Like the morning sun, her voice embalms the mind. Like the rays piercing through the early mist, it sends a quick wave of excitement along the spine. Her tone enters like a gush of cool air into our consciousness. Like the sounds of a temple bell heard at dawn, her voice rings to awaken the masses. Eighty years of music and sixty three years of career in Hindi cinema is not an easy feat and to carry on with that career with the above qualities results in a personality, whose parallel we will never see in our lifetime.
Very few people know that Lata’s real name was Hema and she chose her name from a play of her father in which she played a character called Latika. Pushed unwillingly into a film career, Lata rose to prominence dramatically in the post-independence film industry, after a lot of struggle. When she got her first earnings, she bought a radio to listen to her idol K.L.Saigal. The first thing she heard as she switched on the radio was the news of K.L.Saigal’s death. Saddened, she returned to the market and sold the radio for a loss.
The year 1947 saw the exit of Mallika-e-tarannum Noorjehan, who left for Pakistan after independence. With the meteoric rise in the popularity of playback singing, the days of singing stars like Uma Devi, Surendra and Suraiyya were numbered, as the playback system sabotaged their forte, which was the clever conflation of voice and looks. The year 1948 saw the breaking of convention by not just Lata, but also Mohammed Rafi, whose songs in Dulari turned out to be chartbusters. Two years of back-to-back successes in the form of Andaz, Dulari, Barsaat and Mahal ensured the arrival of Lata Mangeshkar into the Hindi music scene.
The fifties saw her competing with the likes of Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt and later, her own sister Asha Bhonsle. But her true competitor was only Geeta, whose sultry voice gave her a tit-for-tat at the box office. No doubt Lata had a bigger following in her kitty, with loyalists like Naushad, Shankar Jaikishan, Roshan, Madan Mohan and Salil Choudhary, recording hit after hit under them. But Geeta had support from S.D.Burman and O.P.Nayyar, with the latter never having recorded a single song with Lata, for reasons known only to them. With Geeta and Shamshad falling silent in the sixties, Lata, along with her sister Asha dominated the film music scenario for the next three decades.
This era saw many controversies engulfing her. She never recorded a song with O.P.Nayyar. She fell off with C.Ramachandra, returning only to record the unforgettable Ae mere watan ke logon. She stopped recording songs with Rafi over a dispute over royalty with the HMV. During the three years they went on with this cold war, Rafi loyalists like Naushad used Asha instead of Lata for duets and on the other hand, Lata loyalists like S.D.Burman used Kishore Kumar to sing duets with her. This gave Kishore Kumar the big break with songs like Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, while all the other songs of Dev Anand in Guide were sung by Rafi. The first song which they sang after the tiff was Dil Pukare from Jewel Thief.
Meanwhile, she even had a tiff with S.D.Burman and did not record a single song with him for many years. It was R.D.Burman who brokered peace between them and got her to sing Mora gora ang lele for Bandini under S.D.Burman. When Suman Kalyanpur and Vani Jairam broke into the music scenario as overnight stars and slipped away without trace, Lata was accused of using her clout to get rid of unwanted competition. Once a dispute arose with the flashy Raj Kapoor and she refused to sing for his films. Raj, who considered Lata his lucky mascot, made peace with her and never let her go thereafter. From Barsaat to Ram Teri Ganga Maili, she sang for most of his films, for all the heroines from Nargis, Nimmi, Padmini and Vyjayantimala to Dimple Kapadia, Zeenat Aman, Padmini Kolhapuri and Mandakini.
There was something unusual and magical about this lady, which made all her opponents return to her fold, seeking the comfort of her voice, for reasons of money, success and superstition. She has seldom been candid about these matters in her interviews, save with a few like Ameen Sayani or Nasreen Munni Kabir, for the younger lot have not been able to cast aside the feelings of awe while approaching her.
But there is no doubt that the lady must never have had it easy. In an industry where every superstar gets goose pimples every Friday, with every new release, Lata too must have been hurdled with a flurry of competitors. Responding to the accusation of her throttling the competitors in an interview with Sayani, she once said “Once a person came with his daughter to S.D.Burman and said that she sings like Lata, to which dada replied saying why he should take someone who sang ‘like’ Lata, when Lata herself sang for him. Therein lay the problem. The new singers never tried to be different. They tried to be like me rather than cultivating something different from me”. Well said, for even today, every big and small singer aspires to sing ‘like’ Lata Mangeshkar.
Every musician worth his notes has his favourite Lata song. There is a Lata song for every emotion and every occasion. If you are happy, you sing Panchi bano udti phiroon. If you are sad and love struck, you play Rulake gaya sapna mera. If you are out there to challenge the world, you go Pyar kiya to darna kya. If you want to sing a lullaby, there is Chanda hai tu mera suraj hai tu. Every girl newly introduced to love would find her emotions resonate with Chalte Chalte from Pakeezah. A dark and horrifying place reminds you of Gumnaam hai koi. Every bhajan party loves Allah tero naam and every marriage party loves Raja ki aayegi baraat.
In her illustrious career, she has been showered with one award after the other, so much so that she stopped accepting Filmfare awards after 1969. This month, as she turns eighty, it is difficult not to say that her voice still does not carry the spiritedness of a girl of eighteen. Age has taken its toll, but then there is still some air of classicism, mysticism and lyricism about her. Perhaps, she has maintained this with a purpose, which has in turn lent her the incomparable aura we see around her today.