Lata Mangeshkar: Growing Up In The Invisible Presence Of Melody Personified

Lata Ji is no more. The whole nation is mourning cutting across the barriers of religion, region, language, caste, gender and political affiliations. How many personalities do we have who enjoy such nationwide warmth, love, respect, adoration and emotional connect? I wish we had many! This would be a much more peaceful, harmonious, loving, caring and sharing world.

Many of us have grown with the invisible presence of her melodious voice in our lives. She has sung songs for all occasions and for all age groups, in all possible genres, expressing our emotions and sentiments, which we could not. Recently, at an Indian Idol episode, Iconic Rekh confessed that she managed to express her emotions and sentiments in Silsila film’s song: Yeh kahan a gaye hum yoonhi sath sath chalte by following the manner Lataji sang that line. Sharmila Tagore for whom Lata had sung many songs also mentioned on a TV channel that Lata’s rendition of songs made it easier for actors to perform on them.  

Long ago, when we had no colour TV, face book, internet, Instagram, twitter, YouTube or smart phones, Lata’s voice could still reach millions of hearts all over India even in small remote hamlets. In mid 1950s, in our village, sapreas (snake charmers) will take out a black king Cobra and play on their bin Lata’s immortal song: mera man dole, mera tan dole, mere dil ka gaya qarar re, kaun bajai bansuriya? If we bear in our minds the  communication constraints of that time, Lata’s this song of film Nagin with music by Hemant Kumar will go down in the Bollywood  history as arguably the most popular song of all times. Two other Lata songs which were hit on the Nautanki circuit in1950s were: jara samane to ao chhaliye ,chhup, chhup chhalane ka  kya raj hai ,chhup na sakega parmatma ,meri atma ke yehi awaj hai and chhup  gaya koi re dur se pukar ke, darad anokhe hai de gaya pyar ke.

In late 1950s and 60s the popularity of a song was judged by the frequency by which a songs was played on Band Baja aur Barat and lata’s voice ruled supreme. When Mother India turned a blockbuster, it is song: nagari nagari, dware dware, dundhun re saawariya piya, piya ratate ratate ho gayi re baawariya in Lata’s voice picturised on Nargis was heard at every wedding party. In those days, Lataji’s two songs from Meena Kumar’s film Aarti were also a huge hit: bar bar tohe kya samjhaye payal ki jhankar, tere bin sajan lage na jiyara hamar and kabhi to milegi, kahin to milegi baharon ki manzil rahi.

Lata who began singing at the tender age of 5 was initially trained by her father Dinanath Mangeshkar who was a known singer of Gwalior Ghrana. She was also tutored by two maestros: Aman Ali Khan Sahib and Amanat Khan. Though her first song at 13 years of age for Vasant Joglekar’s Marathi film Kiti Hasaal wasn’t very successful, her song in Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal : Ayega  Ayega ,Anewala Ayega picturized on Madhubala became an instant chart buster. This song catapulted Lata on the scene of Hindi film playback singing, which was dominated by Shamshaad Beghum, Mubarak Beghum & Noor Jehan .Soon; she created a distinct niche for herself.

Lata was blessed with uniquely melodious voice but she honed it with rigorous training in ragas and hours of riyaz. She also attained Mastery on Urdu diction with the help of a Maulana. Her ability to do justice to Indian classical ragas was applauded by Legendary Classical singers like Ustad Baer Ghulam Ali, Pt. Bhinsen Joshi & Pt.Jasraj. Some of Lata’s classical /semi-classical songs are timeless: Rasik Balama, Piya tose naina lage re, Bahiyan na dharo balama, Naina barase, rimzim rimzim.

Lata’s versatility and repertoire was matchless. In K Asif’s masterpiece Mughal e Azam, under the baton of Ustad Naushad Ali, she sang three unforgettable songs conveying very different sentiments and feelings: In Mohe panaghat pe Nandlal chhed gayo re picturised on ravishingly beautiful Madhubala, it is the classical and folk base, which enchants the listeners. In the song: Pyar kiya to darana kya; It is the daring, rebellious spirit that sparks out from every line Anarkali sings before Emperor Akbar. And the third song: Beqas  Pe Karam Kijiye, Sakaar e Madina drips with pathos, melancholy ,helplessness and fervent prayer for help that moves millions of hearts.

Besides, Ashok Kumar, Lata gave memorable songs in films of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor & Dev Anand. Besides, Mughal e Azam, Lata gave several hummable songs in Dilp starrer Madhumati like: aaja re pardeshi. Dilip had introduced Lata to the audience at her first concert at London’s famous Royal Albert hall and treated her as his sister who considered him as her Rakhibandh bhai.

For years, Lata in white saree, like the Showman’s heroines was almost a permanent feature in RK films and sang inimitable songs, which have appealed to different generations. Ghar aya mera perdeshi in awara, Jago mohan payre Jago in Jagte Raho, O Jaanewale in Sri 420, Raja Ki Ayegi Baraat in Aah, remain etched on our memory screens.

Evergreen, Dev Anand gave Lata to sing some of the best songs of her long career. Kaanto se khinch key yeh anchal pictured on Dev & Wheeda Rehman in Guide bursts with infectious exuberance expressing freedom from social shackles. Rula Ke Gaya Sapana Mera in Jewel Thief conveys suffocating longing. But her Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam in Hum Dono is soaked in philosophical mysticism.

Lata’s songs: Ruk ja raat, thahar ja re Chanda (Dil Ek Mandir Hai) and the title song of Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai & Ajib dastan hai yeh contributed to the success of Raaj Kumar’s films.

A number of films of Dharam, Rajesh & Amitabh rode on the popularity of Lata’s songs. The first song of Gulzar’s filmi career for Bimal Roy’s Bandini featuring Dharam & Nutan: mora gora rang lai le, mohi shyam rang dai de emantes innocence and longing for the lover. In Mamata, which paired Dharam & Suchitra Sen, Lata’s duet with Rafi is a gem of a song: rahe na rehe hum mehaka karenge; it reflects undying optimism.

Rajesh Khanna’s  Aradhan had some of Kishore’s best songs but it also had Lata’s voice in Kora Kagaz tha yeh man mera and Chanda hai tu, mera suraj hai tu. In Amar Prem raiana biti jaye, Shyam na aye, in classical ragas, Lata pours the pathos of a lonely heart. In Kaka’s Kamoshi, Gulzar’s words and Lata’s voice created an ethereal fragrance which envelopes us all: Humane delkhi hai un ankhon ki mehakati khushoo, pyar ko pyar hi rahane do, koi naam na do.

In Amitabh-Jaya starrer Abhimaan, Lata gave a touching duet with Kishore: tere mere Milan ki yeh raina.

Even the films of the three khans: Salman, Shahrukh & Aamir benefited a lot from Lataji’s songs.  Didi tera devar diwana from Salman’s film Hum Aapke Haein Kaun and songs from Maine Pyar kiya and Jab Pyar kisi se hota hai sung by Lata in mostly in duet were a rage for the young generation.  

Several of Shah Rukh Khan’s films: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil to Pagal Hai, Dil Se, Veer-Zara, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi gham had chart-bursting songs sung by Lata. According to Javed Akhtar, Lata used to touch the sub text of the lyric while singing; she will bring out those sentiments and emotions which the songs was trying to covey rather than what the words said; her song from Veer Zara: tere liye, hum hien jiye and Jiya Jale from Dil Se vindicated this phenomenon.

Lata contributed to the success of Aamir Khan’s Lagaan (O Paalanhaare) & Rang De Basanti (Luka Chuppi) with her songs. She gifted a watch to Aamir after admiring his singing in the song Aati kya khandala.

The most amazing feature of Lata’s 70-year long singing career was her ability to sing for heroines of different eras separated by decades; she has sung for from Madhubala, Meean Kumari, Nargis & Waheeda Rehman to Twinkle Khanna & Soha Ali Khan! She sang for Sobhana Samarth but also for Nutan, Tanuja & Kajol! Besides singing for Raj Kapoor’s films, she sang for his son Rishi in Bobby: Hum Tum Ek Kamre mein Band hon, aur chabi kho Jaye which became an overnight hit.

Lata who is credited to have sung 30,000 songs in 36 languages. Not only with  Mohd Rafi, Mukesh, Manna De & Talat  & Suresh Wadekar ,& Dr Subramaniam ,Lata also sang  duets with much junior singers like Kumar Sanoo, Udit Narain, Sonu .Her duet in Sri 420 (Pyar hua Iqrar hua) and Kabi Kabhi mere dil mein khayal ata hai in the film Kabhi Kabhi are unforgettable.

She avoided scrupulously singing songs for cabret scenes and song, which presented obscenity .Yet, her song: Aa Jaane Jaan in film Intaqam oozed tons of oomph.

When she had a tiff with SD Burman, Raj Kapoor and Mohd Rafi, she would just stop singing with them. After several years of hiatus, when she made up with Raj Kaoor, she sang: Satyam Shivam Sudaram & Radha kyu gori mein kyon kala dipped in classical ragas and devotional fervour.    

In 1989 Lataji came to London for her major concert, which had some connection with Nehru Centenary celebrations. So, as the Minister (Press, Info & Culture) I organized and an hour-long press conference at the India House for Lata Mangeshkar.  She answered all the questions in her soft, unassuming manner without throwing any tantrums, which many celebrities often do. After the press conference, she sat with me for an half an hour-long interview in which I asked her 10 questions in Hindi touching various aspects of her long journey .She expressed her reverence for Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, respect and fondness for Ghazal Maestro Mehdi Hassan and great admiration for Noor Jehan. She also mentioned Raj Singh Dungarpur as a friend who always stood by her.

Her love for cricket is well-known .Her efforts to raise funds for the cricketers after 1983 World Cup victory was commendable. She also assisted in raising funds for Bangladesh.

Without the paraphernalia of a head of state, and without the ICBMs and jet fighters at her command, this frail Singing genius commanded so much of respect, love, affection and admiration. How? Why? Is not there a message for the political classes in India? 

I would tweak Ghalib’s lines a bit and say:

Hain aur bhi duniya mein gulukar bahut achchhe,

magar Lata Mangeshkar ki gulukari ka andaz e bayaan aur!

My favourite six from Lata’s treasure are:

Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon; Lag Ja gale ki phir kabhi; Tum Na jane kis jehan mein; Allah Tero Naam; Thare rahio o banke yaar; Piya tose naina.

Surendra Kumar is a former ambassador of India.

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