Resilient in character, ambitious in nature and an unarticulated perfectionist — Lata Mangeshkar not just shaped the contours of playback singing in its infancy but also commanded unadulterated reverence all throughout — beyond the boundaries of time, nation, age-groups and whatnot
Is there any word that can qualify Lata Mangeshkar the singer in full measure? Perhaps not. Her name is as much a noun as an adjective. Metaphorical use of the phenomenon called 'Lata' for any singer of the day could just be the most elating compliment for her/him.
The world of music lost one of the finest gems it had in its kitty last week. She left, as all are destined to do at some point in time, but leaving behind a universe of melody where one can find expression for deepest emotions and moods. She mastered, and aced, almost all forms of singing — be it the world-famous ghazals or some hidden melancholic regional song forms. She undoubtedly left the world as the most accomplished and revered singer in the Indian music industry.
In this article, we shall discuss the making of the indisputable genius. We shall reminisce about the story of the simple-looking Marathi girl taking film singing as a survival method, and then holding the reins for all her lifetime. We shall retrospect what, apart from her unquestionable singing skills, made her stand out against her contemporaries across the Lata era spanning over seven decades. Was it her quiet perfectionism or the unmoving determination coupled with self-pride that she got in inheritance, her ability to work with ease with a strikingly diverse club of accomplished contemporary music composers or the originality of her persona that allowed her to finetune with younger generations one after another? We shall try to throw light on the slightest fraction of the universe she represented, as a tribute we are capable of paying to her.
Early life and family
Born to Shevanti Mangeshkar and Dinanath Mangeshkar on September 28, 1929 in Indore, Hema Mangeshkar (who would attain global fame as Lata Mangeshkar in the coming decades) was the eldest child in the family. Dinanath Mangeshkar was a big name in the world of classical singing and theatre at that point in time. His love for theatre can be reflected from the fact that he named his eldest daughter Hema as Lata after a character named Latika in one of his plays.
Lata Mangeshkar's singing prowess may have been shaped by several factors. Firstly, she inherited it from her father. Second was the ambience she had been brought up into. Her father would teach music students at home and the family regularly hosted prominent music personalities of that time. The third factor was her god-gifted voice which, quite mysteriously, parted ways with her aging body in terms of growing old. It refused to die with her dying body! The fourth and the most important factor, in our conviction, is her passion for singing and work ethics.
In one of her interviews, Lata di recollected how as a five-year-old kid she would preach to one of the disciples of his father in his absence, and be caught with his sudden arrival. The incident left the music master stunned and he decided to teach her own daughter. So began the daily practice of the megastar in the making — who until now had only used her talent to irritate her mother!
At the age of nine, at her insistence, Dinanath Mangeshkar allowed her to perform on stage for the first time. Lata di preceded her fathers' performance on the occasion. First recorded song would come to her at the age of 13 in 1942 — but only after her reluctant father would concede to the repeated request of his director friend Vasant Joglekar. As a patron of classical singing, Dinanath Mangeshkar never wanted her daughter to take the film line, and neither did Lata Mangeshkar — deeply passionate about classical singing — wish so.
But life's plans are sometimes different from ours — for good or for bad, we can never determine!
Years of struggle
Months after she recorded her first song, Lata di lost her father, and a whole new world, full with challenges and adversities, opened before her. In fact, the adversities knocked in a decade earlier for the smooth-going Mangeshkar family with the advent of Ardeshir Irani's first talkie Alam Ara which spelt disaster for theatre companies. With the incomes dried up, Mangeshkar family moved to Sangli. Dinanath Mangeshkar made a bold move of opening up a film company at the cost of her wife's jewellery. The initiative failed badly and Dinanath could never recover from it — falling into the clutches of poverty and alcoholism.
Classical singing soon became a far dream for her but she had more to worry about. The 13-year-old Lata promptly took to the responsible task of sustaining her family. Master Vinayak — then a big name in the Indian film industry — came to her support. To earn money, Lata di had to do a work she loathed — acting.
On the conditions of directors, she had to deface her face to suit the industry standards. Her thick eyebrows would be made thinner, her hair over her forehead would be chopped off to make her forehead look bigger. These were not-so-small issues for the young lady with strong self-worth and self-respect. On the positive side, she was allowed to act in films, most of the time, on the precondition of singing for the film as well. As things started getting better, another blow was waiting for her in the name of Master Vinayak's death.
In between, she tied the ganda of Aman Ali khan, and after he left for Pakistan in the wake of the Partition, she received training from Amanat Ali Khan who died in 1951 — dealing a final blow to Lata's aspirations of classical singing.
The turning point of her life and the making of Lata we know today started when her path collided with Master Ghulam Haidar — an authoritative personality in the Indian film industry then.
When Ghulam Haidar asked Sashadhar Mukherjee to take Lata Mangeshkar as playback singer in his film 'Shaheed' starring Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, Mukherjee refused saying that her voice was too thin to meet the persona of Kamini Kaushal. Such was Ghulam Haidar's trust in Lata's magical voice that he made a prophecy that she would one day become the most sought-after singer in the Bollywood industry. Do we still have doubts over that prophecy turning out true? Certainly not. Just a couple of years later, Lata Mangeshkar came with her first popular hit 'Aayega Aayega' in Kamal Amrohi's 'Mahal' (1948). The rest is history well known.
A singer for all compositions
One of the first prominent music composers for whom Lata Mangeshkar sang was Shyam Sunder — introduced to her by Master Vinayak. Those were still the days of her struggle after Master Vinayak's death when she sang for Shyam Sunder in films like Chaar Din, Bazaar, Alif Laila etc.
It is needless to say that her special tie-up was with Ghulam Haider, whom she referred to as Masterji and he would call her Memsahib. Since Ghulam Haider left for Pakistan during the Partition, her works with him remain limited. As the melody queen started to rise on the ladder of fame after the film 'Mahal', she would get to fill with life the compositions of most acclaimed music composers of that era. The beauty of the time period between 1950s and 1980s was that music composers and lyricists had more distinguished identity than at any other time in Bollywood history. The reason was that all of them had a signature style, calibre and work ethics quite different from the others.
While Naushad had mastered the art of intricate classical compositions, C Ramachandra had a high appeal due to his extremely simple but lucid compositions. Naushad was known to be a perfectionist in his own right and he demanded matching commitment from his singers as well. C Ramachandra brought out more of the natural rhythm of the singer. And the voice that suited both of these frameworks, almost in an indistinct manner, was that of Lata di. Her unforgettable naat from 'Mughal-e-Azam' — 'Beqas pe Karam' — is a testimony to Lata's ability to sync with the toughest of compositions. The landmark that 'Mughal-e-Azam' was! Perfection was the sole parameter for performance, thanks to the insane passion of both the director K Asif and music composer Naushad Ali. It demanded no less than Lata Mangeshkar to do justice to the music of the film. The Lata-Naushad duo shot to fame with the film Andaaz and never looked back. At the same time, a single song with C Ramachandra, 'Aye Mere Watan ke Logo' — penned by Kavi Pradeep — outruns any other. The song is so deeply etched in the psyche of every Indian that it will certainly outlive generations.
Still different was Salil Chowdhary who would mince folk tunes with Western music and the best fit as a singer, once again, was no other than Lata Mangeshkar. Another noted name was Sajjad Hussain who had an extreme obsession with delicacy and detailing. Being a well-trained classical singer, Lata di once again proved to be the best fit. Among the many gems she created with Salil da, songs from 'Madhumati' and 'Do Bigha Zameen' stand out.
Lata di did some of his favourite songs with Khyyam who had a great taste for Urdu poetry. It was from this tie-up that came the all-time classic song 'Aye Dil-E-Nadaan' (Razia Sultan).
Lata Mangeshkar's bond with Madan Mohan was perhaps most special. They were brothers and sisters from different wombs! Madan Mohan had in fact decided and articulated long before he had become music composer that Lata would sing for his compositions. After failing to sing for his first film 'Aankhein', Lata sang for his films on a regular basis. Another notable name of that era was Anil Biswas who is credited for establishing singers like Mukesh in the music industry. He guided Lata di as well with the same affection.
In yet another reflection of her self-worth and firm character, Lata di did not sing for SD Burman — one of the most accomplished music directors of that period — for a total of five years after she had some words with him! It was not just SD Burman, music composer OP Nayyar and film director Raj Kapoor too had to face the quiet wrath of Lata Mangeshkar.
There was a paradigm shift in the music industry in the 1960s with the advent of altogether new music composers like RD Burman, Chitragupta and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. While the well-educated and respected Chitragupta — despite his flawless melodies — remained an underdog, RD Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal would dominate the coming decades like anything. Interestingly, while Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi shared their fame and relevance with coming singing sensations like Kishore Kumar, there was no voice powerful enough that could substitute Lata.
Lata di seamlessly moulded herself in the new music trends brought in by the newcomers and accompanied them in their journey to unbound fame all throughout their career. She witnessed the rise of the duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal and also the breaking of the pair. She collaborated with RD Burman right till his last film before his tragic death in 1994.
It was her deep and unadulterated passion towards her work that still kept her going. Among the last music composers she worked with is the indisputable genius of AR Rahman who is presently at the peak of his career. In her twilight years, Lata di was flexible enough to adjust to Rahman's melodious but swift music.
A towering personality
It is wonderful how the grieved small Marathi girl — coping with the responsibility to sustain the family of eight including cousins — entered into the frame of playback singing, transformed it, and reigned it for around three quarters of a century. One would wonder what kept Lata di going in these tough times!
Her unquestionable singing skills apart, it was the strength of her character that never let her fail. It's a rare quality, found only in masters, to retain their self in whatever stormy situation they are caught in. In the glamourous world of Bollywood, Lata di never let go the simplicity she was born with. She will form bonds so deep, with the purity of her heart. She tied affection threads on the wrists of the ones she found closest to her heart.
But her simplicity could not be equated with slackness. She was firm as steel — unbending on her principles and uncompromising in regards to the honour, rights and the royalties she deserved. Toiling hard to have achieved whatever she aspired for, she knew the value of her labour and was cautious about it being respected. It is learnt that she didn't sing for directors, producers and music composers with whom she had unresolved issues on principles, payments or attributions.
In one of her interviews, she recalls that she had an issue with Raj Kapoor on the matter of royalties. On his refusal, she said that the other director used to give the same. Raj Kapoor told in an infuriated tone that he ought not to be compared with other directors as he was 'Raj Kapoor'. Lata di calmly pointed out that he need not be angry, if things were not working well, they could find suitable alternatives. Four years down the line, it was Raj Kapoor who had to break the jinx and ask Lata to sing for him on the conditions she wanted! Lata di believed it was Raj Kapoor's love and understanding for music that brought him back to her. This is just one of the many incidents that reflect her unfading self-pride and pure professionalism — which remained with her till the twilight of her singing career.
Apart from being passionate about work, Lata di was ambitious regarding her career. She entered into playback singing at the age of 13 and had her Hillman car at the age of 18. Even towards the end of her career, she had great love for golden anklets and diamonds. It is needless to say that Lata di had surpassed many of the megastars of that era in terms of earning. Still, she never loved to discuss her finances with the media — she didn't feel the need to do so.
While her simplicity was unfading all throughout, so were her modern and sophisticated choices — at least for that time. She had a love for photography and she arranged a decent camera in an affordable range — which she eventually dropped from a mountain cliff. Lata's love for cricket is no mystery and so is her inclination towards perfumes.
Lata's songs eluded none. It has been all over around. It added to the grandeur of luxury cars and hotels and made the surroundings more pleasant around the pan shops. A girl in her teens would find in her songs an apt expression of her love and her voice became a soothing balm for a distraught man in his forties. Elderly in their eighties would wake to her bhajans in the morning and even the grown-up kids would sleep to her lories. Her holy voice would make the remembrance of both Allah and Ram more serene — as her ultimate goal was to one day unite with the unseen.
Views expressed are personal