At the top of her voice


One of India’s greatest playback singers, in her 50-year career, Lata Mangeshkar never actively sought fame and glory. Like tunes, they just came naturally to her. K Raman honours the singer on her birthday, 28 September

Lata Mangeshkar is the doyen of the Indian playback singing clan. She was born in Indore, on 28 September, 1929 into the extraordinary Mangeshkar traveling theatre family. The head of the family was Lata’s father Dinanath Mangeshkar. The name, Mangeshkar is derived from the ‘Mangeshi’ temple of Belgaum. When Dinanath died in 1940, the travelling theatre owned by him ceased to operate. He left behind his young wife, four daughters and a son. The eldest of the five was 12-year-old Lata.

Music director Gulam Hyder is often mentioned as the one who first spotted Lata at an amateur music competition in Pune. It was however music director Khemchand Prakash’s song ‘Ayega aanewalla’ that brought young Lata’s talents to the fore. Film veterans Naushad and Raj Kapoor also played their part in bringing Lata to the forefront.  Actor Raj Kapoor, through music directors Shankar and Jaikishan, signed Lata on to sing for actress Nargis in the film ‘Barsath’. The songs turned out to be massive hits.

In the late 1940s, music directors were looking for a fresh female voice, and in Lata they heard a sweet and melodious voice with a charm of its own. Lata had the uncanny ability to grasp even the most complicated tunes quickly. Also, it was during this era that Noorjahan, the great female playback singer, left Bombay to settle in newly formed Pakistan. Lata became the first choice of the top music directors. The rest is history.

She is the greatest recording artist of Hindi cinema. Various factors contributed to her immense success. While recording Lata takes into account various characteristics of the song, and its relation to the story of the film for which it was made. She always tries to keep in mind the voice characteristics of the actress who will be synchronizing lips movements to project Lata’s song on the screen.

Explaining her career in the realm of playback singing, Lata tells of the nuances of expressions she picked up from various music directors over the years. She credits Anil Biswas for teaching her the use of the pause in song. Gulam Hyder for the art of raising the voice a fraction to make it coincide with the beat. She used to do unannounced and with the slightest suspicion to her team. She did this frequently to co-singer Mohamad Rafi, much to his astonishment.

During the early stages of her career, Lata was spending a fair chunk of her time recording Marathi songs for stalwart composers like C Ramachandra (Chitalgar), Kohli, Vasanth Desai and others. For well over four decades music directors from Gulam Hyder, Husanlal Bhagathram, Naushad, father son duo of Burmans, Roshan, Salail Choudhry and others queued up to procure her voice  to make their creative efforts successful. The only exception to it was Omkar Prasad Nayyar (O.P) who never sought Lata’s help to climb to glory. As a coincidence Lata’s sister Asha was highly instrumental for his success.

Lata is highly individualistic. She is shy by nature, and to some extent a loner. She avoids film functions and award nights.  Her awards are delivered to her at home.  She has never craved or sought personal publicity and genuinely respects her co-artists. She had a special affinity to the musical works of the late Madan Mohan. Songs from films like Adalat are testimony to that. In the early stages of her career, Noorjahan was her greatest threat. Later on when Noorjahan fell ill in a bad way, Lata took a long trip to Pakistan (Lahore) to comfort her. In fact they were great friends and had a healthy rivalry between them.

A few years ago, H.M.V. Recording Company had asked Lata to name 50 of her all-time hits. She began the listing with ‘Dil mera thoda’ (Majboor, 1948), tuned by Gulam Hyder. The listing ended with the song from ‘Ram tari Gaga Maili’, a Ravindra Jain composition of 1985. Of these 50 gems handpicked by Lata, Shankar Jaikishan featured in 6 numbers, Roshan in 4, Naushad, S.D.Burman, R.D.Burman, Madan Mohan and Salil Choudhry feastured in 3 songs each, with Anil Biswas,  and Laxmikanth- Pyarelal figuring in fewer numbers.

The Guinness Book of records lists Lata’s name and credits her as the most recorded artiste in the world. It says, “Lata Mangeshkar, between 1948 and 1987, has reportedly recorded not less than 30,000 solo, duet and chorus backed songs in 20 Indian languages”. She frequently had five sessions a day and had backed in excess of 2,000 films. No wonder Time magazine described her as “the indisputable queen of the Indian playback singers”.

Lata has embellished many a film and given her silky smooth voice to many of the glamorous celluloid heroines who have graced the silver screen for many decades. Undoubtedly, Lata is the most successful and sought after singer of any era of the Indian screen. Success in any field is based on one’s capacity to survive over many years against all possible odds. Lata did it for over 50 years and she is still at it.

This is the first in a series of articles by the writer profiling singers he has interviewed over the last 55 years.

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