Lata Mangeshkar: Lingering melody

Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022) enthralled music lovers across eras and leaves behind a treasure trove of songs that will resonate with generations to come.

Published : Mar 05, 2022 06:00 IST

January 16, 1994:  Rendering the theme song of the National Games’ opening ceremony in Pune.

January 16, 1994: Rendering the theme song of the National Games’ opening ceremony in Pune.

Nawab Shariq lived in Matia Mahal, a few steps from the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi. His luxurious, old-world lifestyle, with its niceties, made him the object of much admiration, and not a little curiosity, in the 1970s. Back in 1972, day and night he would listen to the song ‘Mausam hai ashiqana’ and hum along with the lines: ‘Din ho gaye hain zaalim, raatein hain qaatilana.’ Every Thursday, the much-pampered nawab would get into his tonga (horse carriage), which would take him from the carpeted streets of Matia Mahal, named after a Mughal princess, to Jagat cinema, a few hundred metres down the road, which screened Kamal Amrohi’s masterpiece, Pakeezah . At the cinema, he would alight from the tonga and walk into the box section, making sure not to make eye contact with other filmgoers at the hall. The women of his family followed in his trail to watch the film in the privacy of the small family box at the cinema. The nawab, though, never watched the complete film. He had fallen in love with Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Mausam hai aashiqana’. When she sang, his heart missed a beat and his mind wandered elsewhere. Once the song was over, the nawab would leave the hall, only to come back the next Thursday, at the same time, for the same show and the same film. Such were the eccentricities of the nawab and such was the unalloyed delight of listening to Lata Mangeshkar rendering a song about the season of love.

As for Pakeezah , it had songs and songlets to warm the hearts of all. It was the last film of the music director Ghulam Mohammed, who passed away in 1968 in abject penury, four years before the film’s release in 1972. Naushad, the mercurial genius, stepped in to provide the background score and insisted that three of the songs, including ‘Mausam hai aashiqana’, needed reinventing by him, which practically made them his tunes.

The film had commenced in 1956, but a combination of erratic financing, lopsided shooting schedules, the director’s personal problems and the deteriorating health of Meena Kumari, the female lead, delayed it inordinately before everyone involved pooled their energies in 1968 to revive the project. Much of the film had to be reshot for freshness and some songs needed reinventing to go with the colour film technology in vogue by then. Even Meena Kumari’s famous “Aapke paon dekhe” sequence and the songs ‘Chalo dildar chalo’ and ‘Teere nazar dekhenge’ had to be enacted by Padma Khanna, a body double, as the heroine had fallen seriously ill.

What remained fresh and untouched was the magic of Lata Mangeshkar. Pakeezah , but for the involvement of Mohammed Rafi in ‘Chalo dildar chalo’, was Lata’s baby—beautiful, melodious, soothing.

First success

Incidentally, a little more than two decades before Pakeezah , in 1949, Kamal Amrohi gave Lata Mangeshkar her first taste of success with Mahal , a film better remembered for the magic of the music director Khemchand Prakash and Lata’s timeless song ‘Aayega aanewala’, her first genuine hit in the film industry. Back then, the technology for film song recording was at best elementary—songs were sung directly for the film when it was being shot. For ‘Aayega aanewala’, Lata Mangeshkar sang at Prakash Studios in Bombay while the film’s heroine Madhubala waited outside. The song had a long antara that went ‘Aayega…aayega’. For this portion, Lata stood well behind the microphone. As she sang the couplet, she took small steps towards the microphone to give listeners the impression of a voice coming from a distance. In the early stages of her career, Khemchand Prakash, along with Anil Biswas, was among the few music directors who showed confidence in her.

In that song, Lata Mangeshkar got the pronunciation of a difficult Urdu word, ‘baghair’ (without), just right. This perfection came from her training under a maulvi at home to improve her Urdu diction. The maulvi was a well-read man. Even as he taught her the Urdu alphabet, he introduced her to the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, Mohammed Zauq and Mir Taqi Mir. Not out of her teens yet, Lata Mangeshkar devoured the best of Urdu poetry, understood the nuances of each word and went on to prove wrong all the doubting Thomases who thought a Marathi girl’s Urdu diction could not be flawless. As for Khemchand Prakash, the song became his passport to lasting fame, although his royalty dues of some Rs.50 lakh remained unpaid for long.

With Lata Mangeshkar, each song became an occasion. Lyricists and music directors longed to work with her, and many writers even tweaked their script to accommodate a song by her. For instance, Gulzar’s Khamoshi in 1969, for which he penned the dialogue and lyrics. The film had an unforgettable song, ‘Humne dekhi hai in ankhon ki mahakti khushboo’, sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Initially, she was not supposed to sing the song as the music director Hemant Kumar wanted a male artist to sing it in praise of his lady love. “How can a man’s eyes radiate ‘mahakti khushboo’?” Hemant Kumar argued. The song was all about a woman’s beauty, her eyes, her whispering silences. Gulzar, though, wanted no one else but Lata Mangeshkar to sing it. So, he came up with an idea: the female actor would sing it on radio and the song would be picturised in a recording studio. Such were the lengths Gulzar went to so that Lata Mangeshkar would sing the song he had penned with much love. It was also the song he would later hum to his real-life lady love, Raakhee Gulzar.

Incidentally, Lata Mangeshkar made a significant contribution to Gulzar’s career in the early days. She had sung his first song, ‘Mora gora ang laile’, in Bimal Roy’s Bandini in 1963. He took five days to write the song, but the film’s music director, S.D. Burman, prevented him from reciting it to Bimal Roy because he thought Gulzar’s diction would ruin it. (Gulzar was a struggling poet then, having begun his career working in a garage). Bimal Roy liked the lyrics and Nutan sang it on screen, while Lata Mangeshkar’s singing immortalised it.

There was this inscrutable joy that Lata Mangeshkar brought to singing. In Mehboob Khan’s 1949 film Andaz , starring Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Nargis, she brought the house down with her rendition of Naushad’s ‘Uthhaye ja unke sitam’ based on the raga Kedar. Three years later, in Baiju Bawra , a showcase of Mohammed Rafi’s versatile genius, she managed to leave her own indelible impression with ‘Bachpan ki mohabbat ko dil se na juda karna’, based on the raga Maand. Incidentally, she recorded the duet ‘Tu Ganga ki mauj’ with Rafi even while running a high temperature.

Lata Mangeshkar really came into her own under Naushad’s baton in K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam in 1960. In ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’ and ‘Mohabbat ki jhoothi kahani pe roye’, both based on the raga Darbari, and ‘Mohe panghat pe Nandlal chhed gayo re’, based on the raga Gaara, she proved that no one was her equal when it came to classicism. In retrospect, her songs under C. Ramchandra’s baton in Anarkali (1953), with beauties such as ‘Mujhse mat pooch’ and ‘Aaja ab toh aaja’, the latter based on Marathi bhavgeet, were just a dress rehearsal for Mughal-e-Azam , a film like no other in the annals of Hindi cinema. The film has an underappreciated Lata gem, ‘Ae ishq ye sab duniyawale’, which was faintly reminiscent of Talat Mahmood’s ‘Mohabbat hi jo na samjhe woh zalim pyar kya jaane’ in V. Shantaram’s Parchhain (1952).

Incidentally, Naushad was not K. Asif’s first choice for the film. The director had initially signed Pandit Govindram, then changed his mind, opting for Ghulam Hyder, before choosing Anil Biswas for the film. But he did not stick with even Anil Biswas, a freedom fighter who gave us ‘Door hato ae duniyawalon, Hindustan hamara hai’. (Lata Mangeshkar sang at least a hundred solos for him in her career.)

As legend has it, one evening, as Naushad was busy honing his skills on the harmonium at home, K. Asif entered his room and virtually demanded that he compose the score for Mughal-e-Azam . When Naushad paid no attention, he threw a wad of notes in front of him. The skilful music director would have none of it, and a gust of wind blew the notes away. Naushad was ultimately persuaded by his wife to do the film. And what a score it was.

Naushad matched Asif’s zeal for perfection, and Lata Mangeshkar gave him company every step of the way. For the love anthem ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’, Naushad used eight sitars, sitar and pakhawaj, and then asked Lata Mangeshkar to sing the song without any accompaniment. He recorded her voice on four different soundtracks, paying attention to details of distance from the microphone, proximity, hollowness, and so on, before transferring the four voices to the original soundtrack. The film originally had 20 songs, but half of them were dropped, including ‘Husn ki baraat chali’, a rare number where Lata Mangeshkar sang with Shamshad Begum and Mubarak Begum.

Mughal-e-Azam , a film whose prints arrived on the back of an elephant at the time of its release, rode its way into the hearts of Hindi film lovers, and Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’ remained easily the most defiant expression of love for all time to come, her vocal chords complementing Naushad’s music and Madhubala’s expressions.

Incidentally, though brilliant, this song was not her favourite from the film. That honour went to ‘Bekas par karam kijiye sarkar-e-Madina’, a difficult song based on the raga Kedar.

Each song an event

Every other song of Lata Mangeshkar became an event in itself. For instance, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India had a unique song, ‘Duniya mein hum aaye hain’, penned by Shakeel Badayuni. Naushad brought together the three Mangeshkar sisters, Lata, Meena Khadikar and Usha, for the song. In a career spanning seven decades, there were only a handful of songs that Lata Mangeshkar sang with her sisters. The Mother India song was a rare piece that united Meena, who tasted greater success in Marathi cinema than in Hindi cinema, with her more illustrious sister.

Except for Asha Bhosle, with whom she sang 92 duets, Lata Mangeshkar worked only occasionally with her sisters Meena and Usha and her brother, Hridaynath. She produced Lekin for which her brother composed the music. Both Lata and Hridyanath won National Awards for the song ‘Yaara seeli seeli’.

A few years ago, Meena Khadikar penned a memoir in Marathi that was released in Hindi as Didi Aur Main , with a translation by Ambarish Mishra. It was a tribute to the eldest sister whom she regarded more as a mother and a friend although Lata Mangeshkar was only two years older than her.

Life with Meena always moved on an even keel: as children the two sisters would sneak out to watch films such as Sant Tukaram and K.L. Saigal’s Devdas and then enact them at home, with Lata playing Devdas and Meena playing Paro. Both Usha and Asha were considered too young to play Chandramukhi.

Their father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, was a singer, stage actor and producer who ran his own theatre company. He had played the role of Latika, a free-spirited woman, in the play Bhav Bandhan . Legend has it that Lata Mangeshkar was named after that character. Another story goes that she was initially named Hridaya but called Lata by her father for a deeply personal reason. Dinanath had first married a woman named Narmada with whom he had a daughter named Lata. Neither Narmada nor Lata survived for long, and Dinanath married Narmada’s younger sister Shevanti. When Shevanti gave birth to their first child, the couple decided to call her Lata, a little after she was born.

To the dismay of Dinanath, who laid much stock by classical music, Lata Mangeshkar would often want to watch films and sing songs from them, her favourite being Saigal and his number ‘Ek bangala bane nyara’. One day, Dinanath heard her correcting one of his students. Lata was then only five or six. He then took her under his wing, and Lata started her early lessons, preferring to sing bandish (a melodic composition) but not paying as much attention to sargam (singing of notes). When she was only nine years old, she sang on stage for the first time. She was then travelling with her father’s theatre company. She sang the raga Khambavati and a couple of Marathi songs before falling asleep on her father’s lap on stage.

Early days

Dinanath passed away early, leaving behind five children, and Lata Mangeshkar at 12 was the eldest. She took on the responsibility of looking after her siblings even before her father’s pyre was lit. Soon, she started working in Marathi films and then came Hindi films. Though not keen on acting, she did work in eight films, beginning in 1942 with Pahili Mangalagaur . Then came her first Hindi song, ‘Hindustan ke logon ab to mujh ko pehchano’, in 1943 in Gajabhau , a Marathi film.

She continued her training in classical music, becoming a disciple of Ustad Aman Ali Khan Bhendibazaarwale. The first raga he taught her was Hamsadhwani, which came in handy a few years later when she sang ‘Jaa tose nahin bolun Kanhaiya’ with Manna Dey for the music director Salil Chowdhury in Parivar . It was based on Hamsadhwani, and Lata was able to hold her own before Manna Dey, widely regarded as the most proficient among playback singers with a classical music background.

Even as she continued to train, first under Ustad Aman Ali Khan and then under Ustad Amanat Khan Devaswale, Lata Mangeshkar’s career as a playback singer began to blossom. She worked with Master Ghulam Haider and then Khemchand Prakash, Ghulam Mohammed and soon the who’s who of film music, such as S.D. Burman, Shanker-Jaikishan, C. Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Hemant Kumar, Jaidev and Khayyam. The legendary Bade Ghulam Ali Khan once heard her song ‘Yeh zindagi usi ki hai’ from Anarkali and is known to have remarked: “Kambakht, kabhi besuri nahi hoti ” (The blessed girl is never out of tune). She sang along with male playback legends such as Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi. Through Mukesh, she met Naushad. Soon, she was singing for three films a day. Her songs were everywhere. A film without her songs was a rarity.

But the success also bred controversy.

One day, Lata realised that all her hard work got her recognition only within the industry—the common filmgoer mistakenly thought her songs were actually sung by the characters played by actors in the films because audio records did not credit the playback singers. For instance, the records of Mahal credited Kamini (Madhubala’s name in the film) for singing ‘Aayega aanewala’. Lata Mangeshkar fought for recognition. Finally, playback singers were given recognition, and the discs of films such as Barsaat and Andaz carried her name as also those of co-singers. Then films started carrying the names of playback singers on the screen too. It was a major victory for visibility.

Rifts and rivalries

On the same lines was her fight with the music directors Shanker-Jaikishan. It so happened that Shanker-Jaikishan had won the Filmfare Award for Best Music for the film Chori Chori . Jaikishan approached Lata Mangeshkar to sing ‘Rasik balma’ from the film at the award function. She refused, saying that they, not her, had got the award. She insisted that she would come only when Filmfare introduced awards for the best playback singers too, and not just for best music.

Lata Mangeshkar’s relationship with her contemporary singers and music directors was not always as smooth or as fun as the one with her sister Meena or as easy as the victory in the playback recognition case. She was not on speaking terms with Asha Bhosale for many years as Asha got married very young—to Ganpatrao Bhosle, a ration inspector in the neighbourhood—and remained cut off from her eldest sister until the birth of her third child. There were also whispers about their professional rivalry, with some alleging that Lata was like a banyan tree who did not allow other talents to grow under her shadow.

However, thanks to her versatility and a voice quite dissimilar to Lata’s, Asha Bhosle, who received tremendous support from the music director O.P. Nayyar, managed to create her own formidable following in the industry. The songs full of zest and energy, the foot-tapping or sensuous numbers all came to Asha Bhosle, while the soft romantic ones or those talking of angst or the pain of parting went to the elder sister. The best proof came in director K. Viswanath’s Sanjog in the mid 1980s. While Lata sang the unforgettable ‘Zu zu zu, Yashodha ka Nandlala’, Asha sang ‘Dil kya chahe, main kya chahoon’; the former was all about a mother’s love for her child, while the latter was a romantic song for a young couple. Lata’s song was played in public transport buses and paan shops, while Asha’s song was heard only in private environs. On occasions when the two singers came together, as in ‘Man kyun behka re behka’ in Utsav , the result was unforgettable.

Lata Mangeshkar was not on speaking terms with S.D. Burman for a good five years. She had sung a song for him for Miss India . The director found the song “too soft” and asked her to record it again. Lata Mangeshkar agreed, but as she was busy, she could not find time for it. The incident led to a lot of heartburn. The two came together for Bimal Roy’s Bandini for which she sang ‘Mora gora ang laile’.

Her rift with Rafi is well documented. Sometime in the 1960s, Lata Mangeshkar asked for royalties from music companies for the songs she sang. Rafi, and indeed Asha Bhosle too, were of the opinion that once a song had been recorded and they were paid by the producer, the matter ended. But Lata Mangeshkar did not agree, and for four years between 1963 and 1967, she did not sing with Rafi. Her absence paved the way for the rise of Suman Kalyanpur, who carved out a niche for herself singing opposite Rafi. Later, in the 1970s, Lata Mangeshkar reportedly had problems working with music directors who worked with Hemlata, who shot to fame with songs of Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se and Nadiya Ke Paar .

A well-decorated artiste who was a recipient of both the Bharat Ratna and the Dadasaheb Phalke award, apart from innumerable other awards, Lata Mangeshkar was also a songbird of the changing times. Back in the 1960s, when Indo-Chinese tensions were at their peak, she sang Kavi Pradeep’s ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was reduced to tears on listening to her live. In the 1950s and 1960s, she sang in many patriotic films, which talked of India’s shared past, like Taj Mahal , and others that espoused the cause of Nehruvian socialism, like Mother India .

By the late 1980s and certainly the early 1990s, the sociopolitical atmosphere of the country had changed. Nehru was long gone. The Babri Masjid-Ramjanambhoomi controversy was raging and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani was on his rath yatra to build a temple at the exact venue of the mosque in Ayodhya. Lata Mangeshkar recorded a bhajan and sent it to Advani for his rath yatra.

Advani’s adventure caused riots in many places and more than 500 people died, before the mosque was demolished. Around the same time, she also talked with pride about V.D. Savarkar and later openly supported the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. It hurt many of her fans.

Simultaneously, like millions of fellow Indians, she retained her love for cricket. She understood the intricacies of the game and was happy to greet Sachin Tendulkar on a century or, in earlier years, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. A rare artiste who kept in touch with the world beyond her area of expertise, she was often seen at cricket events and even watched some matches abroad. Once, when Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar spoke to her, she suggested that he should call her ‘Maa’. It was a poignant moment as Lata remained single all her life.

Enduring legacy

However, politics, cricket and allegations of one-upmanship with her contemporaries do not define Lata Mangeshkar. What she will be remembered for is the treasure trove of songs she left behind for millions of fans in 36 languages, her sweet voice, and memories of her gentle ways. When she sang for Gulzar for the first time in Bandini in 1963, she would not have realised that the ace lyricist would also give her a song that would be played on her departure from the mortal world. It came in the form of ‘Naam gum jayega, chehra yeh badal jayega, meri awaaz his pehchan hai, gar yaad rahe’. Sung as a duet with Bhupinder Singh for the film Kinara in 1977, it is remembered to date as a Lata Mangeshkar song, much like thousands of other songs. Her voice was her fortune.

There was only one Lata Mangeshkar—Bharat’s ratna.

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