India’s Elvis Presley: The Incredible Life Of Iqbal Singh Sethi

India’s Elvis Presley: The Incredible Life Of Iqbal Singh Sethi
Rishi Raj for Homegrown

‘Fit like a rock!’ excitedly exclaims 87-year-old Iqbal Singh Sethi whenever a ‘how are you?’ is posed at him. ‘Elvis in a turban’, Iqbal Singh is best-known for his 1960 song ‘Beautiful Baby of Broadway’, (also called: Beautiful Baby Of Broadway or Bombshell Baby Of Bombay) from the Bollywood film Ek Phool Chaar Kaante. The song recently resurfaced when it was featured in Salman Khan’s Tubelight (2017) where, in a sequence, they dance to his visual playing in the background and make a rather comical attempt at flapping.

Early in the morning, as we arrive at Mr Sethi’s Chembur apartment where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren, we are greeted with a bright smile as Mr Sethi beams in his crisp white shirt and deep-red turban.

Says Singh proudly, “ I am the person who opened doors for Sikhs in the film industry. It was due to the song that one could imagine a bearded and turbaned jiver on the screen.”

Image Credit - Rishi Raj for Homegrown

Iqbal Singh Sethi was born on the first of January, 1934 in west Pakistan, and yes, if you are wondering, his name does have connotations attached to the then-ongoing Independence movement. Sethi completed his SSC from Pune where his brother, an army man, was posted. In 1949, he joined the Indian Navy. Sethi recalls being in training in Vizag for a year and a half. After 6 months of sea training, he was a part of the INS Delhi (initially built in the 1930s as Royal Navy’s ‘HMS Achilles’) crew.

Following his posting with the pre-independence INS Bombay and INS Mysore, Sethi found himself in England at Spithead where he was part of Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Navy Review in 1953 at Portsmouth. Royal England’s three-centuries-old prestigious tradition of the Spithead Naval Review proved to be a turning point in Sethi’s life as he first found the chance to indulge in jive there. His English girlfriend, Sylvia Beckham, Sethi recalls with a sparkle in his eyes, taught him how to jive. Recalls Sethi, “She was a very good jiver. I never knew how to jive. She taught me. We won a lot of competitions together.”

Image Courtesy Iqbal Singh Sethi

They sailed for Plymouth on February 13, 1956, and on Valentine’s Day, leaving several girls waving at them from the port, they sailed from Gibraltar to India, and then to Malta. Sethi tells us that this was the time when Nasser Khan had blocked the Suez Canal then. This meant that Sethi’s ship was stuck in Malta for 3 months. Being his characteristic self, Sethi gleefully recalls how he had ‘enjoyed it throughout!’.

“When I came back to India, my father wanted me to get married. So, we went to Punjab to marry an Indian girl. My wife was very cooperative. She always wore a sari and always took us along. She used to say that no matter what you are, who you are, whatever you do, always be humble.”

Her principles of life also reflect in the way Sethi went on to live his life and how he still meets his life everyday.

Image Courtesy Iqbal Singh Sethi

In India, Sethi was taught singing and dancing by Salome Roy Kapur’s (mother of Bollywood actor Aditya Roy Kapur, mother-in-law of Bollywood actress Vidya Balan) parents, Sam and Ruby Aaron, in Bombay in 1954. “They forced me to get into dancing and took me to Taj Bombay where foreigners used to come to dance.”

The ‘Sikh Elvis,’ as he is also popularly known, had already acquired huge popularity, performing at the premier clubs and restaurants like The Venice Nightclub and Trincas in Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi, before he was offered the Bollywood song by Shankar-Jaikishan.

Sethi dreamily goes back to 1963-64 as he recalls a ‘very pretty’ young woman named Susie with the white bangle who used to visit Trincas in her black dress and dance with him. “She would only come for this,” exclaims Sethi. He proudly tells us about the time he had danced to Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock with Tony Brent from England in December 1958 and also remembers how all it used to take for him to get on stage and sizzle along was ‘4 pegs with soda!’ Astoundingly accurate with time, he remembers having taken late choreographer Saroj Khan dancing to Indore Club in 1967. Besides dancing with dazzling stars like Reena Roy, Sethi also tells us how he used to hobnob with Prem Chopra.

Image Courtesy Iqbal Singh Sethi

A time came when Mr Sethi had to choose between his passion and his duty. “My work (music, dance, and movies) was my worship but my naval duties were for the service of my nation. I couldn’t combine both.” He chose his duty and in 1965, was awarded for his services. While they, unfortunately, lost most of the photographs in the 2005 Mumbai floods, Sethi’s medals still shine majestically, gloriously reminding him and everyone of his youthful grandeur.

Following his wife’s illness, he got himself transferred to Port Blair. However, in 1969, in order to be able to take care of his wife and children, after 20 years of service, he left the Navy and eventually found work at Rapid Industries, where he worked for 27 years.

When asked if he regretted having chosen the Navy over movies, he reflects, “I never looked back in my life for anything. One can’t bring the clock’s needle back, so why not simply look forward? It keeps you grounded.”

Image Credit - Rishi Raj for Homegrown

Having been working for the past 70 years, at 87, the Elvis Presley of India wakes up every morning at half-past 5 and likes to live his life independently, doing everything on his own.

He leaves us with a parting thought that I am going to be keeping with myself for a long, long time: “Be happy, enjoy yourself, never look back. If you look at the sky, you will fall down. If you look at the ground, you will always find yourself moving forward.” Mr Sethi’s esprit de la vie will continue to inspire millions.

Iqbal Singh Sethi passed away on November 27, 2021, before this feature was published. His loving family asked us to share it posthumously as an ode to his extraordinary life and story. All of us at Homegrown would like to send our love and support to Iqbal’s entire family. We hope that India’s very own Elvis Presley rests in peace.

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