Lata Mangeshkar - Portrait used as publicity material. Early 1960s.
Little Lata, came home after watching K.L. Saigal’s ‘Chandidas’ directed by Nitin Bose and declared that she would marry Saigal Saab when she grew up. Here begins, Hindi filmdom’s most enduring love story. Between Lata Mangeshkar and Hindi film music. A story of passion, commitment and sincerity. A story that has taken on the awesome dimensions of a legend. A story that has charmed and enchanted millions over the world for more than five decades.
Probably no other single person is recognized as the largest contributor to film music. No one else is synonymous with the power and magic of Hindi film music. Whose mesmeric reign continues to amaze critics and devotees alike.
Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar could little have predicted that the eldest of his offspring would be named ‘The Nightingale of India’ ‘The undisputed and indispensable queen of India’s playback singing’ as Time magazine avers. ‘The Living Legend’ ‘The Phenomenon’ … .
When seven year old Lata played Narad, to her father’s Arjun, despite his protests that he was so much older, already she was showing signs of maturity and sobriety that would remain her trademark characteristics, when she said “Don’t worry Baba, I’ll manage. I’m not your daughter for nothing”.
On that momentous evening in Sholapur, little Lata brought the home down with her acting and singing. Glimpses of brilliance that would light up celluloid like a meteor. Despite detesting acting, Lata played several cameo parts in Hindi and Marathi films including Pahili Mangalagaur(1942), Maze Baal (1943), Badi Maa (1945), Subhadra (1946), Chimukla Sansar (1943),Gajabhau (1944), Jeevan Yatra (1946), Mand (1948), and Chhatrapati Shivaji (1952).
Domestic responsibilities compelled Lata to act, after her father’s untimely death. In her first filmPahili Mangalagaur, she played actress Snehprabha Pradhan’s sister. In Badi Maa, starring Noor Jehan, Lata acted, sang for herself and for younger sister Asha. Financial hardships, her own artistic struggles notwithstanding. Lata has never lost sight of the priceless value of humility and hardwork. As her father and guru had impressed on her ‘Never be carried away by your success. The artiste should always be humble’. This lesson has stayed with Lata throughout her life. From the time she was a nervous novice in search of work to now when she is the singing empress of music.
It is this humility and prayer – like sincerity that Lata brings to her singing. For her music is a blessing from God, and song is the voice of divinity. And so when sentiments overwhelm her, she never restrains herself. She wholeheartedly throws herself into every song, opening up the inner meaning of the lyric, building a bridge to that musical godhead. And yet this phenomenal talent, this divine benediction has never clouded her balanced, mature temperament. Arrogance is said to be the ruin of genius. But not this genius, as Waheeda Rehman so rightly points out – ‘Lataji never thinks of herself as THE Lata Mangeshkar. She has always done her job to the best of her abilities and then never look back.’ Never rested on her laurels. Never basked in the glory. If anything, this slight, shy lady has been profoundly embarrassed by the praise and worship that surrounds her.
And so through five decades, through several renowned composes, lyricists, co-artistes and stars, Lataji reigns as the savior of Hindi playback. From Sajjad Hussain to Anil Biswas, Naushad, S.D. Burman to R.D. Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal to Vishal Bharadwaj, the Lata Mangeshkar factor has remained the key, to success, popularity and posterity.
Thirteen years old, and Lata was already setting unrelenting standards for herself. She recorded her first song for Vasant Joglekar’s Kiti Hasaal. Pt. Dinanath was not too pleased with his daughter’s decision to sing for Hindi films. The song was finally dropped from the film, much to her relief. Later Joglekar said ‘She has tremendous self-confidence. She is also an introvert. That’s why she is not proud. But she reveals her pride in singing’.
Lata Mangeshkar - At home in Prabhu Kunj, Peddar Road, Bombay, 1962.
And perhaps it is this ‘pride’ that prompted Majrooh Saab to say “It isn’t as though she always got great lines to sing. She was given the same standard of lyrics as others. It is the magic of her voice that elevates the songs that she sang’. ‘Magic in her voice’, the ‘pride in her singing’ has elicited comment and admiration from her numerous friends, admirers and colleagues.
It was during her struggling days that Lataji met Kishore Kumar. Kishore da recollects the amusing circumstances in which he met the pint – sized phenomenon. Lata was on her way to meet Khemchand Prakash for whom she later sang ‘Aayega aanewala’. When the conservative Lata saw a strange man going to the same place as her, she presumed the worst. Little knowing that their destinies would be intertwined and remembered in the many duets they sang together.
1949, was the breakthrough year for Lataji. Four years earlier composing veteran Ghulam Haider from Sind had accompanied the young Lata, to meet a leading producer in the hope that she would be given a song in the forthcoming film starring Kamini Kaushal.
The tone-deaf producer rejected the eager, nervous aspirant’s voice as too thin and soft. The outraged Haider, who had earlier discovered Noor Jehan, prophesied ‘Let me foretell today that this girl will soon put to shade everyone else including Noor Jehan. Producers and singers will fall at her feet, begging her to sing in their films’.
And so it was to be. In the year 1949, a phenomenon erupted and one after another hits followed – ‘Uthaye ja unke sitam, Aayega aanewala, Baharen phir bhi ayengi, Chale jana nahin and Jiya beqaraar hai’. Songs that set the path for Lata’s sublime musical odyssey. Noor Jehan whose singing style influenced Lataji’s early numbers has no hesitation in saluting the art of Lata Mangeshkar. Noor Jehan states ‘People say Lataji considers me a phenomenon. I say that’s her humility. Lataji is Lataji. No singer, like her has ever been born’.
Generous words and an unflinchingly honest evaluation of a music phenomenon who swept all competition out of sight.
Tuning maestro Sajjad Hussain says, preceding Lata’s renditions of ‘Ae Dilruba’ where she imitates perfectly the stretched quavering notes of Middle Eastern or distinctly Islamic music; ‘The most important aspect of a song is ‘sur’. Without it the purpose of music is defeated. To date I haven’t heard anyone as melodious as her’.
Latajis ‘sur stirtha’ or amazing mastery over pitch and scale, led even great maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to exclaim ‘But she never sings off key!’
Unstinting tributes, warm gushing admiration is what Lata provokes in most people. Nargis compares Lataji’s singing to divine worship, ‘Lata doesn’t merit compliments but veneration. Listening to her voice, a spell is cast that’s hard to describe. It’s as though on visiting a place of worship one’s head is bowed in reverence and tears begin to flow freely from the eyes’
‘As long as there’s Lata I’m safe’ the exacting, perfectionist Sachin Dev Burman is said to have exclaimed, when he heard that musicians intended to strike, threatening to paralyze all recording activity. Sachin da was not the only composer of his generation to have felt safe in Lataji’s hands. Naushad, C. Ramchandra and Madan Mohan, gave their unconditional best to create musical miracles to match the perfection of Lataji.
Some of the finest compositions that Lataji has sung in her incredibly long and successful reign, were composed by Madan Mohan. This special relationship between Lata and her Madan bhaiyahas left us a legacy to cherish including songs like ‘Bairan neend na aaye’, ‘Aap ki nazron ne samjha’ ‘Zara si aahat’ ‘Sapnon mein agar mere’
Such a wonderful understanding between two talented minds, provoked O.P Nayyar to comment in an interview in Dubai in 1992, ‘I don’t know whether Madan Mohan was created for Lata or Lata for Madan Mohan. But there has never been a composer like Madan Mohan nor has there been a singer like Lata’.
Lata’s dedication and unrelenting humility ensured that the rapport between her and the music director enriched every song that she sang. Even Salil Chowdhury saw no use for other female vocalists. ‘Practically all my songs have been sung by Lata. I’ve rarely felt the need to turn to someone else. Lata is a trained singer and so versatile. She can sing anything from classical to semi-classical, even frothy songs. Lata is a phenomenon. She is one of a kind’.
When Naushad composed ‘Mohe panghat pe’, he called aside Lata and said ‘ I’ve created this tune only because you’re going to render the song. Who else but you can do justice to this composition’.
Said the composer of such memorabilia as ‘pyar kiya to darna kya’ and ‘uthaye ja unke sitam’ ‘Whenver ….. she left her chappal outside the recording room, everyone passed by the door of our studio as though it was a doorway to a temple of Goddess Saraswati’.
Veteran composer Anil Biswas hit the nail on the head when he said ‘Lata was a godsend to us composers. With her around there was absolutely no limitation placed on our range. Such was her vocal artistry that we could explore the most complex reaches of composition in the knowledge and confidence that she could take it all in her stride’.
As Khaiyyam says ‘Everywhere in India and abroad she created magic. After that every heroine, film director or music composer wanted only Lata to sing. And Master Ghulam Haider’s prophecy that she’d touch the heights of the skies came true’.
Generations of composers, heroines and film makers have looked up to Lata Mangeshkar as their source of inspiration. Raj Kapoor regarded Lataji as a re-incarnation of Goddess Saraswati. He made an entire film ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ on her incredible vocal skills. Films have sold on the strength of her vocals and gone on to become history.
Lata has reigned through father and son composing teams. A rare honor for a rare artiste. Sardar Malik and Anu Malik, Roshan and Rajesh Roshan, S.D. Burman and R.D. Burman. Chitragupta and Anand Milind.
Co-artistes have been kept on their feet by the small wonder. Duets with Lata were always a healthy competition between colleagues. Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore, Manna da would be amazed by the sudden last minute improvisations in the final take. Improvisations that took the song beyond the stipulations of the composition into the realm of eternity. This unpredictability, this heightened anticipation gave that added edge to scores of duets sung with other Legends. Much of this friendly rivalry was indulged in by Lataji with another formidable artiste Mohd. Rafi. Workaholic, perfectionist, master technician, brilliantly versatile Rafi matched her ‘Gayaki’ note for note. And yet, sometimes she took even this breath away.
Perhaps it is this unpredictability that enhances Lataji’s genius as she continues to pit her talents against younger co artistes, always managing to either steal the entire show or making that little extra impact.
Much has been said of the Mangeshkar monopoly. The statement deserves closer evaluation. Augmenting her sincerity and hard work is Lataji’s incredible versatility. Obviously the key to her enduring success.
From bhajan to balmy love song – ‘Allah tero naam’ to ‘Sapnon mein agar’ from classical composition to cabaret ‘Rasik balma’ to ‘Aa jaane jan’ Lataji is able to artfully capture the mood and imagery of the song. Her versatility is linked to her intrinsic sensitivity as this anecdote proves. Bimal Roy once persuaded Salil da to sing a complex Bengali song. Salil da obliged and was alarmed to find that young Lata had fainted. She confessed ‘while listening to the song, I was so overcome. I couldn’t control myself’.
Moving sentiment is the hallmark of every Lata song. From C. Ramchandra’s ‘Katate hain dukh mein’, ‘Dheere se aaja ri ankhiyan mein’ Salil Chowdhury’s ‘O sajana barkha bahar aayi’, ‘Raaton ke saaye ghane’ ‘Aaja re pardesi’, Hemant Kumar’s ‘Man dole mera tan dole’ ‘Kahin deep jale kahin dil’ ‘O beqaraar dil’ Roshan’s ‘Jurm-e-ulfat’ ‘Rahen na rahen hum’ Khaiyyam’s ‘Baharoun mera jeevan bu sanwaro’ ‘Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein’. Every song seems to well out fom the unfathomed depths of the soul of the Nightingale. It is her ability to reach deep inside the lyric, to probe the nuances of mood, so skillfully balance changing cadences that makes her so much in demand.
Waheeda Rehman says Lataji sings for every heroine as that heroine would sing and not just as Lata would. Who else could match the nimble ebullience of wondrous Waheeda in ‘Aaj phir jeene ki’. Nargis declared she never required glycerine to emote for Lataji’s songs. How else can heartwrenching love be better articulated than in ‘Rasik Balma’. Madhubala insisted that Lataji playback for her songs. After all, ‘Aayega aanewala’ immortalized the magical Madhubala onscreen charisma, remaining to date the most requested number in Lataji’s concerts.
Mumtaz’s shokh ada and petulance is brilliantly brought alive in ‘Bindiya Chamkegi’ by Laxmikant Pyarelal and Saira Bano’s nawabi nakhra artfully captured in ‘Who hain zara khafa khafa’ again by Laxmikant Pyarelal.
Jaya Bachchan comments that heroines felt they were successful only when Lata gave vocals for them, and she should know, blessed as she is with the many hits that Lataji created. There is ‘Raaton ke saaye ghane’ and the sensuous ‘Baahon mein chale aao’ from Anamika by Rahul Dev Burman and then the sublime near surreal ‘Nadiya kinare’ from Abhimaan, filled with the tranquility of morning light and fresh dew.
Even Madhuri Dixit designates her as goddess ‘Girls half her age can’t sing like that. Incredible! I just couldn’t match her coy ‘adas’ in Didi tera devar deewana.’ Two years after the Didi tera devar mania, at sixty-eight Lataji lends supple sensuous vocals to Madhuri in Dil to Pagal Hai.
Trends have changed, technology has come to play a crucial part and yet over the past decade, the mega hits have remained with Lataji. So who can accuse young music directors like Jatin Lalit, Anand Milind, Vishal Bharadwaj and Uttam Singh when they flock to her and clamour for her participation in their personal success.
As Lataji’s voice has matured and mellowed, her style has remained distinct. Lata clones proliferate but when the original grows richer and sweeter with age who wants imitations?. For somebody who started by imitating Noor Jehan’s style, Lataji has brought film playback a long way and played a definitive role in delineating the epitome of feminine expression.
Her silvery, sweet dulcet tones represent the magic, mystique and feminine aura of our screen goddesses. From Nargis to Kajol. Tastes have changed, stereotypes have changed, feminine role models have changed. But the charm of Lataji’s voice has remained so enigmatically constant it is little short of a miracle. Lataji’s own spontaneity perhaps plays a role in her constant improvisation. Lataji’s easy sense of humor among close friends is a little known secret. As is her famed banter and jokes in the recording room. Perhaps Lataji retains the child in her. Hidden behind her glasses, her austere white sarees, her long disciplined tresses, is a giggly girl who revels in warm family moments, games and playful interludes with young nephews and nieces.
True creativity can never be contained. It often spills over into another art. Lataji is a much respected non-film performer. By her own admission, she finds her non-film compositions more challenging that her film songs. No Lata devotee can forget, that mesmeric album of Meera Bhajans, composed by her talented brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar. Then, there was her successful pairing with Jagjit Singh, the honey voiced pioneer of the modern ghazal in Ghazaldom’s best selling album ‘Sajda’.
Who can forget ‘Ae mere wattan ke logo’, that haunting tribute to jawans who died for their motherland. Composed by C. Ramchandra, it brought tears to the eyes of Panditji. Compelling, moving, in this the 50th year of our Independence it serves to reminds us of those sacrifices that wrought us freedom. Lataji declared that her patriotic songs are so deeply moving, because she truly loves her country and through her music is willing to do anything for her Motherland.
True talent never goes unrecognized and that has been true of Lataji. Recipient of four filmfare awards, the Padma Bhushan in 1989, a mention in the Guiness Book of World Records, and the only Asian to have received the Platinum Disc of EMI London, Lataji personifies the complete artiste.
Relentless in her quest for perfection, effacingly humble, publicity shy and simple, and doggedly diligent. At a public function she said ‘I believe in past deeds and reincarnation. The fact that all of you have come here and showered me with your best wishes and given me the feeling of fulfillment, what else can it be but the fruits of my past birth? Disregarding differences of caste, region, religion, people have always welcomed me with great love. They’ve showered boundless affection on me for the past so many years. Can I ever forget this?
And so I salute the real ‘Legend’ The inspiration for film music. A beacon of hope, courage and endurance. A shining light of perseverance. After listening to Lata we know what Yash Chopra means when he says ‘Usually it is an artiste who follows art. But in Lata’s case, it’s the art that has followed her’ – Subhash K . Jha (Legends – Lata Mangeshkar – The Nightingale)