nieces, Anuradha and Mahashweta – daughters of her younger brother Sunil Biswas – have vivid memories of the old, two-storied house in Malad with its “big hall, the balcony with the wooden railing, the four-poster bed covered with a mosquito net”. And the kitchen, where “Pishima would be sitting on a pidhi with brass vessels around her”. On these, she would serve them delicious dishes prepared by her own hand.

Post-lunch, the group would settle down on mats on the cool floor. Their aunt would have some paan, and as everyone relaxed, she would sometimes hum a tune. The song the sisters most associate with those lazy afternoons and their Pishima is the devotional Prabhu Charnon Mein Aaya Pujari.

Prabhu Charnon Mein Aaya Pujari, Aandolan, 1951.

Parul Ghosh’s grandson, the late Anand Murdeshwar, recalled receiving lessons in vocal music from his grandmother and mother. He was initially inclined towards the tabla. However, when his mother Sudha was diagnosed with cancer, his grandmother handed him a flute. She “expressed the wish that I learn to play the flute and that my mother would like to hear me in her lifetime. I thus took to playing the bansuri on emotional grounds”.

Anand Murdeshwar received his first lesson from his grandmother. “After a year of training, I could play Raag Shree to the accompaniment of the table,” he said in the archival interview. “On 27th December, 1974, I staged a performance for my mother and attempted a shruti of komal re (flat re), which Pannalalji used to take. This was an emotional moment, which deeply moved both my mother and grandmother. That was the time when I chose the bansuri.”

Sudha Murdeshwar passed away in January 1975. This was one blow too many for her mother. “Utterly disconsolate and ailing,” wrote Mohan Nadkarni, “Parul Ghosh died at Malad in Bombay, on August 13, 1977, unsung and unhonoured.”

The Malad house, which has since been demolished. Courtesy Vishvas Kulkarni.
The Malad house, which has since been demolished. Courtesy Vishvas Kulkarni.

While speaking to Tushar Bhatia, I learnt that Parul Ghosh had left behind a manuscript. Later, Nityanand Haldipur clarified that it was a monograph of sorts which had been translated from the Bengali into Hindi by Madanlal Vyas, a music critic with Navbharat Times, and published in a cultural magazine. Titled in Hindi as Vanshi Parampara Ke Samvahak – Pannalal Ghosh (loosely translated as The Progenitor of the Flute), it tells the story of Pannalal Ghosh’s evolution as a flautist.

What strikes you immediately on reading the document is that Parul Ghosh avoids using the first person. Moreover, in the entire monograph, there is just one instance where you get the sense that she had any part to play in her husband’s career. Alluding to his decision to leave New Theatres so that he could devote more time to the flute, she writes, “He did not face much difficulty because he had some outside projects and his wife sang in the radio and also did playback.”

This throwaway line also finally sheds some light on those missing years, 1935-1940. But, apart from that, we don’t learn anything else about her from the document. The writer had almost completely effaced herself from the narrative.

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