The legend of Surinder Kaur and her sister Prakash Kaur lives on in Punjab. The duo pioneered and popularised Punjabi folk music, leaving behind an unmatched legacy as well as managing to create a space for themselves in a largely male-dominated industry; becoming the first woman to be signed by record labels in Punjab.
They were also a part of a creative wave, where artists provided an offering of solace to the public, through their work in the post-partition period. People found refuge in the melodious voices of Noor Jehan on the other side of the border, while in India the songs sung by the two sisters provided a harbour of relief from the recurring feelings of grief.
The culture of the time did not permit women to sing outside of their homes, the only exception being Gurudwara’s (A Sikh place of worship) where women could openly participate in the Shabad and Kirtans. Although the folk tales sung by them were quite famous in Punjab and narrated the many rituals of the time, these melodies remained restricted behind closed doors.
For this reason, Surinder and Prakash Kaur sang anonymously for a while, as their voice aided every celebration and resonated with women on a personal level; speaking to the sorrows of the heart and soul. Yet their faces could not be placed on the album covers to maintain privacy and safeguard their identities.
At some point in their careers, they were introduced to their audience. While Prakash Kaur made her debut with a live performance on ‘Peshawar Radio’ in 1941, it was Surinder Kaur who claimed fame at a national and international level as well. Deemed as the ‘Nightingale of Punjab’ she voiced verses written by famous poets like Amrita Pritam, Mohan Singh, and Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
These melodies are ingrained in each Punjabi woman’s heart, as generations have sung these ballads and passed them down to their daughters. To this day, mothers sing these folk tales while cooking on a regular basis, with each word seeping into the soul of younger and older members of the family every day.
Very recently the upbeat song ‘Bajre Da Sitta’ went viral, playing in almost on a loop throughout our Instagram reels. Most were oblivious of the fact that it was a recreated version of the original verse sung by the sisters.
Their songs are regularly recreated in the mainstream Punjabi and Hindi industry as well, following the trend of Punjabi gayaki (singing) set by them with the charms of ritualistic and rustic romantic songs. After the passing of her sister, Surinder Kaur recorded songs in nearly 35 Hindi films as a playback singer between 1948 and 1952. She also recorded duets with legendary Punjabi folk singers including Asa Singh Mastana and Dildar Sandhu.
One of the most notable songs sung by them as a duo is ‘Maavan Te Dheean Ral Baithian’, for the HMV label, helping them emerge as superstars across the Indian subcontinent. Some of the other most recognised songs are ‘Kale Rang Da Paranda’, ‘Akhiyan Ch Tu Vasda’ and so on. You can listen to their playlists here.
Raw Mango, an Indian heritage brand known for its innate taste in Indian aesthetics released a collection named ‘Heer’ back in 2018, inspired by the shared culture of pre-partition Punjab. Their campaign videos showcased an authentic version of Punjabi women while a song sung by Surinder and Prakash Kaur played in the background.
Young Punjabi singers like Noor Chahal and Arpan Sandhu are now recreating their melodies for a larger audience on social media platforms. The lasting impact of the two sisters lives on through their own melodies and multiple newer renditions. The ever changing landscape of Punjabi folk industry owes all its achievements to the two sisters who paved the way for many to follow. For me personally their singing their tunes are a way of bonding with my mother, a memory ingrained in our hearts that both of us will cherish forever.
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