Lata Mangeshkar is easily the most recognised voice in India. Born on September 28, 1929, in Indore, Lata has sung every kind of song, from bhajan to pop, in about 20 languages. From Madhubala to Preity Zinta, she has been the voice of every heroine down the ages. Her father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, was a reputed figure in Marathi theatre music and was trained in the Gwalior school. He gave her singing lessons, but she also studied with Aman Ali Khan Sahib and later Amanat Khan.
When her father died in 1942, she turned to the film industry to support the family and even acted in eight films, in Hindi and Marathi. She made her debut as a playback singer in the Marathi film, Kiti Hasaal (1942), but the song was edited out. The first Hindi film in which she gave playback was Aap Ke Sewa Main (1947). It was in 1949, with the release of four films—Barsaat, Andaz, Dulari and Mahal (with the evergreen Aayega aanewala)—that Lata began her phenomenal run in Hindi cinema. Her high, sweet and supple voice captured the nation’s imagination. It is often said that you could tune an instrument to her singing. Though Lata sang under the baton of all the top composers, barring O.P. Nayyar, it was Madan Mohan who brought out the best in her voice. One of her own favourites, however, is a number from Bazaar—Dikhayi diye yoon ki bekhud kiya.
(From the 1950s till the ’90s, it was Lata and her sister, Asha Bhonsle, who dominated playback singing. The flipside were the accusations of monopolising the business, and preventing other female playback singers from coming into the limelight.)
Mohammed Rafi (1924-80)
Along with Kishore Kumar and Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi was one of the most popular male playback singers from the ’50s to the ’70s. He was regarded as the most proficient and versatile of the three, equally at ease with a purely classical song (Man tadpat Hari darshan) as with light numbers (Chakke pe chakka, chakke pe gadi). In between, he could also perfectly render a romantic song like Hum bekhudi mein tumko pukare chale gaye. Born in Kota Sultansingh village, now in Pakistan, he moved to Lahore to train under Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan (of Kirana gharana), Jeevanlal Matto and Ghulam Ali Khan. He sang at Radio Lahore and moved to Bombay in 1944, where Naushad gave him his first break. He found stardom with Mehboob’s Anmol Ghadi (1946). While he gave great songs with S.D. Burman (Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool) and Shankar Jaikishen, it was with Naushad that he performed at his best, particularly in Baiju Bawra (1952).