Lata Mangeshkar: A legend turns 92
The Bollywood singing sensation who celebrates her birthday on September 28, is an artist whose voice continues to mesmerize new generations of listeners.
What Veer Zaara and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge have in common with Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, Madhumati, Guide and Pakeezah is the contribution of one woman – Lata Mangeshkar. She’s the voice that has seeped into South Asian consciousness and is loved in equal measure around the world.
Lata Mangeshkar is to music what Picasso is to painting. Without her three-octaves spanning, honey-sweet voice on hand, our composers could not have given their musical imagination a free rein.
For whether it is an intricate classical number like Chalte Chalte, a peppermint pronouncement like Didi Tera Devar Deewana, Lata has always rendered her songs with commendable felicity. Today on the legend’s 92nd birthday we revisit her monumental stature and why her name is used as a touchstone for greatest voice ever.
Early life and acting career
Lata was born the eldest child of a Gujarati mother and a Marathi stage actor-singer father, Dinnanath Mangeshkar. Her happy childhood, spent imbibing musical knowledge from her father, was rudely interrupted when he died in 1942. Thirteen-year-old Lata was now in charge of providing for her impecunious family.
Within eight days of her beloved father’s death, a dry-eyed Lata had donned make-up to act in the Marathi film, Pahili Mangalagaur (1942). She made her debut as a playback singer in the Marathi film, Kiti Hasaal (1942) but her song was edited out of the film. From 1942 to 1948, the economic necessities dictated that Lata act in as many as eight films in Hindi and Marathi. Her first attempt at playback singing in Hindi films, Aap ki Seva Mein (1947), went unnoticed but the scrawny Maharashtrian girl with two oily plaits continued her concentrated efforts to make her mark.
The big singing break
Defying producer S Mukherji’s damning edict that her voice was too thin, prodigal composer Ghulam Haider gave Lata her breakthrough with the Majboor (1948) song, Dil mera toda. The next year saw Naushad making Lata vocalise seminal Andaaz songs like Uthaye ja unke sitam. Barsaat and Mahal were released in the same year. With these three films, Lata soared to the pinnacle of success.
Lata’s high pitched singing rendered obsolete the base, heavy voices of Amirbai Karnataki and Samshad Begum. Her early style of singing was reminiscent of Noorjehan but Lata determinedly overcame the influence to maintain a recognisable personal signature in all her songs.
This determination was on display right from her Andaaz days when Dilip Kumar questioned her Urdu and called it daal-chaawal. Hiring a tutor, Lata perfected the language. Her perennial search for perfection was more than evident at the Amar recording, where she repeatedly tried to get a particular murki of the song Tere sadke balam right. After 18 takes, she fainted in the recording room. Even after regaining consciousness, the first thing Lata wanted to do was to make another attempt at the song.
Controversies with peers
Her unbroken record of hit songs made Lata the most powerful woman in the film industry. She waged battle with such important people as Raj Kapoor and Shankar Jaikishen over the vulgarity in the Main kya karoon Ram number from Sangam. When Rasik Balma (Chori-Chori) won the Filmfare Award for best song, Lata refused to sing it live in protest of no female playback category. She stopped singing with Mohammed Rafi for several years in the mid-60s over the contentious issue of royalty payment to playback singers.
She also broke her ties with composer S D Burman for three or four years after he allegedly took credit for building her career. All this made no appreciable difference to her career. She created history by singing thousands of songs over decades.
Her monopoly and rivalry
They say the wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain. Though at the peak of her career she was enjoying unmatched success, it was alleged that she would often get insecure by new talent. She has often been accused of rendering other female singers of the era jobless. Though it is widely alleged that Lata ousted Geeta Dutt, but she once commented in an interview that they were close friends. Lata said, “We sang many duets together. She was very fond of me. And I of her. She used to confide her domestic problems in me. We spent hours chatting and gossiping.”
Another singer who was deeply impacted by Lata’s supremacy was Suman Kalyanpur; who got branded the ‘poor man’s Lata Mangeshkar.’ Not many know that Suman was often recommended by Lata herself when she was unable to do a song. And yet, there were stories circulated about Suman’s career being sabotaged.
Archives are filled with stories of the jealousy-ridden rivalry she had with her own uber-talented sister Asha Bhonsle. The rivalry became a constant trouble for musicians back then. They could not work with both of them and were forced to choose sides.
It is said that Ae mere watan ke logon was supposed to be sung by Asha but Lata eventually bagged it as it is alleged that she pulled some strings at a higher level. Lata was said to have stopped singing for O P Nayyar because he was continuously working with Asha. But Lata sidelined all the controversies and tagged them as sibling differences.
Yet, little was known about the taciturn lady’s personal life except for her spiritualism, her love for diamonds, her enthusiasm for cricket and her friendship with Raj Singh Dungarpur.
Her international fan following
Even as accusations of her monopolising the field grew stronger, Lata cut down on her workload from the mid-70s and concentrated on her shows abroad. At the time when Madonna and Michael Jackson were ruling the charts, Lata was the only foreign singer whose concerts would get sold out even at the most expensive ticket prices abroad.
Only a Raj Kapoor could convince her to sing for his Ram Teri Ganga Maili till she made a great comeback with Chandni and Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989. Since then this 'Nightingale of India' has lent her voice to actresses like Kajol, Tabu, Manisha, Urmila, Kareena and Preity Zinta.
The past few decades
Post millennium, she has mostly sung for Yash Raj Films and has recorded a couple of songs with AR Rahman including Jiya Jale from Dil Se, and Lukka chuppi from Rang de Basanti. Her devotional side has always run in parallel with her commercial singing. Her album Sajda with late Jagjit Singh was the largest selling devotional album of all times. In November 2012, Lata Mangeshkar launched her own music label LM Music with an album of bhajans. She sang along with younger sister Usha on the album.
Famous song and scriptwriter, and a self-proclaimed Lata-bhakt, Javed Akhtar once said, “Sometimes I think people like Lataji, Ghalib, Beethoven and Shakespeare are far removed from the normal chain of human civilisation. If they were just role models how come no one was able to achieve an iota of their perfection? They are intruders of civilisation who come as reminders of the rule of mediocrity that prevails. Lataji belongs to a different league.”
Today, the voice that has entertained millions is silent but not a day passes without a Lata song being aired on radio or television. Millions are enraptured by her voice on a daily basis and she continues to hold sway over popular culture.
Sadiq Saleem is a UAE based entertainment writer and can be contacted on his Insta handle @sadiqidas