Identified as the ‘Saranga Man’ after his big musical hit Saranga (1961), Sardar Malik composed tunes for over 600 songs in the course of his career, notable among them being Thokar (1953), Aulad (1954), Bachpan (1963) and Maharani Padmini (1964). Belonging to the golden era of Hindi film music, while he may not have worked on the biggest films of the day, he did manage to stand out with a distinct style of his own.
Born in Kapurthala, Punjab on January 13, 1930, Sardar Malik’s father was a painting contractor, while his mother hailed from a wealthy zamindar family of Lahore. His interest in singing and dance became evident in his childhood itself. He learnt to play the harmonium and to sing from a friend, Prakash, and by the age of 7, was already teaching the children of the courtiers of the Kapurthala maharaja. Malik would earn a not-inconsiderable Rs.5 from each home where he taught!
His interest in classical music was born in an interesting manner. It was the latter years of the 30s, and electricity had arrived. His father took on contracts of laying electricity cables in homes. Young Sardar would go over to deliver his father’s lunch every afternoon. On one occasion, his father happened to be working at the home of celebrated Kapurthala courtesan, Mubarak. It was here that Sardar heard her rendering the song, Jiya mera lehraye chhai kaali ghata. Smitten, he made up his mind to learn classical music, much against the wishes of his family. Leaving home, he travelled to Lahore under great difficulty, to meet a patron of Mubarak’s, a barrister, who had previously shared his address with Sardar should he be in any need. However, on reaching, he was spurned by the barrister, and had to return to Kapurthala, sleeping at masjids along the route. The only good to come out of this misadventure was his family’s change of heart—they now agreed to allow him to learn classical music. He started training under tabla guru, Mubarak Ali. Soon he applied to and was accepted by Uday Shankar's India Cultural Centre in Almora, with the Maharaja of Kapurthala bearing his expenses, on the recommendation of his PA, Shiv Kumar. During the five-year course, Sardar learnt poetry from Sumitra Nandan Pant, ballet from Uday Shankar, Kathakali from Shankaran Namboodiri, Bharatanatyam from Pillai Guruji, yoga from Zohra Sehgal, Manipuri from Amobi Singh, and music from Vishnudas Shirali. Additionally, there was much he absorbed by observing Ustad Allauddin Khan at the centre there.
At the centre, Sardar also became friendly with Guru Dutt, who was also learning dance, as well as another dancer, Mohan Segal. After passing from the academy, both Sardar and Segal were signed up for a film as a choreographer. However, the experience was far from smooth, leading to Sardar deciding to focus on singing and music direction instead.
His first break as a composer came in Jayant Desai's Renuka (1947), for which he composed two songs, sang two solos and two duets with Zohra Bai. For his next film, Raaz (1949), he set to music some of the poems of progressive poet, Meera, the music being well-received. He sang four songs in the film; however, realising that his voice fell short in comparison to Mohammed Rafi’s, he decided to give up singing. A meritorious composer, he went on to compose music for a slew of films. He was noticed in Laila Majnu (1953) starring Nutan and Shammi Kapoor. While the most popular song of the film - Chal diya carvan was jointly composed by Sardar Malik and Ghulam Mohammad, his individual compositions also stood out, namely Baharo ki duniya pukare tu aa ja and Dekh li ishq teri meharbani dekh li, in which Malik used Arabic style of music. Sardar Malik could be said to have arrived on the national scene with Thokar (1953), with the number Ae ghame dil kya karun rendered separately by Talat and Asha becoming immensely popular. Malik’s use of the tabla in the background of Hawa gun gunaye fiza muskuraye became a highlight of the song. Composing for Chor Bazar (1954), Malik made soft use of the orchestra in songs like Chalta rahe ye carvan (Lata), Huyee ye hamse nadani (Lata), Dar dar ki thokrein (Lata) and Tere dar pe aaya hun faryad laker (Talat Mahmood). Composing music for his friend Mohan Sahgal's film Aulad (1954), he hit the mark with Duniya tasveer hai rote hue insanon ki, Tum salamat raho man tinak tinak naache (Asha), and Teri duniya mein har neki ka badla (Talat). Chamak Chandni (1957) saw him impress with Ek pardesi mere man me samaya haule haule and Pritam jo main janti (Sudha Malhotra), while his next, Taxi 555 (1958), saw his numbers Bhor bhai aur panchhi jage (Rafi/S Balbir) and Koi chand koi tara (Rafi/Asha) gain popularity. He delivered a string of popular songs in Maa Ke Aanshoo (1959) such as Ja ja re sanam main to nachu cham cham and In aankhon ne unko nahi dekha kai din se (Geeta Dutt), Khudi ko buland kar itna (Rafi), Kisi se aankh ladi badi muskil padi (Asha/Suman Kalyanpur) and Kya parwah agar loot liya chal chal musafir (Rafi/Mubarak Begum/chorus). While the years between 1955 and 1959 saw Sardar Malik work in just one film a year, he recovered his stride with Saranga (1960), which became the biggest musical hit of that year. Starring Sudesh Kumar and Jayshree Gadkar,15 of the 23 songs that Malik had recorded for the film were used. These included Saranga teri yaad mein, nain hue bechain, Haan deewana hun main ghum ka mara hua (Mukesh), Lagi tumse lagan saathi chhute naa (Lata/Mukesh), Piya kaise milun tumse mere paun padi zanjeer (Lata/Rafi), Likh de piya ka naam sakhi re (Suman Kalyanpur) and Saath jiyange saath marange (Rafi/chorus). 1960 was also the year that Malik worked with Sohrab Modi in Mera Ghar Mere Bachche, creating popular numbers such as Baharon se puchho nazaron se puchho (Mukesh/Suman Kalyanpur), Chanda ke desh mein rehti ek rani (Mukesh) and Peena haram hai to nighaen milakar pee (Asha).
The 60s saw Sardar Malik work in mainly B grade films yet he still produced some popular numbers such as Ud ud jaye anchal (Superman, 1960), Hum apne ghum ko saja kar bahar kar lenge (Madan Manjari, 1961), Sun chand meri dastan (Naag Jyoti, 1963), and the Rafi-rendered Mujhe tumse mohabbat hai magar main kah nahi sakta and Suman Kalyanpur-crooned Mere naina mad ke payale from Bachpan (1963).
While Sardar Malik did go on to work in films like Maharani Padmini (1959), Roop Sundari (1964), Jantar Mantar (1964),and Paanch Ratan (1965), he is said to have become a victim in a clash of egos between two musical greats. For no fault of his own, he had been rendered practically unemployed. By his own admission, he was denied bookings for recording rooms and ended up losing the films he had in hand. Refusing to seek help from well-placed friends such as Hasrat Jaipuri and Rafi, Malik’s circumstances are said to have turned him into a recluse. While he did score the music for actor Premnath’s Gyaniji (1977), it failed to make an impact. Shunning film events and public gatherings, Malik was last seen in Delhi when his music director son Anu Malik received the National Award for Refugee(2000).
Sardar Malik passed away on January 27, 2006, a reminder of opportunities lost, yet leaving behind a treasured cache of musical works.