Lata Mangeshkar. Two words that encapsulate seven decades of music and a golden volumnious chapter in Hindi music. Lata has been an intrinsic part of the national consciousness just like, perhaps, the Taj Mahal. Her songs of love and loss, hope and happiness, strife and success, have helped generations heal and deal with a spectrum of intricate human emotions. Distilled and unblemished, her voice springing from the inner recesses of a consecrated artiste has made Lata the stuff of legends…
A muse who enthused a hundred mentors and inspired a million melodies, she will continue to be heard so long as the sun and stars conform to the diktats of gravity. Lata’s tryst with music began when she was just five. As a teenager she turned breadwinner to a family that became a victim of misfortune. “This year in October, I complete 75 years in the film industry. My father (noted musician Dinanath Mangeshkar) passed away in April 1942 and in October the same year I started working,” she looks back. Young Lata began as an actor and Pahili Mangalagaur (1942) with Shahu Modak was her first film followed by Chimukla Sansar (1943) and Maajhe Baal (1944). “I was around 13-14. So I’d get roles of the hero’s or the heroine’s sister. But I didn’t like acting. Applying make-up, laughing and crying on order wasn’t something I enjoyed. I was happiest singing,” she smiles. And sing she did only to achieve a position nothing short of deification.
After winning awards repeatedly for years, in 1969, she gracefully declined to accept them and asked establishments to no longer nominate her. Instead she urged them to encourage her peers and juniors. The last time Lata Mangeshkar sang for a Hindi film was in 2011 when she crooned Tere hasne se in the film Satrangee Parachute. At the age of 87, she’s not interested in playback anymore. “Today’s songs are such that even if I’m approached to sing them I politely decline. I don’t know what to say about the lyrics. The dance numbers also go dhadaam dhadaam! But I won’t blame anyone. They are only catering to the present times,” she says softly. “But there have been melodious numbers too… like the songs in Border – Sandese aate hai… Also, Main Hoon Na. Shah Rukh Khan performed the title song so beautifully. Such music keeps my faith going,” says Lata whose songs in Veer-Zaara for the late Madan Mohan in 2004 were mesmerising.
Today’s the octogenarian is driven by a spiritual inclination. “In the past few years I’ve sung devotional songs on Mahadev, Krishna, Hanuman Chalisa, even ghazals. I enjoy singing stotras more than anything else today,’ shares she adding, “It’s my desire to record the Ram Raksha stotra. There are a lot of people in Maharashtra who recite Ram Raksha even today.” Her opting out from mainstream music hasn’t dulled her understanding of contemporary compositions. She believes the digital revolution has robbed individual artistes of long careers. She says, “The trend of producing records, cassettes or CDs is over. Music companies have opted to monetise online and through YouTube music sales. Only if a song does well, does the singer get opportunities or else he or she just fades away.” She adds, “Also, singers hold shows abroad for which they get paid well. But that’s just another way of making money. Identifying a film by its music and singers… well that doesn’t happen anymore. In an album full of tracks, a singer gets to sing just one or two songs.” She also doesn’t see too much merit in the music reality TV shows. “No one has a clue about what pure singing is. Children participate in shows and emerge winners. But where do they eventually reach? And who will take a little girl to sing a song for the lead heroine?
A seven-eight year old boy won’t get to sing for the hero. The shows are just good for entertainment,” she opines.She misses her colleagues who contributed to Hindi cinema. “I miss the singers and composers who’re no more. There’s a dearth of poets. In fact, poetry has ceased to exist,” she laments. In the last 74 years she has sung for every actress right from Madhubala to Kajol. “I have sung for many actresses. Fortunately, my voice suited them all. But I believe my voice suited Nargis and Meena Kumari the most. Meena’s voice too was delicate. In recent times, I’d say my voice suited Kajol,” says Lata who belted out iconic numbers for Kajol in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. She shares an abiding affection for Jaya Bachchan. In fact, it’s said that for her role of a famous singer in Abhimaan, director Hrishikesh Mukherjee had asked Jaya to observe Lata and incorporate those nuances on screen. Lata remembers it like it was yesterday. “Jaya came and sat in front of me while I was recording Piya bina. I felt conscious. But when I watched the movie, I saw Jaya had emulated me perfectly. The way I tend to pull my saree pallu over my shoulder seemed so real. She had got my mannerisms perfectly,” shares she.
Lata also considers Waheeda Rehman as someone who aced lip synching. “I had sung for Waheeda Rehman in Guide. When you watched her on screen, it appeared if she was singing those songs. Her performance was so beautiful and real, the way her lips moved… she didn’t falter for a moment,” reflects Lata. The same applied to Dimple Kapadia in Lekin. “Lekin had classical songs. And though Dimple may not have studied classical music, her lips moved perfectly,” she says with admiration.
She recalls her own learning experiences with humility. She says, “I was a Marathi speaking girl who didn’t have much clue about Hindi. But music directors like Naushad saab, Anil Biswas, Master Ghulam Haider, Khemchand Prakashji and others guided me. People like Shankar- Jaikishan made music from the heart. SD Burman would teach with so much love. He was like a father figure to me. He’d ask me to understand the meaning of the song first,” she shares. “Naushad saab would ask me to recite the song before I sang it to check my pronunciation. I’d write out the song and read it and re-read it out to him until he okayed it.” She adds, “Anil Biswas taught me how to breathe out without making an obvious sound, which could be captured by the mike. A lot depends on how you stand in front of the mike.”
She cites a few spiritual influences in her great journey. “It’s the blessings of my parents and my Guru. God’s been kind to me. I was lucky to have learned from poet Pandit Narendra Sharma and Baba Varji Pendharkar from Kolhapur – who sent me a Dnyaneshwari early in my life. He also guided me telling me not to be afraid of singing in new languages. He’d predicted a bright future for me,” she shares. She still considers herself a student. That’s one of the main reasons why she didn’t take up a pupil. “I never believed I could teach someone. I didn’t even teach my family. My sisters Usha (Mangeshkar) and Meena (Mangeshkar) learnt music on their own,” she maintains.
One of the most memorable moments of her career happened in 1963 when she sang the patriotic number Aye mere watan ke logo on account of Republic Day and left the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in tears. The track written by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C Ramchandra, commemorated the Indian soldiers who had died during the Indo-China War in 1962. “Around the time this song was sung, there was a lot of tension in the air. And listening to this song, Panditji had tears in his eyes.
I never imagined this song would grow to be so popular. The credit goes to poet Pradeepji,” she says. “I believe this song shouldn’t be played on Republic Day as the occasion is celebratory. A song like Vande Matram would be more appropriate. But so far, every show I’ve done, this song has been the one most requested.” As a person too, her love for all things beautiful is well-known. Be it diamonds, sarees or cuisine. In fact, her white sarees with coloured borders matching with the day of the week is the stuff of film lore. Fortunately, for Lata, she exercised no caution where food was concerned even during her heydays. “I used to eat ice-cream even before recording a song. I’d relish pickles, spicy food, green chillies… nothing affected me,” she laughs.
That brings back memories of another food aficionado, the late Yash Chopra. “Yashji used to call me Didi. He’d tell me, I can never think of any other artiste except you.” She also enjoys a great rapport with the Bachchans – Amitabh and Jaya. “Bachchan saab and I share a good rapport but we don’t meet. We keep in touch on the phone; he writes to me about the things he’s doing.” She’s good friends with Pamela Chopra and Hema Malini as well. She adds, “Hema and I are in constant touch via WhatsApp. Even Dharam saab sends me interesting pictures sometimes.”
She’s a travel junkie too. “I got to travel and explore thanks to the shows I did. I have done over 102 shows abroad. In India, most of my shows were held in Kolkata,” says Lata who after Hindi has sung the most number of songs in Bengali with music directors like Salil Chowdhary, Hridaynath Mangeshkar and Hemant Kumar.
“I have cut a record in Swahili too, an African language. I’ve sung in the Fijian language, in Russian and English too,” informs Lata who has sung in 36 languages. She even tried her hand at composing music, but never turned music director. She was put off by the rigmarole of composing tunes and having them approved by the director. “I don’t enjoy the tedious process. I’d recorded a few songs for Bhalji Pendharkar Baba’s Sadhi Manse (1965). They became popular especially Iranichya Deva tula. I used an actual bhata (an ironsmith’s tools) for lending authentic sound effects in the song featuring an ironsmith.”
Just like her voice, her words are also golden… more so for aspiring singers. “Youngsters shouldn’believe that they can create magic just by holding a mike. Without training in classical music, whether Indian or Western, it’s useless. Knowing the taal and sur of the song is most important,” she gives the decree in her dulcet tone.