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The Nightingale’s Everlasting Melodies

September 28, 2013 | By

Having started her career in playback singing seven decades ago in 1942, Lataji has witnessed each transition and milestone of the Hindi film music industry, effortlessly attuning her voice, style and rendition with every change and progression in the industry.

Madan Mohan with Lata Mangeshkar and Talat Mehmood and Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi

Talat Mehmood with Lata Mangeshkar and Madan Mohan at the recording of a duet for Suhagan. Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi was a special guest at the recording.

Flashback to 1962. India’s melody queen Lata Mangeshkar had fallen seriously ill with the doctors predicting that the nightingale may never be able to sing again.

Undaunted, Latabai returned to silence her critics with the immortal Kahin deep jale kahin dil in Bees Saal Baad.

Singer-music composer Hemant Kumar composed this very high-pitched song for Lata having full faith in her god-gifted voice.

The story goes that Hemant Kumar recorded Lataji’s voice during the rehearsal itself and okayed it as the final take. Such was her devotion and dedication to music that she never compromised on her riyaz and practice and had the courage of conviction to rise above all odds. As Hemant Kumar said in an interview to Peeyush Sharma, “You don’t need to put in a lot of effort to get Lata to sing. She can pick any song with ease.” (Read full interview of Hemant Kumar here)

Glad to have made her comeback with this classic song, Lata Mangeshkar, fondly known as ‘Lataji’ said once, “Fortunately the recording went off very well. Hemant Kumar was of a very quiet temperament. He knew exactly what to compose for me.” The song fetched her one of her many Filmfare awards. From 1958 to 1966, no other female artist could win the Filmfare award prompting the generous playback singer to withdraw from the awards in 1969.

Having started her career in playback singing seven decades ago in 1942, Lataji has witnessed each transition and milestone of the Hindi film music industry, effortlessly attuning her voice, style and rendition with every change and progression in the industry.

Talat Mahmood with Anil Biswas, Lata Mangeshkar and Madan Mohan

(L to R) Anil Biswas with Lata Mangeshkar, Madan Mohan and Talat Mahmood

Now in her late eighties, Lata still exudes the same fragile, two-plaited, white-sari clad charm with her shy smile and soft velvety speech. Once in a concert, when asked her age, Lataji quipped, “I am 71, but you can put the 1 before 7!”

One can never cease to be amazed at how Lata Mangeshkar has for more than 70 years maintained her tremendous musical capabilities, right from 1942 when the adolescent 12-year-old girl took to acting and playback singing in Marathi films to support her younger siblings after her father’s untimely death.

Her first Hindi song, interestingly, was in a Marathi film Gajabhau (1943) which fetched her a job as a staff artist on a princely monthly salary of Rs. 60 which was increased later to Rs. 350. However, it was music composer Ghulam Haider who predicted that the girl whose voice was rejected by a producer as “bahut patli” (too shrill) was destined to be a star.

Haider’s Majboor marked a turning point and Lata was soon getting work from leading music directors like Hussein Lal Bhagatram, Anil Biswas, Naushad and Khemchand Prakash. One after the other, Andaaz, Badi Bahen, Barsaat turned to be big hits.

But it was Aayega Aanewala in Mahal (1949) composed by Khemchand Prakash and penned by Nakhshab Jaaravchi that catapulted Lata to the top although ironically, the song was credited to “Kamini”, the character Madhubala plays in the film and reportedly, Lataji was never paid for the song!

Lataji never looked back since and this song is not surprisingly, one of her 20 favorites.  And though she has sung more songs for music directors Laxmikant Pyarelal (666), Shankar Jaikishen (453) and R D Burman (328), her favorite music composers happen to be Madan Mohan and Salil Chowdhury.

Hindustan Times’ Brunch, in Sept 2013, listed Lataji’s own handpicked 20 favorite songs from her mammoth repertoire. Interestingly, out of the 20 songs, 4 compositions are by Madan Mohan, 3 by Salil Chowdhury, 2 each by RD Burman, Khayyam and Shankar Jaikishan. The HT list also noted Lataji’s own reasons for liking each of the 20 songs.

Madan Mohan

If Madan Mohan rooted his compositions in Indian classical music (who can ever forget the purely classical Baiyyan na dharo (Dastak), the romantic Teri aankhon ke siwa (Chirag), the heart-touching ghazal Woh chup rahe to mere dil ke daag jalte hain (Adalat). (Read an exploration of the finer nuances of Unko yeh shikayat hai ke hum kuchh nahin kehte here)

Among her own handpicked 20 songs for the Brunch magazine are Madan Mohan’s Lag jaa gale ki phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho (Woh Kaun Thi, 1964), Tu jahan jahan chalega (Mera Saaya, 1966) and Woh bhooli dastaan (Sanjog, 1961).

Says Sangeeta Gupta, the daughter of Madan Mohan, “Yes, his (Madan Mohan’s) preference for Lataji is very well known and documented. His were very tough compositions, though they could have sounded comparatively easier. She understood his demands about the songs and executed them to the last ‘t’. I suppose that is what the composer wants.” (Read full interview of Sangeeta Gupta speaking about Madan Mohan’s music here)

Lata Mangeshkar and Salil Chowdhury
(Pic: lataonline.com)

Salil Chowdhury

Salil Chowdhury drew richly from western and Indian classical and folk, making her voice rise to the highest pitch and then plunge in a sudden gush into soothing low notes. Who can ever forget Aaja re pardesi (Madhumati), Na jiya laage na (Anand), Mila hai kisika jhumka (Parakh), Rajnigandha phool tumhare (Rajnigandha) and Raaton ke saaye ghane and Nisidin nisidin (Annadata), to name just a few of the numerous gems.

As Salil Chowdhury said in an interview, “I would try to surprise her by never expected sudden turns and twists in my compositions. She would mildly protest, laugh at it and render it in her unique way, which I would say was near perfect. For the compositions I thought would not pose a challenge to her, I would reserve them for other singers. She knew this. Sometimes, she would even comment, ‘Salilda, it seems you have given me a Mukesh Bhaiya tune to sing.’ We would both have a laugh. Take the Bichhua song of Madhumati and note how she does ‘kamaal’ within even one note, and many such wonders in one whole line. I do not think any other singer could have rendered this complicated number as she did.” (Read full interview of Salil Chowdhury speaking about his music here)

According to the HT list, the 3 Salil Chowdhury compositions Lata loves most are Aaja re pardesi (Madhumati, 1958), Ja re ud jaare panchhi (Maya, 1961) and O sajna, barkha bahaar aayi (Parakh 1960)

For ‘O sajna, barkha bahaar aayi’ (Parakh 1960), for which Salil Chowdhury composed the music and Shailendra penned the lyrics, Lataji says, “I’m in love with this song. Salilda composed it beautifully and blended it with the lyrics by Shailendraji, while Bimal Roy’s camera-work (pictured on Sadhana), with close-ups of the rain, were outstanding. This melody is also unforgettable because of the contributions of people like Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan, who provided the accompanying instrumentation with the sitar beautifully.”

R D Burman

RD Burman’s classic compositions of Amar Prem (1972) had exploited Lata Mangeshkar’s voice in such delightfully complex and yet seemingly simple songs that each one went on to become shining gem of Hindi film music.

Interestingly, Lata herself chose Bada natkhat hai re, penned so beautifully by Anand Bakshi as one of her favourites. “People say this is one of my most touching songs. I agree. The way it has been picturised brings out a mother’s love for her son. And my voice suits Sharmila very well. Not to forget the music by RD Burman, my favourite,” she had told HT.

How much the singer respects the actors who emote her songs on the screen is evident in her comment in the Brunch interview about the RD Burman composition Tere bina zindagi se koi (Aandhi, 1975), “Stunning picturisation and such appealing lyrics! RD Burman’s music and Sanjeev Kumar’s dialogues add a wonderful dimension to the song. And of course, Kishoreda and I also rendered it with our heart and soul.”

The film initially got into a controversy as it was popularly believed that Suchitra Sen‘s character Aarti was inspired from the life of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

With Lata emoting in her songs, it was a challenge for the actresses to do justice to the number on screen, as renowned actress Jaya Bachchan once said. Lata repaid the tribute saying when it was Jaya, she knew her song will be given the right treatment.

Incidentally, two songs in her list of 20 favorites – Tere bina zindagi se koi (Aandhi) and Rahe na rahe hum (Mamta, 1966), feature the legendary actress Suchitra Sen, known for her amazing screen persona and acting talent.

In fact, after Suchitra Sen passed away, Lata Mangeshkar admitted that she is a great fan of the legendary actress, in an interview to Hindustan Times, “I sang for her in films like Aandhi (1975) and Mamta (1966). She looked so nice in Mamta, and the song Rahen Na Rahen Hum from the film turned out to be a rage. Even now, when I listen to that song, I see her face. I am big fan of her acting. I loved her so much that I sourced the tapes of all her films. I still have those tapes preserved carefully.”

Shankar Jaikishan

A massive repertoire of songs makes it an impossible choice to pick favourites and Lata’s first choice here is not a surprise. Ajeeb dastan hai yeh (Dil Apna Aur Preet Paraya, 1960), is easily among her most popular songs with Shankar-Jaikishan. Written by Shailendra, this song perhaps is among the most popular songs sung impromptu by women at social gatherings. Picturised beautifully on Meena Kumari, its popularity has grown over time to make it an iconic song everyone is familiar with.

But Lata’s surprise pick was the club song, Is duniya mei jina hai toh (Gumnaam, 1965). The Melody Queen has not been in favour of singing cabaret songs but this song by Shankar-Jaikishan, written by Hasrat Jaipuri is among her favourites for being a “breezy carefree song picturised on Helen”.

The music directors whose compositions find place in her list are Hemant Kumar (O beqarar dilKohra, 1964), Roshan (Rahe na rahe hum – Mamta, 1966), Khemchand Prakash (Aayega aanewala – Mahal, 1949), Jaidev (Allah tero naam – Hum Dono, 1961), Ghulam Mohammad (Thaare rahiyo – Pakeezah, 1972) and Shiv Kumar Sharma – Hari Prasad Chaurasia (Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum – Silsila, 1981).

O Beqarar Dil (Kohra, 1960) Hemant Kumar / Kaifi Azmi. This song uses the Sanchari (a piece of different music in the lines between the two Antaras) in the lines – Aaye ghata ghir ke ghata chhaye, aur pyasee kalee gam kee jalee taras taras jaye. Hemant Kumar had used this tune originally in the Bengali song O nodi re he had sung himself for Mrinal Sen’s Neel Aakasher Neeche (1959).

From Naushad, S D Burman, Sajjad Hussian, Roshan and Pandit Ravi Shankar in the fifties, sixties and seventies to Shiv Hari, Ram Laxman and A R Rahmaan in the eighties and nineties, music directors have composed songs keeping Lataji in mind.

Whether it is the bhajan Allah tero naam (Hum Dono), again one of her personal favorites, that moved even music maestro Pandit Jasraj to tears or the only cabaret number she sang Aa jaane jaan (Inteqaam), rated one of the best ever, Lata’s voice has never failed to touch the soul of the listener.

About Allah tero naam, Lataji said in the Brunch interview, “Perhaps the most melodious and all-encompassing prayer for humanity. Gandhiji’s philosophy: ‘sabko sanmati de bhagwan,’ appeals to me. The lyrics touch your heart and the enchanting music fills my heart with hope.” This song is still one of the most popular prayers.

From Madhubala, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman and Meena Kumari to the later years screen goddesses Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Jaya Bachchan and Asha Parekh right up to Preity Zinta and Gracy Singh today, Lata’s mellifluous voice has fitted effortlessly with almost everyone.There is hardly a milestone Lata hasn’t crossed in India and overseas.She is the first Indian to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1974 or the only one apart from film maestro Satyajit Ray to have been awarded both the Bharat Ratna and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award

But honors sit lightly on this humble, diminutive singer who still stands barefoot on stage as a mark of respect to the platform.

When Cinema Matched Music Beat by Beat: Nadiya Kinare in Abhimaan

More to read

Journey Through Lata’s Melodies
Kishore Kumar, The Master of his Craft – Amit Kumar Remembers his ‘Baba’
Geeta Dutt – The Skylark Who Sang From The Heart
‘The Music Director Knows which Voice would do Full Justice to his Composition’ – In Conversation with Hemant Kumar

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Editor in Chief, Learning and Creativity; Consulting Editor, Silhouette Magazine As a professional business journalist, Antara spent 14 years covering business stories but alongside kept alive her passion for writing on cinema. She writes extensively on the changing trends of music, direction and filmmaking in cinema and her articles aim to provide well-researched, complete and accurate information on the legends of cinema for the movie enthusiast. She is also the Founder-Editor of Blue Pencil, a New Delhi-based publishing house and recently edited and published Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, the biography of SD Burman written by HQ Chowdhury. Her articles have also been published in Dearcinema.com and Du-kool.com. Antara is Editor-Creative Director of Wisitech InfoSolutions Pvt. Ltd.
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