Kaur made her professional debut with a live performance on Lahore Radio in August 1943, and the following year on August 31, 1943, she and her elder sister, Parkash Kaur cut their first duet, Maavan Te Dheeyan Ral Baithiyaan for the HMV label, emerging as superstars across the Indian subcontinent.
Following Punjab’s 1947 owing to partition of India, Kaur and her parents relocated to Ghaziabad, Delhi, next she married Prof. Joginder Singh Sodhi, a lecturer in Punjabi literature at Delhi University. Recognising her talent, her husband became her support system, and soon she started a career as a playback singer in Hindi film industry in Bombay, introduced by music director, Ghulam Haider. Under him she sang threr songs in the 1948 film Shaheed , including Badnam Na Ho Jaye Mohabbat Ka Fasaana, Aanaa hai tho aajaao and Taqdeer ki aandhi…hum kahaan aur thum kahaan. Her true interest however lay in stage performances and reviving Punjabi folk songs, and she eventually moved back to Delhi in 1952.
In the decades to follow, her husband continued to guide her singing career. “He was the one who made me a star,” she later recalled. “He chose all the lyrics I sang and we both collaborated on compositions.” Together Kaur and Sodhi wrote such classics as “Chan Kithe Guzari Aai Raat,” “Lathe Di Chadar,” “Shonkan Mele Di,” and “Gori Diyan Jhanjran”, “Sarke-Sarke Jandiye Mutiare”. The couple they also served as the public face of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), an arm of the Indian Communist party in Punjab, spreading messages of peace and love to the most remote villages of East Punjab; she also travelled to many parts of the world performing Punjabi folk songs, gaining rapid popularity.
In all Kaur recorded more than 2,000 songs, among them duets with Asa Singh Mastana, Harcharan Grewel, Rangilla Jatt, and Didar Sandhu. Although her life and collaboration with Sodhi was cut short upon the educator’s death in 1975, she continued the family’s creative tradition via duets with their daughter and disciples, Rupinder Kaur Guleria, better known as Dolly Guleria and granddaughter Sunaina, culminating in the 1995 LP, ‘Surinder Kaur – The Three Generations .
She was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Punjabi Folk Music in 1984, by the Sangeet Natak Academi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance and Theatre, the Millennium Punjabi Singer award, and Padma Shri award in 2006 for her contribution in Arts. The Guru Nanak Dev University conferred on her a doctorate in the year 2002
Towards the later part of her life, wanting to get close to her mitti, Surinder Kaur settled in Panchkula in 2004, with an aim to construct a house in Zirakpur, near Chandigarh. Subsequently, on 22 December 2005, she suffered a heart attack and was admitted to General Hospital, Panchkula. Later, however, she looked up and personally went to Delhi to receive the coveted Padma Shri Award in January 2006. It is another matter that she was painfully aware of the events that delayed the honour for so long, despite her unparalleled contribution to Punjabi music. But even when she received the award she was regretful that the nomination for the same had come from Haryana and not Punjab for which she worked tirelessly through five decades.
In 2006, a prolonged illness prompted Kaur to seek treatment in the U.S. she died in a New Jersey hospital on June 15 at the age of 77. She was survived by three daughters, eldest, singer Dolly Guleria who lives in Panchkula, followed by Nandini Singh and Pramodini Jaggi, both settled in New Jersey. Upon the death, the Prime minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh described her as “the nightingale of Punjab”, and “a legend in Punjabi folk music and popular music and a trend-setter in Punjabi melody.” and added, “I hope that her immortal voice will motivate other artists to practice the right Punjabi folk music tradition”.