Surya Kumari (Telugu: టంగుటూరి సూర్యకుమారి) (Tangutoori Suryakumari) (13 November 1925 in Rajamundry, India – 25 April 2005) was an Indian film singer, actress and dancer in Telugu cinema. She was the niece of Tanguturi Prakasam Pantulu. She has sung Maa Telugu Thalliki, the official song of the state Andhra Pradesh, India.
As an Artist
Tanguturi Suryakumari’s next film Adrushtam was released in 1938 and became a hit. Her other films include Katakam (1948) and Samsara Nowka (1949). Katakam was at first a Tamil play based on a lesser – known William Shakespeare play Cymbeline. Suryakumari acted in the Tamil version of the film. Tanguturi Suryakumari later acted in some 25 films. Among these films, the ‘Devatha’ and ‘Raithu Bidda’ made film history and contributed to the Golden age of Telugu Cinema. In the film, ‘Krishna Prema’ by H. V. Babu, Suryakumari played the role of sage Narada. And it was first time in the history of Telugu cinema; a woman played the male role of Narada. In this film, for the first time, Surya Kumari’s Singing Talents were fully utilised as Narada and her performance won her many laurels. Tanguturi Suryakumari also acted in Hindi movies named ‘Watan’ (1954) and ‘UdanKatola’ (1955). In the second one, Tanguturi Suryakumari acted with Hindi movie icon Dilip Kumar and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress award in the Filmfare Awards.
Apart from her film career, Tanguturi Suryakumari was also well known for her private songs released as gramophone records and later as audiocassettes. The songs were melodious and had impressive lyrics. Her sweet voice added beauty to these songs. Tanguturi Suryakumari also sang some patriotic songs and in few of them Tanguturi Suryakumari praised Mahatma Gandhi. There were numerous songs sung by Suryakumari of which few of them are ‘Maa Telugu Talliki, Mallepoodhandalu, O Mahatma, Satapatra sundari, Maamidichettunu and others’. Tanguturi Suryakumari also sang in a feature-length documentary film about Mahatma Gandhi, which was made by a patriotic Tamil Writer and journalist, A.K. Chettiar.
Record companies came forward to record her voice, and at a time when gramophones were not yet common, her songs could be heard everywhere. Patrons in restaurants and outdoor cafes would pay extra if their meal was accompanied by Surya’s songs, and passing traffic would stop until a song had finished. Maa Telugu Talliki…. Her presence was a major attraction at meetings of the Indian National Congress, and her recordings reached rural areas unvisited by politicians. Even today, her most famous song, Maa Telugu Thalli (in praise of her mother tongue), is sung at the start of social functions in her home state of Andhra.
Indian Cinema to Hollywood
Altogether, Surya appeared in some 25 Indian films in the 1940s and 1950s, singing and acting in a variety of languages, including Telugu, Sanskrit, Tamil, Gujurati, Hindi and English.
This 1952 'First Miss Madras'  had her film admirers too, for her films like ‘Raithu Bidda’ (1939), ‘Bhagyalakshmi’ (1943), ‘Krishna Prema’ (1943), ‘Maradalu Pelli’ (1952) and Hindi films ‘Watan’ (1954), ‘Udan Khatola’ (1955).
In the mid-1950s, she made her first visit to America, as a member of a delegation from the Indian film industry invited to Hollywood by the Motion Picture Association of America (though union regulations precluded her from film work there).
Learning western classics and research on Indian stories In 1959, she went to New York to teach at Columbia University, and also to add to her skills by studying western classical and popular dance forms. On her arrival, she appeared on television alongside the Indian ambassador and sang Indian songs. She then appeared as Queen Sudarshana in Rabindranath Tagore’s The King Of The Dark Chamber (1961) and won the Off-Broadway Critics’ Award for Best Actress. She had an acquaintance with the great Alfred Hitchcock. She also took the role of Princess Chitra in the dance production of Tagore’s Chitra for CBS, and researched Indian stories for Alfred Hitchcock.
- Journey to London
In 1965, Surya travelled to London, and her life changed again. Scheduled to play the Goddess Kali in Kindly Monkeys, a new play at the Arts Theatre, she decided at the end of the run to stay on and found India Performing Arts, a project to train performers and mount productions. Annual performances by Surya herself, her students and fellow artists followed at the Purcell Room, in the South Bank Centre, for the next 40 years.
She established ‘India Performing Arts’ at Kensington, England, to train the English in Indian performing arts.
Quennching the thirst of aestesism with Harold From 1973, Surya was supported in her work by her husband, Harold Elvin, poet, painter and potter, reading his poetry and telling his stories as she sang and played the tanpura and sitar.
Something of the flavour of these gatherings may be gained from the programmes for two events in 1982, with schoolchildren appearing alongside Ben Kingsley in Homage To Mahatma Gandhi, and Larry Adler’s harmonica improvisations (complemented by Surya’s instrumental accompaniment) in An Indian Pageant. Surya’s political commitments were engrained in all her work, whether as chief singer at the Gandhi centenary commemoration at St Paul’s cathedral in 1969, or with the Hordaland Teater of Bergen, for children in Norway, with whom she worked from 1991 to 1998. He predeceased her. Tanguturi Suryakumari, a singer, actor and dancer, died on 25 April 2005.