Music has always been a big part of my life, and Lata Mangeshkar (Lataji) a big part of that music. Her voice holds a very special place in my life and my heart. This voice has been my companion throughout my life, from as far back as I remember. It has laughed with me in happy times, cried with me in sad times, stood by my side when I felt lonely, inspired me when I was short on hope, patted me to sleep when I needed it, and helped me to reach inwards to find peace when I was disturbed. My love for music was solidified and most of the Hindi I know was learnt by listening to her songs. Every time I listen to this voice, it makes me close my eyes and sway to its sweetness, forgetting everything else, filling me with joy and peace. So immense and immeasurable is the impact of Lataji’s voice on me, that it has become a part of me , my life, my existence.
And I am not alone in feeling this way. I believe these feelings are shared by millions around the world across generations, who, like me, are Lataji’s ardent fans. “Fans” would be a misnomer, for we are not just fans, we are devotees of her voice. Like any intense feeling of love and devotion, this too is difficult to explain and express, so I quote Nargis, the renowned yesteryear actress of Bollywood, who had very beautifully and aptly expressed that feeling – “लता किसी तारीफ के नहीं, बल्कि परसतिश के क़ाबिल हैं ।“ (Translation : Lata is deserving not of praise, but of parastish – adoring worship.) Well-said, Nargis-ji, you got the precise word – we wholeheartedly agree with you – what we feel for Lataji is not admiration, not fandom, but परसतिश.
As a lifelong devotee and student of Lataji’s work, I have closely studied her voice and her singing in a bid to understand its greatness and also to try and sing her songs. Fascinated by what I learnt and discovered, I have always wanted to share it, but was not able to dedicate the time it needed. These past weeks of social isolation allowed exactly that (funnily, with her songs keeping me company and spurring me on in the background). So, here I am with my intent and attempt to share my analysis of Lataji’s voice and its magic, her work and her career.
This is not a comparison with any other singer; I am a big fan of many singers, male and female, old and new; yet Lataji holds a very special place in my heart. This is simply an expression of that in the absolute, without any attempt to juxtapose. Also, this is purely my analysis and my opinion, based on my limited expertise as a student of music, and of her work. I fully respect that there will be many other opinions. Lastly, while this is based on thorough research, it also flows straight from the heart, so is bound to be mixed with emotion. I have allowed it to flow as it came to me, so you will find Hindi/Marathi used freely. I hope and trust that my readers will indulge me with this liberty.
This is not just any musing that I have written about, it is a labour of my love for Lataji’s voice, an avid account of my admiration and adulation for her work and her career. I have not seen God, but I have felt His or Her Divine presence in Lataji’s voice. To me, that golden voice is the best manifestation I know of माँ सरस्वती (Maa Saraswati), the goddess of the arts and learning. This is therefore an offering of my love, my worship, my पूजा, my इबादत, my परसतिश – to the golden voice of Lataji!
(Note : This article has several Hindi/Marathi words – the translation is indicated in italics. In some places, the Hindi/Marathi words have been put in English script, for instance when quoting songs or names of films. To avoid confusion and help the reader make the distinction, these have been highlighted in italics and in a different colour.)
How does one go about writing an introduction for Lataji? Amitabh Bacchhan (Amitji) had expressed this quandary very aptly, when asked to speak about her at a function – “मेँ कैसे परिचय दूँ उस शख़्सियत का, जिनका नाम ख़ुद अपने आप मेँ एक परिचय है? मेँ कैसे परिचय करूँ उनका, जिनकी आवाज़ देश की ही आवाज़ नहीं बल्कि सारे विश्व की आवाज़ है, निस्संदेह एक ऐसी आवाज़ जिसे voice of the millennium कहा जाना चाहिए? मेँ कैसे परिचय दूँ उनका, जब कि सुर, ताल, संगीत सब उन्हीं के नाम से शुरू होता है और उन्हीं के नाम से ख़त्म हो जाता है? मेँ कैसे परिचय दूँ उनका, जिन्होंने विश्वभर मेँ अनगिनत ख़िताब पाये हैं, अनगिनत records क़ायम किए हैं? इस अमूल्य रत्न का मूल्य कैसे किया जाए? इस प्रश्न का उत्तर देने के लिए मेरे पास ना दिमाग़ है, ना ही शब्द।” (Translation : How do I introduce a person, whose name is an introduction in itself? How do I introduce her, whose voice is not just the voice of the country but of the whole world, which should be called “the voice of the millennium”? How do I introduce her, when notes, rhythm, music all start with her name and end with it? How do I introduce her, who has achieved innumerable titles and created innumerable records? How does one put a value to this invaluable gem? I have neither the brains nor the words to answer this question). I face the same quandary today, and I reach the same conclusion as Amitji – Lataji needs no introduction, and I won’t get into the misadventure of trying it. Instead, I will go right into how a girl from a small town became this big name – her fascinating journey to stardom.
Born on 28th September, 1929 as the eldest of five children of middle-class Marathi parents, Lataji was named Hema at birth. She got the gift of music in heredity. Her father, Master Deenanath Mangeshkar, an accomplished musician and singer, ran his own “नाटक कंपनी” (drama company) which went around villages and towns with shows of musical plays in Marathi. Inspired by the famous female character Latika from one of these plays (भावबंधन), her father changed her name to Lata. The story of how he discovered the genius in his daughter is famous – as a six- year old, Lataji corrected an errant musical note of one of his students. Amazed at the acuity and grasp of music in the young Lata, her father realized they had a musical gem in their house. Lataji’s तालीम (taleem ie training) of music started the very next day. Good times didn’t last too long, however. As the technology of cinema developed, screens took business away from plays. Master Deenanath moved from plays to this new medium, but was faced with failure, leading to dire financial times and illness. He passed away young, leaving behind his wife and five children, of whom Lataji, the eldest, was all of thirteen.
This was the beginning of her days of struggle. Taking responsibility for the family, Lataji started acting in Marathi films in the film company of Master Vinayak, an accomplished name in Marathi films. While she did some singing assignments, her first ever Marathi film song never saw the light of day as it was edited out! What put bread on the Mangeshkar family table was Lataji’s acting work, a job she was thankful for but disliked. The family moved to Mumbai from the smaller cities they had so far lived in, with Master Vinayak’s film company, where she got introduced to different composers and musicians. Lataji started her taleem again under the tutelage of Ustaad Amanat Ali Khan. However, bad luck struck again and she lost her two pillars of support – her tutor to Pakistan in the 1947 partition of India and her mentor Master Vinayak to untimely death in 1948. Ustaad Ghulam Ali Haider then took her under his wing, giving her a break in the film Majboor for which he composed music.
Singing assignments now began to flow, allowing Lataji to stop acting. She worked hard, days starting early and going sometimes until wee hours of the next morning for song recordings in different studios. Impossible though it seems, she faced rejection for her “thin” (high-pitched) voice which was quite unlike the heavy-set, nasal style of female playback singing of the prevalent stars such as Shamshad Begum and Noor Jahan. So, while her career picked up, it was nowhere close to successful yet. And then came the big break, the turning point, in 1949, with the song Aayegaa Aanewaala in the film Mahal.
While recording this song, in order to match the visual of the protagonist walking in from a distance on screen, Lataji walked to the microphone from a distance, singing her lines; not unlike the long walk it had taken her to finally reach her rightful position behind the microphone. Now, Lataji had well and truly arrived; it could only be providence that the announcement of this arrival came through the words “आएगा आनेवाला” (Aayegaa aanewaalaa –Translation : The one who has to come will come). The song was a blockbuster hit, opening floodgates to the phenomenon called Lata, that was about to sweep Indian film music and its fans off their feet onto a wave of sweet melody that would rise and billow without ebbing for a whopping six decades to come!
(How did this successful start translate to stardom? Read the next section to know about her fascinating onward journey.)
Having evaded one tough task of introducing Lataji, I am now faced with another mammoth one – of describing her vast body of work. Exactly how many thousands of songs she has sung is a matter of debate, but the number is so huge, it’s hardly relevant. Her biggest volumes of work are in Hindi and in Marathi (her mother-tongue), but she has sung in fifteen Indian languages; also, she has sung in films as well as a lot of non- film private albums. Whichever measure you use to gauge, the body of her work is gargantuan. Trying to talk about her work is like diving into an अथांग महासागर (unfathomable ocean) to analyse and understand it. While on one hand it means one does not know where to start and which way to go, on the other hand it also gives the freedom to start anywhere and move however you want; there is so much all around, that as long as you don’t drown in it, how you go about it is hardly relevant. Having considered different ways, I am choosing to look at Lataji’s work only in Hindi films here, with reference to the music composers she has worked with, who include stalwarts from the industry ranging from Ghulam Hyder, Anil Biswas and Naushad from the 1940s to A R Rehman in the 21 st century. These composers brought her talent out brilliantly by composing tunes to match her genius. Not only are their contributions to the industry invaluable, their role in Lataji’s success is also pivotal. This piece therefore, while it dives into Lataji’s work, is also my tribute to these music directors.
Let me pick up the thread of Lataji’s film journey from where I left it earlier, post Mahal, 1949. There is a very interesting story about how Aayegaa Aanewaalaa took the nation by storm – when this song was aired on AIR (All India Radio), the radio station was flooded with calls asking for the name of the singer (these were the days when records did not have names of singers on them, only those of music directors). No one at AIR knew who the singer was! Then ensued a movie-like scramble to find this out, so it could be announced. That’s how fans got to know the name of the owner of that enchanting voice. With this kind of success, it should hardly come as a surprise that big names in music and films began to approach her with interesting work. In those early days, Anil Biswas and Husnlal Bhagatram were among the first big composers to use her voice, giving hits such as Beimaan Tore Nainwaa, Seene mein sulagte hain armaan (Taraana), Chale jaanaa nahin and Chup chup khade ho (Bari Behen).
Lataji was a phenomenal discovery for the music world, and as composers began to explore and leverage her talent, magic happened. Upcoming composers Shankar-Jaikishan (S-J) and C Ramchandra (CR) did prolific work with Lataji, starting with Barsaat in 1949 and Sargam in 1950 respectively. Delighted with their discovery of this diamond, as they continued mining this treasure trove, fans were treated to enthralling melodies. Lataji was clearly a voice of choice for them, as close to 70% of their songs in the next 5 years (the first half of ‘50s) had Lataji, almost 2/3rds of them being solos – this meant that there were many more female solos in these films than male solos. In many of their albums, Lataji sang in almost all songs (a feat hardly anyone else could boast of), and almost every one of them was a hit – S-J’s Barsaat (10 of 11 with Lataji), Awara (7 of 7), Chori-chori (8 of 10), and CR’s Sargam (9 of 10), Albela (9 of 11), Anarkali (8 of 11) or Azad (8 of 9) – are great examples of this, each such a big success that they need no introduction to film fans. Such is the magic of songs from these films, like Hawaa mein udtaa jaaye, Jiyaa beqaraar hai, Dum bhar jo, Aa jaa sanam, Jahaan main jaati hoon, Rasik Balmaa, Yeh raat bheegi bheegi, Sholaa jo bhadke, Shaam dhale, Bholi surat, Yeh zindagi usi ki hai, Raadhaa naa bole, Kitnaa haseen hai mausam, that these are lovingly reminisced and sung by singers of even today’s generation, more than six decades since they were made. Isn’t that the definition of immortal music?
S-J and CR dominated Lataji’s portfolio in the ‘50s, with more than half of her songs in this period being with them. However, not just them, almost every big name in the industry was working with her from 1950 onwards – Madan Mohan (Madanji), Hemant Kumar (Hemant-da), S D Burman (Burman-da), Naushad, Salil Choudhury (Salil-da), Roshan and Vasant Desai, all created some stirring, immortal melodies with Lataji in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And while her partnership with CR tapered off towards the end of the ‘50s, that with S-J continued right through the ‘60s and also the ‘70s. I believe that the period of ‘50s and ‘60s was the most melodious in Hindi film songs, and the work of all these greats with Lataji was a big part of that.
Hemant-da and Salil-da, both known for their soft, flowing music, created some sweet numbers with Lataji. Madhumati and Maya were both blockbuster albums by Salil-da, with many beautiful Lata songs like Aajaa re Pardesi, Zulmi sang aankh ladi, Ghadi ghadi, Dil tadap tadap ke, Tasveer teri and Jaa re ud jaa re panchhi. Even outside of these movies, his music scores with Lataji have some lilting melodies like Jaago mohan pyaare, Aahaa rimzim ke and Chaand raat tum ho saath. Similarly, with Hemant-da, Lataji had a lot of soothingly mellifluous songs like Man dole meraa tan dole / Jaadugar sainyaa (Naagin), O beqaraar dil/Jhoom jhoom dhalti raat (Kohraa), Dheere dheere machal/Kuchh dil ne kaha (Anupama) and Hum ne dekhi hai (Khamoshi). A couple of other composers who created some classy cameos with Lataji were Roshan-ji, with ageless melodies like Jurm-e-ulfat pe, Jo waadaa kiyaa, Saari saari raat, Kabhi to milegi, and Jaidev-ji with beautiful songs such as Yeh dil aur unki and Tumhen dekhti hoon, that enrapture fans even today.
Burman-da, another outstanding composer of those times, believed in simplicity of tunes, the charm of his music exuding from clarity and quality of singing – Lataji was just the kind of singer to translate this vision into reality. They made some fantastic numbers together, most of them deeply romantic, for instance – Aasmaan ke neeche, Dil pukaare, Hothon mein aisi baat (Jewel Thief), Koraa kaaghaz thaa, Baagon mein bahaar (Aradhana), Likhaa hai teri aankhon mein (Teen Deviyaan), Jeevan ke safar mein raahi (Munimji), Yeh raat yeh chaandni (Jaal). The best, I believe of Burman-da and Lataji was the movie Guide, where he made full use of Lataji’s classical expertise and versatility, with some immortal melodies like Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna, Sainyaa beimaan and Piyaa Tose.
Naushad and Madan Mohan were two composers known for their intricate tunes with variations and modulations galore, that tested the singer’s voice and breath control to the hilt – again, Lataji was an ideal and willing agent for them to try their toughest. Some of Lataji’s all-time popular songs like Aap ki nazron ne samjhaa, Lag jaa gale, Tu jahaan jahaan chalegaa, Nainaa barse, Woh bhooli daastaan came from Madanji’s studio, and are all difficult tunes sung to perfection. He also got her to sing some beautiful classical-based numbers like Jiyaa le gayo, Bainyaa naa dharo and Boondaniyaa barsan as well as ghazals like Nagmaa- o-sher ki, Ruke ruke se qadam, Yun hasraton ke daag and Unko yeh shikaayat hai. Similar to Madanji, Naushadji’s music was steeped in classical tunes. In films like Mughal-e-azam, Baiju Bawra, Ganga Jamuna, his work with Lataji gave some wonderful melodies like Mohe panghat pe, Hamaare dil se na jaanaa, Pyaar kiyaa to darnaa kyaa, Mohe bhool gaye saanwariyaa, Dil todnewaale, Do hanson kaa jodaa, and many more.
Talking of intricate and classically-oriented songs, one cannot but mention two composers – Pt Ravishankar and Vasant Desai. Anuradha is a musical gem of Pt Ravishankar’s, with absolutely stunning though challenging tunes; guess who he chose to deliver them? 4 of 5 songs in the film were Lata solos – Jaane kaise sapnon mein, Kaise din beete, Haaye re woh din, Saanware – each a genuinely gorgeous gem. Film producers would kill to get even one of these in a film; this one had all four together! Vasant Desai was another composer who made some very captivating, classically oriented numbers with Lataji, like Ae maalik tere bande (Do Aankhen Bara Haath), Tere sur aur mere geet, Dil ka khilonaa (Tere sur aur mere geet), and Nain so nain (Jhanak jhanak paayal baaje).
The ‘50s and ‘60s, two musically rocking decades of film music, thus saw marvellous music being churned out by ingenious music composers. The fact that out of the songs Lataji sang with them, 60-75% (depending on composer) were solos, showed how much they trusted Lataji’s talent and relied on it. As I move on from this golden period of ‘50s and ‘60s though, I must loop back to S-J to pay the right due to their fantastic work with Lataji. Over 2.5 decades, they did a whopping ~430 songs together, Lataji’s second highest with any one composer. Their songs spanned every possible mood and genre from romantic to fun, from lilting melodies to dancing numbers, from Indian classical to modern tunes. A lot of their ‘50s songs mentioned above came from their winning combo with Raj Kapoor, Mukesh and Lata. In the ’60s, S-J and Lata continued to regale audiences together, with album after album of exquisite euphonies. Dil Apna Preet Parayi (with songs like Ajeeb daaastaan, Sheesha-e-dil, Andaaz meraa), Jab pyaar kisise hota hai (with O jiyaa o, Sau saal pehle), Junglee (with Jaa jaa mere bachpan, Ehsaan teraa, Kashmir ki kali hoon main), Asli Naqli (with Teraa meraa pyaar amar), Arzoo (with Aji roothkar ab, Bedardi baalmaa), Amrapali (with Tumhein yaad karte karte, Jao re jogi), and many others which it’s impossible to list down, are all timeless tunes that have delighted fans for generations. S-J also experimented a lot, leveraging Lataji’s versatility; for instance, they were the first to try what literal “heights” her voice could go to, in terms of high notes. More about this later.
Moving on, the ‘70s brought in a new generation of music and music composers – while the likes of S-J, Burman-da, Salil-da were still active, a new breed like Laxmikant-Pyarelal (L-P), R D Burman (RD) and Kalyanji-Anandji (K-A) who were established by the end of the previous decade, made it to centre-stage with a new style of music. Also, many new voices were working by now in the industry; female singers including the sweet-voiced Suman Kalyanpur, the technically expert Vani Jairam and Lataji’s own sister, the very talented Asha Bhosle, among others. Also, Lataji became more and more busy and sought after. Composers now started using all available voices to diversify and balance their needs. It became common practice to use multiple male/female voices in the same album; yet, it was common to find a solo or two by Lataji in many such movies – looking back, it looks strange why composers still insisted on that one song by her. Did they think she was a good luck charm or a mark of excellence they needed and wanted on their album? Whatever the reason, despite all these developments, Lataji did more than 250 songs each with composers K-A and RD, a vast legacy. Let’s take a closer look.
K-A used Lataji’s voice extensively. Some of their best hits like Yeh samaa (Jab jab phool khile), Main to bhool chali baabul kaa des, Chandan saa badan (Saraswatichandra), O Baabul pyaare (Johnny meraa naam), Dil to hai dil, Salaam-e-ishq (Muqaddar ka Sikandar) are with Lataji. They also got Lataji to do some sensuous numbers (not her favourite genre) like Thodaa saa thehero and Jiskaa mujhe thaa intezaar, which were also eagerly lapped up by audiences. RD, the other prolific composer with Lataji, was a special talent who, with his experimentation, combined his deep knowledge of Indian classical and folk music with international trends, bringing a completely new style of music to films. His romantic melodies like Aaj kal paaon, Aap ki aankhon mein kuchh, Karwatein badalte rahen, Tune o rangeele, Aisaa samaa naa hotaa, Gum hai kisi ke pyaar mein were all in a new and refreshing style, breaking out of the earlier mould. While he used Lataji for his more traditional classics like Rainaa beeti jaaye, Ghar aajaa ghir aayi, Jiyaa naa laage moraa, Beeti naa bitaayi, Ae ri pawan, he also pushed her to do sensuous numbers like Baahon mein chale aao, Chadhti jawaani and Dilbur dil se pyaare. His songs with Lataji continued to be hits until as late as the ‘80s, when he used her playback for new young faces in Love Story and Betaab. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lataji also did some unique numbers with music director Khayyam, who brought a style of his own in songs like Bahaaron mera jeevan bhi sanvaaro, Na jaane kyaa hua, Ae dil-e-naadaan, Aap yun faaslon se, Dikhaayi diye yun, Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein.
Now we come to L-P, the music director duo with whom Lataji did her most songs, an unbelievable number close to 700. They shared a special relationship, and it is quite clear that she was their preferred voice. Some of her beautiful solos with them have become their signature songs – Solaah baras ki, Suno sajnaa, Sheeshaa ho yaa dil ho, Roz shaam aati thi, Bindiyaa Chamkegi, to name just a few. Similarly, Jhilmil sitaaron kaa, Saawan ka maheenaa, Ek pyaar kaa nagmaa, Acchhaa to hum chalte hain, Chhup gaye saare nazaare, Din maheene saal, Ab chaahe rab choote ya, Megha re megha re, Badaa dukh deenaa make just a fraction of the hit duets composed by L-P, demonstrating their broad repertoire of musical styles. L-P, like Madan Mohan and Naushad, are known for their intricate tunes, and they kept their trickiest ones for Lataji; some of their songs are arguably among the toughest she has sung. I am sure Satyam shivam sundaram or Chalo Sajnaa jahaan tak ghataa chale don’t need an introduction. There are also some not-so-well-known songs of the L-P-Lata combo, which have very intricate tunes. Take O ghataa saanwari and Bandhan toote naa saanvariyaa for illustration. Each of these tunes is full of tortuous twists and turns, with little room for breath, very difficult to execute – but Lataji has rendered them divinely.
The late ‘80s and ’90s saw Lataji begin to reduce her singing assignments (though in her case, this “reduced” number was also in the hundreds!). While she was still singing for RD, L-P, K-A in this time, the musical maestro duo of Shiv-Hari strung up some exhilarating tunes with Lataji through the ‘80s and ‘90s, almost all of which were runaway hits – Dekhaa ek khwaab, Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum, Neelaa aasmaan (Silsila), Hum chup hain ki (Faasle), Tere mere hothon pe (Chandni), Kabhi main kahoon, Morni baagaa maa (Lamhe), Tu mere saamne (Darr). She also worked with Ravindra Jain on Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Henna to give lovely songs like Ram teri Gangaa maili, Sun Sahibaa Sun, Ek Radhaa ek Meeraa and Chitthiye.
By the late ’80s and ‘90s, she was already into her retirement phase, only doing selective projects. In this time, she worked with a handful of composers – Shiv-Hari, Ram-Lakshman, A R Rehman, Uttam Singh, Pt. Bhupen Hazarika and her brother Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar. By now, there were much younger, newer singers lending their voice to young female actors; her voice shone through even this bunch, and incredible though it seems, almost every song she sang in films like Maine Pyar Kiya, Dil Se, Dil to Pagal Hai, Lekin, Rudaali turned to gold. I find it absolutely phenomenal that at this age, she was still singing playful tunes like Koi ladki hai, Arre re arre, Wah wah Raamji, Lo chali main, Didi teraa dewar, soft romantic numbers like Aate Jaate, Bada dukh deenaa, Maayi ni maayi, Hum aapke hain kaun, intense ones like Jiyaa jale, Yaaraa seeli seeli, Dil hum hum kare, and heavy classical tunes like Suniyo ji, Kesariyaa, Jhooti mooti mitwaa, with equal aplomb; was lending her voice as effectively to a young Bhagyashree, as to a slightly older Madhuri or Sridevi, as to a more mature Dimple; and was still doing it so brilliantly that fans like yours truly were still swaying to the sweet melody she created! And if we thought this was it, we could not have been more wrong, as she put a fitting final flourish on an amazing journey, with two of the most beautiful songs in Hindi films ever, both with A R Rehman – the incredibly intense O Paalanhare in Lagaan and Luka Chhupi in Rang de basanti. (We will discuss both a bit later).
Wow – what a career and what a career path! While one always knew how scintillating Lataji’s career was, the realization of its enormity hits one anew and afresh when trying to chart its magnificent course. And mind you, this was purely her work in Hindi films (she has done some great numbers outside films too) and only with the top and big music composers. Going through Lataji’s journey also gives a fascinating view of how and how much music in films has evolved in this time. So many new composers, so many new film makers with their own notions and needs, so many new styles, so many new fans with their own expectations! Isn’t it amazing that Lataji not only adjusted and adapted to all these changes, a task that I am sure, was not easy, but still remained in demand, in the lead and on top, winning audiences’ hearts decade after decade. A couple of decades of being on the top is considered great in most fields, three is extraordinary. What word do you use for a career that ruled for six decades? Simply incredible!!!
(So, what is the secret to this achievement? What gave Lataji’s voice this longevity? Read the next section to delve into answers to these questions.)
The long and extraordinary reign of Lataji is a phenomenon rare in any field, and can only happen through capital command over an art. It is true that there have been many proficient singers in this field so, what’s special about Lataji, that made her career stand the test of time like none other? From my study and analysis of Lataji’s work, there are a few things about her voice and her singing that I believe make it exquisite and extraordinary. Let’s take a closer look.
1. A “heavenly” voice: Lataji sings at a high pitch; to boot, her voice has a striking level of clarity. Her sister Ashaji describes the sound of her voice being akin to the “छन्न” (clinking sound) of a coin, crisp and clear. This clarity and high pitch give it an uncanny sharpness, an incisive ability to penetrate right through the aural systems of a listener to touch a chord deep inside, evoking a soothing feeling of peace. The consequent effect is that of a divine touch, an experience to which one wants to wilfully surrender. I want to share the full quote of Nargis-ji (I have already quoted a part of it earlier), for I have not come across a more beautiful and precise description of the effect Lataji’s voice has on a listener – “लता किसी तारीफ के नहीं, बल्कि परसतिश के क़ाबिल हैं । उनकी आवाज़ सुनने के बाद कुछ ऐसा आलम तारी हो जाता है, जिसको बयान करना बहुत मुश्किल है। यूँ समझिए जैसे कोई किसी दरगाह या मंदिर में जाए, तो वहाँ पहुँचकर इबादत के लिए खुदबखुद सर झुक जाता है, और आँखों से बेसख़ता आँसू बहने लगते हैं।” (Translation : Lata is deserving not just of praise, but worship. Listening to her voice creates such an effect that is very difficult to express in words. Think of it as if when one goes to a dargah (mosque) or a temple, unconsciously, one bows out of worship and devotion, and one’s eyes start streaming without any force or reason).
I could not agree more with Nargis-ji, as I have had the same experience, and so have millions of listeners around the world. Irrespective of the mood of her song is – whether the devotional Allah tero naam, the romantic Tujhe jeevan ki dor se, the soaked-in-sadness Rulaa ke gayaa, the happy Saawan ka maheenaa, the playful Eechak daanaa or the haunting Jhoom jhoom dhalti raat – the effect on us fans is the same – we just want to give ourselves up to the spell it casts on us. Little wonder then, that just like it is for me, Lataji’s voice sounds divine to many, a voice that is an exquisite expression of the ethereal aura of art!
2. Unmatched technical excellence – Twinned with her beautiful voice is technical excellence in singing, a combination simply unmatchable. She is a master at most, if not all technical aspects, but I choose here to elucidate only those where I find her exceptional, separating her from many other greats.
a) Mind-boggling range of voice – Normally, good singers have very good command on two to three octaves. In Lataji’s case, it’s far wider – her voice freely runs over almost four octaves (खरज, मध्य, तार, अति-तार), that is over twenty-eight sur’s or notes. And given the high pitch of her voice, this can take her to very high notes, as we will see later. This range of voice makes her stand apart, irrespective of which pantheon of amazing singers she may be standing with.
b) Breath control – This is a relatively smaller yet important technical aspect of singing. One often hears the sharp intake of breath by the singer between musical phrases; not with Lataji. She learnt breath control from Anil Biswas, a successful music director of the ‘40’s, and perfected it such that her breath is hardly perceptible and stays in the background, allowing the listener to enjoy her voice uninterrupted and undistracted, another quality that makes her sound beyond human, hence heavenly!
c) Accuracy and stability of sur’s – Accuracy is the precision with which a singer pitches his or her voice at the right notes. Stability is how steady the voice stays at every sur. In Lataji’s case, accuracy and stability of sur are legendary – whatever the song, whatever pitch, whichever octave, her पक्का सुर (pukka sur or right, solid note) is a point of much discussion and adulation; we could use a new phrase “as पक्का (solid) as Lataji’s सुर”! And no, this is not just the ardent fan in me talking indulgently and out of blind love.
An experienced sound recordist at Film Centre recording studio said this once about Lataji – “When she glides down to say the note A, the arm of the VU-meter stands rock-steady at 440 cycles. I’ve never seen this happen with any other singer” – a scientific testimony to the steadiness of her voice. As for accuracy, every good singer obviously pitches quite accurately, else they would not be good singers. However, even great singers do err, resulting in lapses; the lay person on the street may not catch them, but experts do. Quoting Shubha Mudgal, a renowned classical singer, “Her (Lataji’s) accuracy of pitching at all times, whether holding a note or negotiating difficult passages that demand the agility of an acrobatic voice, remains unmatched and exemplary. Even the most celebrated singers are prone to slipping up at times, or hitting a slightly inaccurate note, but not Lata-ji.” As she says, what’s extraordinary about Lataji is the total, complete absence of an errant note. She acquired the highest possible certificate on this aspect, when Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, a दिग्गज (doyen) of Indian classical music, adoringly said this about her – “कमबख्त कभी बेसुरी नहीं होती” (Translation : She never goes out of tune), a story proudly told by Pandit Jasraj. Need I say more about the accuracy of Lataji’s sur?
This level of technical mastery and uniqueness was obviously quickly recognized and leveraged by music directors. One direct output was several classically oriented songs, using the technical depth in her singing. Manmohanaa bade jhoothe, Saanware saanware, Jiyaa le gayo, Pawan diwaani, Jaa re badraa bairi jaa, Kuhu kuhu, Boondaniyaa barsan, Jaa tose nahin, Sainyaa beimaan, Bainyaa naa dharo, Naa jiya laage naa are all tough compositions delivered flawlessly by her. That classical maestros like Pt Ravishankar, Vasant Desai, Pt. Hridaynath, Pt. Bhupen Hazarika, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma and Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia (Shiv-Hari) chose Lataji to deliver their technically complex tunes in their movies is a certificate of her technical mastery.
Lataji’s technical brilliance also shines through in her delivery of high notes. Music directors played with really high notes with her, something they would do only if they had supreme confidence in the singer’s technical abilities. S-J had Lataji touch G5 (in the key of E) on the phrase “yaallaa yaallaa” in “Jhoomtaa mausam” and Ab5 (key of Eb) in Aji Roothkar ab. Without getting too technical, we know how high she goes in the classic Rasik Balmaa in the crescendo in the stanzas (like in “Nehaa lagaa ke haari“), and then brings her voice back down in an aalaap like a beautiful waterfall – so enthralling! Consider the songs Ehsaan teraa (Junglee) and Jiyaa o jiyaa kucch bol do (Jab pyar kisise hota hai) – both were supposed to have been sung only in the male voice (both by Rafi Sahab). But plans changed, and after the male song was recorded, it was decided to also have a female version in the film. Songs with male-female versions are typically recorded on a slightly lower male pitch to ensure the female version does not go too high. Given this was not planned in this case, the female voice indeed had to go really high; guess who was asked to render them? And boy, did she live up to the challenge, and how! Lataji goes very high in the stanzas in both these songs, not only without sounding shrill or sharp, but sounding incredibly sweet. S-J and Salil-da also experimented with the operatic style with Lataji; she hits super high notes in operatic-style aalaaps in Aa ab laut chalen, Rimzim ke yeh pyaare pyaare and Ae dil kahaan teri manzil. The highest note I have heard Lataji hit is in a lesser known song Woh ik nigaah kya mili from the movie Half-Ticket, in which, again in an operatic style of a soprano singer, she hits such a high note in a small staccato piece between stanzas, that it almost merges with the sound of the instruments being played. Absolutely mesmerizing!
Lataji’s outstanding technical mastery, especially her range and pukka sur contribute to the sublimity of her naturally beautiful voice. While her voice is a God-given gift (as she herself eagerly admits), this technical mastery is anything but. Only her lifelong passion, dedication and hard work could have made this tough ascent possible, but even these would not have been enough to take her to her current position in the stars. There was more.
3. Brilliant rendering that redefined standards of playback singing –
Lataji started giving playback to films in an era when playback was still a nascent art and profession. As she took from it, she gave immensely back to it, by enriching this art with nuances and features theretofore unknown.
Playback singing is unique in that the singer has to sing with reference to the situation in the film. A song is a blend of words in the lyrics, music in the notes and delivery in the voice. Best singers deliver not just musical notes to the listener’s ears, but a full song and story. Lataji understood this nuance of playback singing and delivered it to perfection. The first requirement here was good understanding and delivery of words in the lyrics. Marathi being her mother-tongue, to her, knowledge of Hindi-Urdu did not come naturally. Early on in her career, Dilip Kumar had commented that (because she was Marathi) her Urdu “talaffuz” (pronunciation) would not be good enough, as it would have “daal-bhaat ki boo” (the smell of dal- rice, a simple staple food dish of her native Maharashtra), unfit for Hindi/Urdu. Stung by this barb but intent to perfect her work, Lataji started her Urdu training. She soon became so good at it, that her talaffuz started being quoted by language teachers and eminent Hindi-Urdu literati (like Javed Akhtar) as the perfect pronunciation. Dilip Kumar himself, a big fan of hers, has admitted that she had proven him very wrong. Anecdote aside, the point here is that she understood the language and its nuances very well, hence had a good feel for the lyrics of the songs she gave her voice to.
Armed with this deep knowledge of the language, Lataji would always do her homework by understanding the situation in the movie and the meaning and nuances of the lyrics. Of course, she would learn the composition meticulously and lastly, would check who the song would be picturized on, in other words, which actor would be mouthing the words on screen. She studied the actor’s way of speaking, emoting and throw of words. Equipped with this prep, when she put on those ear phones and sang into the studio mic, what ensued was pure magic, bringing out the meaning of every word, the beauty of every note and most importantly, the precise emotion of the moment, to render a complete and perfect song. Pick any of her songs, pay attention to the words and how she sings them, how she lays emphasis or not on syllables or notes, how she caresses some words and notes, emphasizes others, pushes some, pulls others, prolongs some, hurries others, rounds some, drags others, and how she does all this differently for different actors – to convey the emotion, the meaning, the feeling of each syllable and note. The way she softens the word “mulaayam” in her rendition of “Hui aur bhi mulaayam meri shaam dhalte dhalte” (Song Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum from Silsila), or drops her voice on “girah” in Dil ki girah khol do (Raat aur din), or adds an innocent introspective tone to “Aarzoo kya hai, justajoo kya hai” in Ae dil-e- naadaan (Razia Sultan) are just some examples of this brilliant rendering. Yes, singers did give playback before Lataji. But the finesse, completeness and perfection of delivery she brought in, took playback singing to new heights.
And thus, using her four-octave-wide range, her agility and fluidity in spanning this range like a skilled acrobat, and her expertise in expression, Lataji’s voice didn’t sing, it emoted on the sound track, just like the actor’s face did on camera. She could make her listeners laugh, cry, love, hate, pine or play at will. Let’s go through some examples to illustrate and understand.
When one thinks of emotions emitting from Lataji’s songs, one famous story that naturally comes to the mind is of Lataji moving Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (then Prime Minister of India) to tears with Ae mere watan ke logon, so powerful was her rendition of the soldier slain in battlefield defending his motherland. While there are many songs like this one outside of films, I will limit this discussion to Lataji’s songs from films. Some of Lataji’s most emotive songs are her sad solos, in which she magically moves the listener to sadness. The first that jumps to my mind is Lag jaa gale – an all-time favourite of her fans; even today as I listen probably for the thousandth time to “Aankhon se phir yeh pyaar ki barsaat ho na ho”, my eyes well up. In the song Kuchh dil ne kahaa (in which her voice has a mystical feel, thanks to the minimal instrumental music arranged by Hemant-da), she creates a haunting yet discernible sense of underlying sadness, a marked feature of the protagonist in the movie. In Rasik Balmaa, she bemoans the act of falling in love so realistically, that one wonders if she might break into tears on the next word. In Teraa jaanaa, she brings out the pathos and lamentation in the song (while navigating a very tough tune and aalaaps) so effectively, that your heart feels heavy from the sadness. She makes the pain of love and separation very palpable in Nainaa barse, Jaa re ud jaa re panchhi or Unko yeh shikaayat hai; your heart breaks when she sings “toot gayaa” in Dil ka khilonaa; you can feel the pain of the protagonist flashing back on her good times in Woh bhooli daastaan; and you can almost hear a muffled sob in the phrase “karoon kyaa main haaye” in Chaand phir niklaa.
Of her many songs expressing heartbreak, I would like to juxtapose two exquisitely lovely ones to bring out the beauty of her singing – Ajeeb daastaan hai yeh and Rangeelaa re. Both songs are drenched in love for the beloved as much as in the pain of heartbreak. The former brings out the sadness with a sense of resignation, despair and a bit of light mocking, for instance in “Mubaarak ae tumhe ke tum kisike noor ho gaye”. On the contrary, Rangeelaa re has an active negative energy to it, expressing very vocally a sense of disbelief, frustration, jealousy, even ill-wishes for the beloved in “Chain na paaye re hiyaa”, not to forget the marked sarcasm in the refrain “Waah re pyaar, waah re waah”. Lataji’s rendering of emotions in both these songs, their similarities and the differences, the clear reflection of the styles of Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman respectively, on whom these songs were picturized, can make the content of a masterclass on how to emote when singing. With so much emotion already in the song, portrayal on screen became even stronger. Female actors would obviously love to have her as their singing voice; but there were a few on whom her voice fitted really well – Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Nanda, Waheeda Rehman, Saira Banu, Vyjayantimala almost had Lata as their “other” voice.
It would be remiss of me to give an impression that Lataji excelled in showing only sadness. Not at all. She brought out every emotion in songs. One genre of songs that Lataji made very popular is what I call a “dreamy damsel” song – a young female protagonist singing by herself, Lataji bringing out her innocent youthful dreaminess – Hawaa mein udtaa jaaye, Aaja re pardesi, Yeh samaa, O beqaraar dil, Jaa jaa jaa mere bachpan, O ghataa saanwari, Phaili hui hain are some of my favourites. While all these are relatively older from the ’50s and ‘60s, what’s remarkable, is that Lataji was still singing for dreamy damsels in the ‘80’s and ‘90s – Nindiyaa se jaagi bahaar, Tujhe bulaaye yeh meri baahen, Khushrang Henna, Yeh kaunsa mod hai umr ka, Mere khwaabon mein jo aaye are all picturized on actors of a much younger generation, but she sang so well, still staying relevant.
The joie-de-vivre of a girl in love was another emotion Lataji brought out efficaciously in many of her all-time hits. Some of the most melodious numbers in this genre are slow songs – Teraa meraa pyaar amar, Aap ki nazron ne samjhaa, Dheere dheere machal, Dil dhadke nazar sharmaaye, Sharm aati hai magar, Suno sajnaa, Saawan ke jhoole are all sweetly mellifluous; while some faster ones like Nain mile chain kahaan, Woh chaand khilaa, Dhoondho dhoondho re, Sun Sahibaa sun, Dil Deewaanaa are also lovely to listen to. She pulls off complex compositions in this genre, like Jaane kaise sapnon mein, Solaah baras ki with as much ease as the more gentle yet exhilarating Roz shaam aati thi, Rajnigandhaa, Rim zim gire saawan or Aaj kal paanv zameen par. If I had to pick my two most favourite songs in this genre, they would be O Sajnaa (Parakh) and Aaj phir jeene ki (Guide). In O Sajnaa, every word and note overflows with so much cheer, romance, optimism and expectation, that it can fill anyone with joy. Whenever it rains, this song is on my lips instinctively, soaking me in its melody. Aaj phir also expresses extreme joy that the protagonist feels (on discovering her love and her freedom) so powerfully, that it infuses you with a different kind of positive energy and zeal, making you want to dance, just like the character on screen!
Along with romantic songs (happy and sad), Lataji has also sung many other genres, bringing the emotions in them alive. Here are some playful numbers – Is duniyaa mein jeenaa ho to is a celebration of life, Kaise rahoon chup is sung in drunken stupor, Andaaz mera mastaana has a middle-Eastern twist to it, and Jhooth bole kauaa kaate, Lo chali mein, Waah Waah Raamji all are lively songs in different situations that Lataji has had us tap our fingers and feet to. The impending suspense in Hothon mein aisi baat and seductive romance in Mujhe buddhaa mil gayaa are brought out as much by Lataji’s expressive voice as they are by the lovely eyes and graceful dance of Vyjayantimala. Talking of dance, female leads of every generation of Hindi films have danced to Lataji’s beautiful voice – who can forget Jab pyaar kiya to darnaa kyaa (Madhubala), Neel gagan ki chhaaon mein (Vyjayantimala), Chalte Chalte (Meena Kumari), Bindiyaa Chamkegi (Mumtaz), Kaantaa lagaa (Asha Parekh), Piyaa tose nainaa laage (Waheeda Rehman), Aa jaane jaan (Helen), Raamaa Raamaa (Hema Malini), Dafliwaale (Jaya Prada), Salaam-e-ishq meri jaan (Rekha), Mere haathon mein (Sridevi), Didi teraa dewar (Madhuri), Mere khwaabon mein (Kajol), among many many others that I am sure I am missing here?
Lataji has sung some exceptional songs in the devotional genre, like Ae Maalik tere bande ham, Prabhu tero naam, and the lesser known Maataa Saraswati Shaarda. I believe her best songs in this genre are in her Marathi repertoire; in Hindi, my favourites are Allaah tero naam, O Paalanhaare and Satyam shivam sundaram. The first two are about beseeching divine help – two bhajans sung forty years apart, both so intense, so deeply devotional, both with some beautiful musical phrases and aalaaps. The rendering of the word “Eeshwar” in Allah tero naam, or the tone of resigned desperation when pleading “Tumhi naa sanwaaroge to kya koi sanwaare” in O Paalanhaare – drip with so much sincerity and devotion, that I wonder how the Almighty, when He listens to it, could ever refuse His devotee anything! Satyam Shivam Sundaram is in a class of its own, arguably one of the best of the Lataji-L-P combo. A morning prayer, it starts with soft mellifluous notes of the flute and the veena; then Lataji eases into it with “Eeshwar satya hai”, slowly building up into a crescendo with “Jaago uthkar dekho”; just as you are waiting curiously in the momentary pause that ensues, comes an incredibly beautiful cascade of mellifluous notes as she comes down with “Jeevanjyot ujaagar hai”; now your eyes are closed to ensure you don’t miss a single fraction of a note, as she takes the sur back up after “Sundaram” in an equally fluid ascent of a rapturous aalaap. By this time, you have forgotten the world, every sense of your being fully focused on listening intently, as the song flows on; and at the end, you almost go into a trance as Lataji ends with another scintillating aalaap! If this is not a spiritual experience, what is? It’s inconceivable that Lataji recorded this song in one straight take after learning the tune in very little time. Also, legend goes that Raj-ji always asked for aalaap’s in songs, and he did the same on this one; Lataji, albeit a tad irritated this time, graced his request with that last aalaap – Raj-ji, we cannot thank you enough for insisting!
Every once in a while, Lataji would whip out a sweet surprise element in her songs, almost like a bow pinned to a perfectly packed gift – it could come as the happily-hopping-yet-surprisingly-smooth “Oye oye oye oye…” at the beginning of Papi bicchhuaa (Madhumati), or the heart-rendingly forlorn, precipitously descending “Haaye…” at the beginning of Kaise din beete (Anuradha); it could be the lively laugh at the end of Choodi nahin yeh meraa (Gambler), or the cheeky “Aiyyaa” in Dil vil pyaar vyaar (Shagird); it could be a soft aalaap inviting you into the gentle flow of Yeh zindagi usiki hai (Anarkali), or a complex aalaap, readying you for the steep curves and wanton turns of Sheesha ho ya dil ho (Asha). Each song made special, each melody memorable with that personal touch and finish!
I can obviously go on and on; but I hope that by now, the point has been fairly established that Lataji didn’t sing, she told stories so lovingly that she hit a chord in people’s hearts. She did that for six decades, song after song, right upto “Lukaa chhupi” (Rang de basanti), which was almost her last in Hindi films, with the same impact. In this duet with A R Rehman about a mother looking for her child, Lataji makes you feel every emotion of that mother in your heart – her joy at the mere thought of her child, her light frustration at not finding him, the anxiety that’s beginning to build, the mock admonition in her tone, her pleading for him to be back, all tug so hard you heart – Lataji at her best even at the age of 77, music incarnate, greatness incarnate!
So here we are, after trying to churn the ocean of Lataji’s work in our own way to understand what lies within. Others may do it differently. Whichever way one may go about it, I am sure it will still show the same thing – that there is a mystical magic, an unworldly wizardry in Lataji’s voice and singing that has the power to move your heart and stir your soul. This magic and power in any art is only possible by total dedication or सम्पूर्ण समर्पण (sampoorn samarpan) by an artiste to that art. Lataji’s life has been dedicated to her art, making music her life and her universe. Even the mythical सागरमंथन threw up some unwanted and unsavoury things but such is the power of Lataji’s art, that this सागरमंथन can only yield अमृत – a magic potion she concocts by moving and blending her other-worldly voice in ways only she can, to put the listener in a trance of bliss. That, my friends, is the phenomenon called Lata Mangeshkar – enigmatic to understand, abstruse to explain, but easy to experience!
(What else defines Lataji’s life and career? Read the last section to know more…)
Our deep dive into the ocean of Lataji’s work has hopefully left no doubt about its profundity, and has also given us some deep insights into what makes its waters so thrilling and enthralling. Having said that, what we have explored so far is only a part of the ocean. There is much more to Lataji’s career and life. Let’s look at the ocean now from a bird’s eye view, to catch a glimpse of these other shades and aspects.
The full scope of Lataji’s work is multiple times of what we have seen so far, as it goes beyond films, and beyond Hindi. While not knowledgeable about her work in the many other languages she has sung in, I am intimately familiar with her prolific work in Marathi (also my mother-tongue). One unique distinction of Lataji, which most people are not aware of, is that apart from being a singer, she is a distinguished music director in Marathi films. Blending her technical knowledge with local Marathi folk tunes, she composed music for five Marathi films (almost forty songs) under the pseudonym “Anandghan”. All these songs (Akherchaa haa, Airanichyaa devaa, Malyaachyaa malyaamandi, Daul morachyaa, to quote just a handful) are so unimaginably sweet, they could replace sugar in desserts! Almost all her songs were superhits at the time, and remain so to this day. She could not continue with music direction as she had her hands full with singing. We don’t know what we missed because she stopped, but I am very grateful for even these few songs we got from her, which have given us boundless joy, other than proving this talent of hers for posterity.
Lataji’s repertoire of Marathi songs is vast and across many genres, just like in Hindi, and can easily make the topic of a separate article, so I will only touch on some highlights here. Firstly, unlike in Hindi, she has hundreds of songs not just in films but also outside of films. For those interested, there are two genres that must be explored for some of Lataji’s best songs. Bhaavgeet (literally means “song of emotion”) is a unique genre in Marathi, characterized by lovely lyrics expressing different emotions, and lovelier tunes, not unlike ghazals in Hindi-Urdu. Lataji has many exquisitely beautiful songs in this genre, which sound fresh as flowers even today (do listen to Shraavanaat ghan nilaa, Mendichyaa paanaavar, Sandhikaali yaa, Kashi kaal nagini, Tinhisannjaa, to name a handful); their popularity several decades after their creation is mind-boggling. Lataji’s Bhaktigeet’s (devotional songs) in Marathi are exceptional. Her aartis, abhangs and bhajans are very popular; no pooja in a Marathi household is complete without Lataji’s version of Sukhakartaa Dukhahartaa. Her best songs in this genre though, I believe, are her renditions of Sant Dnyaneshwar’s allegorical poems, interpreting the Bhagvad Geeta. Om namoji aadyaa, Mogara fulalaa, Arre arre Dnyaanaa, Runu zunu, Pasaayadaan – these are not just a music lover’s bliss; they are vehicles to take one on a spiritual journey filling the heart with indescribable peace. Delivering such renditions is not an ordinary accomplishment, impossible for most. To my mind, Lataji’s long dedication and sampoorn samarpan to her art that we have talked of before, is what’s behind this feat. Clearly discernible in these songs, it is this profound and prolonged devotion that has enabled her to soak these songs in deep spiritualism, making them, in my mind, some of her best ever. A must-hear for any music lover.
We have had a lot of discussion about Lataji’s career; let’s take a peek into Lataji the person. In spite of the larger-than-life persona she has, she has always consciously avoided the limelight, and been protective of her privacy, given her introverted nature. Hence, what I share here is mostly my deduction from my reading (articles and interviews of people who know her closely or have worked with her). Lataji is a loving and caring person. The way she took responsibility and care of her family from a very young age is quite extraordinary. She is known to have had very close relationships with several people in the industry, who dearly loved her back. Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Madan Mohan, most of her male singer colleagues like Mukesh, Rafi-sahab, Kishore Kumar were all very close to Lataji, and she shares a close bond even today with industry stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, his wife Saira Banu, Rekha and Javed Akhtar. There is a touching story of her relationship with lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri – in 1962, Lataji is rumoured to have been poisoned; as she was recovering, Majroohji used to visit her daily, and taste her food first before she ate it, to ensure it was safe. Such deep and close relationships are only possible with people who are themselves loving and caring to others.
Lataji thus has a soft core, and like many talented artistes, she is a very sensitive person. At the same time, she is fiercely self-respecting and fearless; she also has the courage of her conviction and the will to fight for what she believes is right. Combine all these characteristics, and you have a person who will not only not stand the slightest insult or injustice, but will also fight it back. While this strength of character comes naturally to her, it has doubtless only become stronger, honed by her deeply religious and spiritual leanings. These strong traits not only helped Lataji overcome many barriers that came in her way, they also helped her set a few things right in the music industry, which she does not receive enough credit for.
The practice of having singers’ names printed on music LPs started because of Lataji, a clear win for all singers. She also fought for singers to get due recognition for success of their songs. In those times, when a song received an award, it was meant only for the music director, while the singer received no recognition or remuneration for it. Lataji highlighted the unfairness of this practice by refusing to sing the song Rasik Balmaa at the Filmfare awards function, when S-J won an award for it. Filmfare and the industry registered the message, and the very next year, the “Best Singer” awards were instituted in both male and female categories, Lataji being the first ever female singer awardee for Aajaa re Pardesi. Another very difficult fight she led almost single-handedly for singers was to get a permanent commission on revenues of their songs. While this was a fair ask by her (given the big role singers play in the long-term success of songs), it was vehemently opposed by many big music directors, producers as well as singers like Rafi-sahab, leading to conflicts. But she persisted with her fight, and finally won it not just for herself but all singers.
These strong personality traits of hers also led to some issues with industry colleagues. For instance, she did not work with Rafi sahab (due to the royalty debate) and also with SD Burman (due to a misunderstanding) for a few years, and her relationship with Raj Kapoor was stressed for some time as well. Conflicts at work are a part and parcel of any career in any field. Stronger the personalities involved, higher the chance of such rows. The good news is that such tiffs were temporary. Lataji mended her ties with all these people and created not just splendid songs with them all but also close bonds. Talking of ties with her colleagues, Lataji was blamed for not allowing other singers to succeed. The industry definitely had some very talented female singers, yet with a competitor of the calibre of Lataji, it would be an under-statement to say that it was always going to be tough for them. With the almost guaranteed success Lataji brought, and with her reputation for completing song recordings with the least possible takes and fuss, it is hardly a surprise that she became the preference of music directors. Some singers like Geeta Dutt and Ashaji responded by carving out niches for themselves where Lataji was not as dominant, and then building on those. Others who were not able to do that obviously did not progress much. When an exceptional talent appears in a field, such an outcome is to be expected. The talent can hardly be blamed for it.
Thus, on the bedrock of her genius and with the fortification of her strong personality, Lataji worked hard and fought hard to make a place for herself in the industry and then rose step by step to a height where no one could even come close. Today, gender diversity and women’s empowerment is a much-discussed topic across fields. Women who have fought the gender trap to make it to anywhere close to the top of any field are hailed as heroes. Lataji worked in a time when women had no rights and no empowerment, when all fields were male-dominated, and a successful woman would face mountains of hurdles every step of her way. I cannot imagine how many of those Lataji faced. Detractors criticised her for many things – for stifling other singers, for having rows with colleagues, for fighting for royalties, even for ridiculous things like trying to project a Meerabai-like image to become successful. She faced it all, fought it all, withstood it all, and emerged victorious. Lataji’s story of a young talented girl from a small town, who rose to the top in a fiercely competitive field, who defined new standards of success, and who reigned like a queen without ever being upstaged for decades in a male-dominated industry, should be a pyramid of inspiration for women, and should be studied with respect and admiration as a peerless example of diversity success.
What an illustrious career and life – indeed like an unfathomable ocean, अथांग महासागर. Dive into it, soar over it, see it from whichever angle you want, what meets the eye is a breathtaking view of the vast, lovely ocean – resplendent on its surface, mystical in its depth, gigantic in its stature! A genius like Lataji is one of a kind – matchless, न भूतो न भविष्यति (Na bhuto na bhavishyati – never been and never will be), a priceless gift to the world of films and to the world of music. Rewards and recognition have come to her in scores, including the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1989 (the highest award in Indian cinema) and the Padma awards – Padma Bhushan in 1969, Padma Vibhushan in 1999 . The crowning glory though, came in 2001, when a grateful and adoring nation bestowed the highest possible civilian honour on Lataji – the Bharat Ratna (Gem of India).
Truly, Lataji, you are our invaluable, priceless, scintillating ratna. Such is the magic of your music, that it will resonate in this universe forever, keeping it musical and melodious for generations to come. Having lived in an era where one got to experience a big part of this magic live, is an unbelievable privilege; being able to write about it an incredible honour. Even as I write this, I am so dazzled by the brightness of this gem, so mesmerized by the melody of her music, so entranced by the spell it casts, that my hands fold and my head bows as I offer this tribute of mine as my परसतिश (parastish – adoring worship) of what is undoubtedly one of the most magnificent, phenomenal, unprecedented phenomena of modern times – the golden voice of Lata Mangeshkar!