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Nightingale's 75th Spring

She's our eternal songbird. The finger of time isn't supposed to touch her. But it does. We visit some landmarks.

Nightingale's 75th Spring
Nightingale's 75th Spring
The Lata We Didn't Know
  • Originally named Hema. The name she uses is derived from Latika, a character in her father's play Bhaan Bandhan.
  • Since starting as a child artiste in the Marathi film Pahili Manglagaur in 1942, she has sung in 22 languages.
  • Lata always sings barefeet; she treats her singing as a prayer. She writes out the song she is to sing in her own handwriting before she actually sings it.
  • She wears only white sarees but with different coloured borders—specific to each day. Solitaire diamonds are her only sartorial weakness.
  • She was rejected by filmmaker S. Mukherji for Shaheed as he felt that her voice was too 'thin'. The range of Lata's voice encompasses three octaves.
  • She has composed music under the pseudonym Anandghan.
Lata Mangeshkar, born on September 28, 1929, is beginning the 75th year of her life. From the 13-year-old girl forced into a singing career to support her impoverished family to the unchallenged empress of Hindi film music for more than five decades, it has been an extraordinary journey. It has stretched from the grand old man of the genre, Anil Biswas, to the young avant-garde A.R. Rahman.

On the way, she has touched the hearts and minds of an entire nation, from some of the greatest musical talents of the 20th century music, to the man on the street. She has been exalted by masters like Kumar Gandharva, Yehudi Menuhin, Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, and Ravi Shankar. She has won practically every award a musician can win in this country, and then some. She won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime contribution to cinema in 1989, and the country's highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001. Tirupati Devasthanam has bestowed on her the title Tirupati-Ashtan Sangeet Vidvaan Sarloo (musician of the shrine). She is, quite simply, India's voice.

But the beginnings were not auspicious. On April 24, 1942, the star of Balwant Sangeet Mandali, 42-year-old Dinanath Mangeshkar, popularly known as Master Dinanath, found himself alone and helpless in his final hour. Dinanath was a well-known Marathi theatre musician and singer. After his first wife Narmada passed away, he married her younger sister Shuddhimati. Shuddhimati bore Dinanath five children: Lata, Asha, Meena, Usha and Hridaynath, a legendary line-up in the world of music.

Circumstances forced Dinanath to turn his theatre company into a film company. But his film Krishnarjun Yuddha flopped, plunging him into deep financial trouble. At the time of Dinanath's untimely death, his family was living in penury. Lata, 13, had to take charge of her family. Dinanath's funeral cost the family the last Rs 75 it had. All that was left after that was some food, enough only for four days. Lata had always enjoyed singing. But at that age, the possibilities for playback singing were rare. To support her family of six, she began her movie career as a child actress in the Marathi film Pahili Manglagaur.

But she also got to sing in the film. More offers started coming in from Marathi cinema. In 1947 came her first break in Hindi films: the song 'Paa lagoo kar jori' in Aap Ki Seva Mein. From that moment onwards, her ascent was unstoppable. Within months, she had bought her first Hillman car. She was only 18. By 1949, her three-octave-encompassing voice and the astonishing popularity of her songs from films like Andaaz (music: Naushad), Badi Bahan (Husnlal Bhagatram), Barsaat (Shanker-Jaikishan), Bazaar (Shyam Sundar, Husnlal Bhagatram), Dulari (Naushad), Mahal (Khemchand Prakash), Lahore (Shyam Sundar, Vinod) and Ek Thi Ladki (Vinod) had anointed her as the queen of Hindi film music.

With that came charges of vicious competitive moves, that Lata systematically destroyed the careers of every woman singer who could pose a threat to her or her sisters. A number of singers have complained about their work disappearing mysteriously. Sudha Malhotra, who has sung classics like 'Tum mujhe bhool na jao', has not yet found out how all the songs she recorded for Naushad's Udan Khatola were one day replaced by the same ones in Lata's voice.

Naushad only says: "I would never say that I had a role to play in her success or her stature. I believe that it is a result of her hard work and only her hard work. God bestowed her with a beautiful voice. And her voice still enthralls the world."

The times were also right for the rise of Lata Mangeshkar. With Partition, many Punjabi singers were no longer available to the Bombay film industry and were quickly forgotten.But the charge against Lata of not allowing other singers to rise to their potential has always remained. It has been said that Lata did not let Vani Jayaram succeed and finished off Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila's fledgling Hindi film music career. As Shanker, of the Shanker-Jaikishan duo, once put it, when Lata caught cold, the industry started sneezing.

A few weeks ago, Lata's younger sister Asha Bhonsle turned 70. While Lata rarely sings today (see interview), Asha, with the growing popularity of Bollywood remixes, is enjoying a new lease of life. In the ensuing excitement, some musicians like Naushad have said that the sum total of Asha's achievements may prove to be greater than that of Lata Mangeshkar. This is highly debatable. There was a time when Lata was called the soul of Hindi film music and Asha its body. Of course, popular culture these days worships the body and, consequently, Asha has found new popularity. It's numbers like 'Kambakht Ishq' and 'Khallas' that give Asha tai, a singer for the past 55 years, the magical age of 16.

Lata has, in contrast, always tried to avoid sensuous songs, qawwalis, cabarets and what are today called 'item numbers'. The only exceptions being 'Buddha mil gaya' (Sangam), 'Hai hai yeh majboori' (Roti, Kapda aur Makaan), the cabaret number 'Aa jaane jaan' (Inteqam) and 'Mere hathon mein nau nau choodiyan hai' (Chandni). But these songs don't really form an integral part of Lata's oeuvre.

So which will last longer, the soul or the body? Maybe we should leave that question unanswered and only be grateful that we were lucky enough to enjoy both at the same time.

By Vinod Bhardwaj with inputs from Hemant Sharma
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