Lata instinctively sensed that here she faced the greatest vocal challenge of her career. She boldly opted to sing first. Beginning with Shyam Sunder’s 1949 Bazaar gem, Saajan ki galiyaan chhod chale (in Pahadi, Punjabi folk style). Lulling Noor Jehan into feeling that the Mangeshkar diva was still vocalising in her shadow. Then came the Lata punchline, as she facilely switched, in transcendental Gaud Sarang, to Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam (from Jaidev’s 1961 Hum Dono). Bringing vibrantly home to Noor Jehan, listening spellbound, how Allah now came as easily to Lata’s vocal vocabulary as Ishwar.
Would Lata have attained the ‘super’ status she did if Noor Jehan (as the ‘brighter’ voice) had chosen to stay on in India after Partition? I took the point to Naushad as the creator of one of the nuggets Noor Jehan chose to render solo that captive Feb 1982 evening—Awaaz de kahaan hai (from the 1946 Anmol Ghadi). Naushad got to the essence of the matter as he told me:
"Actually it was Noor Jehan who chose to limit herself by deciding to go over to Pakistan. Once Noor Jehan opted to base herself in Lahore rather than Bombay, the range and variety of composers who came to work on her vocals became automatically restricted. Since Noor Jehan no longer enjoyed the supreme advantage Lata did—of music directors hailing from 13 states of India bringing to her vocals a treasure trove of tunes. Thus Noor Jehan fatally typed herself as a Punjabi-Urdu singer. While Lata Mangeshkar became the cosmopolitan voice of all Hindustan, representative of each praanth from Maharashtra to Orissa."
Indeed, Noor Jehan’s own mentor, Master Ghulam Haider, had singled out Lata Mangeshkar, by 1947, as the voice destined to rule all India by the sheer power of her vocal virtuosity. Ruling Indian songdom, as Lata broke through, was another rare Ghulam Haider find, Shamshad Begum. Where Shamshad charged Rs 900 for a song, Lata was prepared to settle for Rs 50. Yet Shamshad never knew what hit her as Lata sensationally crushed all opposition.
Lata, mind you, still had live competition from Geeta Roy-Dutt—unique in her ‘throw’ of words. As manifest in Geeta’s final solo rendition for O.P. Nayyar—Mera naam Chin-Chin-Choo on Helen in Howrah Bridge. Geeta also had the gift of being able, touchingly, to spiritualise her vocals, as underlined in Jogan (1950)—Mat jaa, mat jaa, mat jaa jogi. Yet Lata, swiftly overcoming any Noor Jehan fixation, took not only Geeta and Shamshad in her mellifluous stride, but marginalised all female competition.
Where Noor Jehan would have had only three-four films in a year (as a singing star) to underline her peerless artistry, Lata (as the playback supreme) would have commanded 10 numbers against each one going on the Malka-e-Tarannum. In fact, all through, Lata faced no real threat. Not once did Geeta’s anti-Waheeda Rehman face-off (with Guru Dutt) culminate in that chanteuse leaving the female field clear for Asha Bhosle. For an Asha peaking late in the charismatic custody of O.P. Nayyar, the one composer never to use Ms Mangeshkar’s vocals, as he returned with contempt the Lata Mangeshkar award (one lakh rupees cash) bestowed upon him by the Madhya Pradesh Government.
After voice-alike Suman Kalyanpur, Vani Jairam and Sulakshana Pandit, mounted some kind of a challenge to Lata. But throttling talent came easy to Lata M.You no more question the methods of a Bharat Ratna than you wonder how they credit 30,000 songs to her. When the actual Lata figure is no more than 6,000. It is Asha Bhosle who is way ahead of all others (male and female), here, with close to 13,000 recordings.
But then Lata began by singing playback for Asha too (Maata tere charanon mein) in the one film in which the two acted (as child stars) with Noor Jehan—Master Winayak’s Badi Maa (1945). Little did Noor Jehan then divine that she had, in Lata, a euphonious rival for all seasons. That composer’s composer, Sajjad Husain, summed it up succinctly: "Allah created Noor Jehan and Lata to sing. After that, I don’t know why Allah bothered to create another woman at all!"
(Raju Bharatan is the author of "Lata Mangeshkar; A Biography", UBSPD.)
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