A Sikh rock ‘n’ roller from 60s who earned sobriquet ‘Indian Elvis’ - Hindustan Times
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A Sikh rock ‘n’ roller from 60s who earned sobriquet ‘Indian Elvis’

Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByNirupama Dutt, Chandigarh
Jul 20, 2020 03:36 PM IST

At 86, Iqbal Singh Sethi fondly recalls how he wowed music directors Shankar-Jaikishan who launched him as a rock and roll sensation in a Bollywood film.

The voice on the telephone line from Mumbai is incredibly youthful and one wonders if one is speaking to a man all of 86 who sang and danced his way into the hearts of people through the fabulous ‘50s and the swinging sixties. “Well I may be a few years away from 90, and had a hip surgery following an accident, but you can guess by my voice that I am young in heart and soul,” says Iqbal Singh Sethi with a chuckle.

Iqbal Singh Sethi in a still from the film number that made him famous.
Iqbal Singh Sethi in a still from the film number that made him famous.

He certainly strikes the right note and one is reminded of the tall and handsome turbaned Sikh singing and dancing with gusto in the 1960 Bollywood blockbuster ‘Ek Phool Chaar Kaante’, a romantic comedy that starred Waheeda Rehman and Sunil Dutt, hard pressed into wooing his beloved’s four fussy uncles. His performance in the nightclub number ‘Beautiful baby of Broadway’ penned specially for him by Hasrat Jaipuri won accolades. “Actually, the original lyrics by Jaipuri were ‘Bombshell baby of Bombay’ but the censors objected and so the title line was replaced Beautiful baby of Broadway,” he recalls.

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Iqbal Singh Sethi was a junior sailor, an engine-room class II mechanic, in a coastal minesweeper, one of four commissioned in August, 1956. (HT Photo)
Iqbal Singh Sethi was a junior sailor, an engine-room class II mechanic, in a coastal minesweeper, one of four commissioned in August, 1956. (HT Photo)

How did this happen? It is an incredible story indeed for he moved as an 11-year-old boy with his parents from Rawalpindi to Pune where his father Gopal Singh Sethi served in the Punjab Regiment and was a decorated soldier. “I completed my schooling from Pune and joined the British Indian Navy in 1949 as an ensign that gave me a chance to travel the world and there I discovered the singer and dancer in me,” he says. In fact, during a romance with a lass from Southampton, who was a very good dancer, he got initiated into rock and roll, the Elvis way. He was a junior sailor, an engine-room class II mechanic, in a coastal minesweeper, one of four commissioned in August, 1956. The vessels sailed to the Royal Navy minesweepers base at Hythe, where he became a favourite at the port town dances and would go on to win the top spot at the South of England rock ‘n’ roll championship.

Of course, the stardom lasted a short while as the naval authorities gave him the choice of leaving films for good or face a court martial for acting without permission. Sethi turned down the film offers that flooded him. “I have no regrets because the navy gave me so much. I attended Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, trained as an engineer and was decorated with service medals.”

After retiring from the navy, he did managerial jobs with reputed firms, including long years as works manager with Tata for Maruti Suzuki. Besides, he remained a caring husband to his late wife Parduman Kaur and anchor to his three daughters and a son as well as doting grandchildren. However, old timers still recall the young turbaned navy ensign doing his ‘frantic Presley thing!’

A small post in a WhatsApp group leads onto a Facebook page maintained by his second daughter, Arvinder Sethi Sandhu, titled ‘Iqbal Singh Sethi my daddy’. He says he is happy to be chatting with a Chandigarh reporter for this city is home to his late wife’s brothers and their families.

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