‘Whenever you hear my songs, you will hum with me’
If I am asked to pick one song from a Hindi film that best encapsulates how the posterity would look back at the singing legends Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, it would be "Pagla Kahin Ka" (1970), where they sing: "tum mujhe yun bhula na paoge / jab kabhi bhi geet sunoge mere / sang sang tum bhi gungunaoge". Translated loosely, it means, "you will never be able to forget me, whenever you hear my songs, you will hum with me". Interestingly, both Rafi and Lata sing the number separately in the movie.
Lata Mangeshkar, who died on February 6, 2022, epitomises the voice of all of us in the full gamut of our emotions. She is one of those few singers whose music mirrors the myriad of feelings under the sun—filling our hearts with love and longing, welling up tears of joy and sadness, making our body often sway in happiness, or pushing us to introspection. Such was the depth and range of her voice that it never failed to thrall the listeners, cutting through the shifting sands of time and tastes of every generation. There is something for everyone, for every special moment in life, be it for children ("bachche man ke sachche"), one's first fling in life ("solah ki baras ki baali umar"), for nostalgia for an old flame ("beeti na beeti raina and tere bina zindagi mein koi shikwa nahin").
It's really a Herculean task to choose the best from the rich oeuvre of Lata Mangeshkar—from the tribute to the Indian soldier ("Aye mere watan ke logon") she sang in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963 at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan that brought the latter to tears, the classical "Mohe panghat pe" in "Mughal-e-Azam" (1960), to the intensely romantic "Ajeeb dastaan hai ye" in "Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai" (1960), the lilting "Baahon me chale aao" in "Anamika" (1973) or "Allah tero naam/Ishwar tero naam" in "Hum Dono" (1961) which reflects the secular ethos of India.
Lata Mangeshkar sang not just in Hindi but in many other languages too, driving home the adage that music knows no physical or linguistic boundaries. Being a national cultural icon of India did not come in the way of her being the flag-bearer of her Marathi identity, as reflected by the song "Jyoti kalash chalke".
Since her first recorded song in 1942 for a Marathi-language movie, when she just 13 years old, the Indore-born singer has earned many sobriquets along the way—like the "melody queen", "India's nightingale" and "the voice of the millennium"—with the common thread being her mesmerising voice. In a career spanning nearly 80 years, she sang an estimated 25,000 songs in 36 Indian languages, including Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada, and across classical and other genres. The body of her work is overwhelming and impossible to fathom in one go. She was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest award in the field of cinema, and a host of other honours.
Lata's much-talked-about competition with her sister, Asha Bhosle, was the stuff of headlines and rumours. But the Mangeshkar sisters never allowed themselves to be distracted by such talks, nor did they bother to respond to claims about how they completely overshadowed other singers in the film and non-film playback industry. As is quite common in a cut-throat competitive industry like Bollywood, controversies could not entirely elude Lata Mangeshkar. There was her tiff with Mohammed Rafi over royalties and her brief fall-out with Raj Kapoor, but those were just blips in a long, prodigious career.
Not many know that Lata Mangeshkar's singing talent was an accidental discovery by Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, a Marathi musician, when she was just five years old. But then, the untimely death of her father brought the family's financial burden on a 13-year-old Lata's shoulders. A family friend came to their aid and she started singing and acting in his father's theatre company.
As in the silver screen, life in the Bollywood music industry has strange twists and turns too. When Lata Mangeshkar went to Mumbai, she was rejected by film producer Sashadhar Mukherjee because he found her voice too thin. But destiny had a different plan for her. As Lata Mangeshkar recalls in Nasreen Munni Kabeer's documentary "Lata Mangeshkar: In Her Own Words", her song "Aayega aanewala" in "Mahal" (1949) became such a rage that people would enquire about the identity of the singer, forcing a radio station to contact the gramophone company HMV to ask who had sung the song. As the first line of the song predicted, a crooning star appeared in the Indian music firmament. A star that shone brighter and brighter until she passed.
Lata Mangeshkar's voice has helped Bollywood heroines rise to superstardom down the ages—from Madhubala, Meena Kumari to Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta and scores of others in between. Such was the power of her voice emoting for actors across almost all eight decades. It was a sure guarantee of success and leading heroines down the generations would insist on giving their lips to her songs, often making it part of their contracts.
The 1950s belonged completely to Lata Mangeshkar who went on to work with eminent music directors like Shankar-Jaikishan, Naushad Ali, SD Burman, Hemant Kumar, Madan Mohan and Salil Chowdhury. These were also busy years for her. She would at times record six to eight songs in a day, go home, sleep for a few hours and then catch Mumbai's local train again to a recording studio.
In 1960s, Madhubala was once again the face for Lata's voice in the evergreen "Mughal-E-Azam" film, with the defiant "Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya" becoming the byword for many a never-say-die lovers. The decade also marked the beginning of her work with another Bollywood composer duo, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with whom she would go on to sing over 700 songs over a period of 35 years, most of which became super hits. This was also the time when Lata recorded duets with Mukesh, Manna Dey, Mahendra Kapoor, Mohammed Rafi, and Kishore Kumar.
This was followed by the 70s which will be remembered for Meena Kumari's last film "Pakeezah" (recall the song "Chalte chalte") and "Abhimaan" in which Lata Mangeshkar sang some memorable songs. The 1980s saw her lending her voice in the films "Silsila", "Chandni", "Maine Pyar Kiya", "Ek Duuje Ke Liye", "Prem Rog", "Ram Teri Ganga Maili" and "Masoom". Fast forward to 1990s and 2000s, and there were Lata's songs in the Gulzar-directed "Lekin" and Yash Chopra's films "Lamhe", "Darr", "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" and "Dil To Pagal Hai". Lata's last full film album was "Veer-Zaara" in 2004.
Among her other unforgettable songs are "Lag jaa gale", "Satyam shivam sundaram", "Ajeeb daastaan hai", "Hothon mein aisi baat", and "Pani pani re".
With such a vast repertoire of songs for all emotions of all people, one cannot miss Lata Mangeshkar even for a day because our hearts hum with her voice. It is part of who we are.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.