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A nightingale and crusader

For the adoring millions Lata Mangeshkar, who stepped into 75 recently, is the `voice of India'. But it was a hard, lonely and challenging journey this fearless fighter had to undergo, says RATNA RAJAIAH.

``When I was barely eight, my father, who was also my guru, had told me, `Fear only your own self. Ask yourself whether what you are doing is right and if the answer is yes, then move ahead without a second thought'. I have followed his mantra to this day.'' — Lata Mangeshkar.

``To praise Lata Mangeshkar is like holding a lamp to the Sun.'' — Kishore Kumar.

THE YEAR 1929 is of momentous significance not just for the Hindi film industry but for all of India. In the little town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, on August 13, a baby boy was born, the youngest of three sons. He would be known to the world as Kishore Kumar Ganguly. Just 41 days later, on September 28 and only a few hundred miles away in Indore, a baby girl was born, the oldest of what would be four sisters and a brother. She would be known to the world as Lata Mangeshkar.

Two weeks ago, this little girl completed 74 years of what began that day and a huge ocean of adoring fans celebrated the birth anniversary of what to millions of Indians has become, the voice of India.

It's not easy to write a tribute to Lata Mangeshkar. Because there is so much to say and with each passing year, as a fresh rash of grateful, gushing biographies and tributes are piled at her feet, there is therefore so little left unsaid. And also because, to write something other than the length of a book that would do justice to a musician, a performer and a talent so prodigious and a body of work so astonishing both in its virtuosity and in its size, is almost an impossibility.

But, side-stepping this yearly avalanche of adoration, if we stand and quietly gaze into this extraordinary life, there is a side to Lata Mangeshkar not just forgotten by some, but perhaps not even known to many others. That of a pioneer, a fearless fighter without whom playback singers would have remained nameless voices known only by the name of the actor that they sang for or worse still, the character that he or she played in the film. Imagine then, that Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan would be to us nothing more than the `voices' of `Rahul' and `Anjali' that warbled to each other, "Kya karoon hai, kuch kuch hota hai"!

The year was 1942. Almost three decades had already passed since the first screening of "Raja Harischandra." The silent had become the talkies and with it, India's great love and tradition of music had started to soak the movies with its magic. The first generation of stars of Hindi film music was already in place. Of the six or seven star female singers — only two were truly playback singers. Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai.

All the others like Noor Jahan and Suraiya sang for themselves and all, including Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai, had rich, deep-throated, robust voices. Into this scenario stepped a thin, wisp of a girl, just 13 years old, looking for work to feed a destitute family of six with her only qualifications — her voice and the training that her father, a classical singer of the Gwalior school, had given her before dying bankrupt.

Lata Mangeshkar had come to sing for the country. You'd think a voice that today evokes such worldwide, often fanatical adoration would have blazed its debut like an incandescent star, demanding and getting instant success, fame and money.

The Mangeshkar clan ...

What happened was very different.

By 1948, a full six years later, all that Lata had was a pile of rejections.

Her singing debut in the Marathi film "Kiti Hasaal" resulted in the song being edited out and her first Hindi film song "Pa Lagoon Kar Jori" in "Aap ke Sewa Main" (1947) sank without a trace.

But Lata persisted. Perhaps because the only other option was starvation.

But also perhaps because Lata was a fighter; not one who gave up easily.

Fortunately for her, her sole mentor, the great music director Ghulam Haider, was as persistent. But even he found few takers for this voice in which he saw so much but the rest of his fraternity virtually wrote off.

Haider insisted on Lata singing for his film "Shaheed" (1948), but when the producer of the film, Shashadhar Mukherjee, brother of Subodh Mukherjee of Bombay talkies, heard the song, he had it removed because he felt Lata's voice was too thin. But Haider wouldn't give up, nor did his little slip of a protégé. And there was one other who shared his faith in this young girl.

Music director Naushad, who, when he heard Lata's song in Haider's "Padmini", recommended that Lata sing in his next film. The hero of the film Dilip Kumar, by then already a superstar, disapproved of the choice, doubting openly the Marathi speaking girl's ability to correctly pronounce Urdu.

Instead of being disheartened by such criticism from none other than the great Dilip Kumar (of whom Lata, like so many other young girls was a fan!), it only spurred her on. She found herself a tutor to teach her Urdu diction.

When "Andaz" was released in 1949, one of its biggest hit numbers was "Uthaye ja unke sitam". The singer? Lata Mangeshkar, who rendered the song in flawless Urdu. Dilip Kumar was forced to take back his words, which he gallantly did and 60 years later, the song remains an evergreen favourite.

Along with "Andaz", five other films were released in the same year. "Mahal", "Dulari", "Ek Thi Ladki", "Badi Behan" and "Barsaat". All box office bonanzas, both cinematically and musically. In each of these films at least one of the hit songs was sung by Lata, of which the one that instantly captured the hearts of millions was the haunting "Ayega aanewala" ("Mahal").

The heroine of "Badi Behan" was Suriaya, so naturally all the songs in the film were sung by her for herself. Except for two, which Lata sang for Geeta Bali. "Chup chup khadi ho" and "Chale jaana nahin". They became two of the most memorable songs of the film.

Naturally, by now, Lata Mangeshkar should have been a household name, but reality was very different.

The practice in the recording industry then was to put the name of the actor and the name of the character played by that actor in the film on the record label. The playback singer's name was never mentioned. So, when "Ayega aanewala" was played on All India Radio, the station was inundated with fan mail wanting to know the name of the singer who sang so exquisitely. It was only when AIR got the name from the makers of the film and announced it, that India heard of Lata Mangeshkar. (On the original records of "Mahal", the name of the singer for this song figures as `Kamini', referring to Kamini Kaushal, the film's heroine.)

For Lata, this was the turning point and the beginning of a battle that lasted almost the next two decades. That the singer remained nameless rankled anyway, but she also realised how critical a role the playback singer played in creating the magic of a character, a story, even a film, and therefore in making the film a success.

So, she began the fight to get playback singers their due. A fight which at the time must have seemed as audacious, daring, even foolhardy if we remember that Lata was a lone woman, a virtual nobody, fighting an industry that was completely male-dominated. Her obstinate stance could have cost her, her career. But that never stopped her.

First, she insisted that the records should carry the name of the singer and not the actor or the character — a stance that almost made her lose the opportunity to sing in Raj Kapoor's "Barsaat", because Kapoor initially was not willing to agree to Lata's demands.

(When Lata finally sang for the film, it was not just Nargis, but also Nimmi. Of the six songs that she sang, the most famous is "Hawa mein udta jaaye", but other songs like "Jeeya bekrarar hai", "Barsaat mein humse mile tum" and "O mujhe kisise pyar ho gaya" also become very popular.)

That done, she moved on to the next battleground — the Filmfare awards. In 1956, Shanker-Jaikishen were given the Filmfare Award for Best Song. At the time, this was the only Filmfare award given to a film's music.

The song was "Rasik Balma", sung by Lata for the film "Chori Chori".

When the music director duo requested Lata to sing the song for the awards function, she refused, as a protest to the fact that the award recognised only the music director, whereas both the singers and the lyricist had as much of a role to play in the song's success.

No amount of pleading would get her to relent and Sudha Malhotra finally sang the song at the show!

Two years later in 1958, Filmfare instituted the Best Female Playback singer award which Lata won for "Aa ja re pardesi" ("Madhumati"). It was a measure not just of the sway in which Lata held the film industry, but also of how she leveraged that clout to fight for the recognition that she felt she rightly deserved.

In any case, by now she was such a big singing star that whenever Madhubala signed a film, she insisted that it be written into her contract that only Lata Mangeshkar would be her `voice'. But Lata had a few more battles still to fight. And win. And this time, it was not for herself.

Because the male singers remained unrecognised. So, in 1959, once more on Lata's insistence, Filmfare created the award for Best Male Playback singer, won that year by her beloved `Mukesh bhaiyya' for the song "Sab Kuch Seekha Maine" for Raj Kapoor's "Anari". And a few years later, Lata plunged into another face-off, this time with Mohammed Rafi.

By now, the treasure house of Hindi film music had already stockpiled very high — almost two decades of work from some of India's greatest singers, music directors and lyricists was already in the kitty.

The music companies realising this had begun to cash in, releasing various permutations and combinations of hit film songs.

The era of compilations had begun! (Even today, compilations of old Hindi film music remain the one sure-fire and often the only money-making section of an Indian music company's repertoire!)

Lata insisted that every time such a compilation is released, royalties should be paid out to all concerned, including the singers.

Rafi refused to join this fight and the resulting rift between the two meant that they did not sing together for 10 years.

(They finally reconciled in 1965, singing together for S. D. Burman's "Dil pukaare" for "Guide".)

So it wouldn't be unfair to say that much of the fame and wealth that a successful playback singer takes for granted would have not existed if it wasn't for Lata's unflagging and mostly lonely crusade.

There are many measures of Lata Mangeshkar's towering presence. The plethora of awards, the accolades and the `firsts'... that generations of singers regard her singing as that final peak of musical excellence that they must reach.

And not only that she has sung over 40,000 songs — for when did quantity ever define quality — but that of these 40,000, if one were to compile three lists, one each of her most popular songs, the most memorable ones and of her own personal favourites, there would be almost no overlap.

And each of those 30 songs would be amongst India's most loved, listened to and sung music, many of them having endured for over six decades.

But amongst this glittering array of achievements, standing there in a quiet corner, are perhaps two of Lata Mangeshkar's most enduring legacies.

The lessons of self-worth and perseverance. Without which almost nothing is possible and with which the impossible is almost always a certainty.

How else would a young girl, with nothing to her name but her music and her dead father's diksha, have made that hard, lonely, punishing journey to become India's Nightingale?

(With thanks to Sanjeev Kohli)

* * *
Lata's personal favourites:

Lag ja gale ("Woh Kaun Thi", 1964, Madan Mohan/ Raja Mehdi Ali Khan)

Bairen neend na aaye ("Chacha Zindabad", 1959, Madan Mohan/ Rajinder Kishen)

Aye dilruba ("Rustom Sohraab", 1963, Sajjad Hussain/ Qamar Jalalabadi)

Kaali Kaali Raat ("Saiyaan", 1951, Sajjad Hussain/ D.N. Madhok)

Tumhe yaad karte karte ("Amrapali", 1966, Shankar-Jaikishen/ Shailendra)

Yeh kahan aa gaye hum ("Silsila", 1981, Shiv-Hari/ Javed Akhtar)

Yaaran sili sili ("Lekin", 1991, Hridayanath Mangeshkar/ Gulzar)

Sapnon mein agar mere ("Dulhan ek raat ki", 1966, Madan Mohan/ Raja Mehdi Ali Khan)

Dikhayi Diye Yun ("Bazaar", 1982, Khayyam/ Mir Taqi Mir)

O Sajana Barkha Bahaar Aayi ("Parakh", 1960, Salil Chowdhury/ Shailendra)

Duniya kare sa ("Bahu Begum", Roshan/ Sahir Ludhianvi)

Kuch dil ne kaha ("Anupama", 1966, Hemant Kumar/ Kaifi Azmi)

Aye dil e nadaan ("Razia Sultan", 1982, Khayyam/ Jan Nissar Akhtar)

Lata's 10 most memorable songs:

Uthaye ja unke situm ("Andaz", 1949, Naushad/ Majrooh Sultanpuri)

Baiyyan na dharo ("Dastak", 1970, Madan Mohan/ Majrooh Sultanpuri)

Rahen na rahen hum ("Mamta", 1966, Roshan/ Majrooh Sultanpuri)

Kahin deep jale kahin dil ("Bees Sal Baad",1962, Hemant Kumar/ Shakeel Badayuni)

Bahon mein chale aao ("Anamika",1973, R. D.

Burman/ Majrooh Sultanpuri)

Aa jaane ja ("Inteqaam",1969, Laxmikant-Pyarelal)

Yun hasraton ke daag ("Adalat",1958, Madan Mohan/ Rajinder Kishen)

Tum na jaane kis jahaan mein ("Saza",1951, S. D.

Burman/ Sahir Ludhianvi)

Nainon mein badra chaye ("Mera Saya",1966, Madan Mohan/ Raja Mehdi Ali Khan)

Allah tero naam ("Hum Dono",1961, Jaidev/ Sahir Ludhianvi)

Lata's 10 most popular songs:

Yeh zindagi ussi ki hai ("Anarkali", 1953, C. Ramchandra/ Rajinder Kishen)

Pyar hua ikraar hua hai ("Shri 420", 1955, Shankar-Jaikishen/Hasrat Jaipuri)

Ayega aanewala ("Mahal", 1949, Khemchand Prakash/ J. Nakshab) Aaja re pardesi ("Madhumati", 1958, Salil Chowdhury/ Shailendra)

Naina Barse (Woh Kaun Thi",1964, Madan Mohan/ Raja Mehdi Ali Khan)

Inhi logon ne ("Pakeezah", 1971, Naushad)

Man dole mera tan dole ("Nagin", 1954, Hemant Kumar/Rajinder Kishen)

Aaj phir jeene ki tamana ("Guide", 1965, S. D. Burman/ Shailendra)

Bindiya chamkegi ("Do Raaste")

Tujhe dekha toh ("Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge", Jatin-Lalit/ Anand Bakshi)

Jiya jale jaan jale ("Dil Se", A. R. Rahman)

Radh na bole ("Azaad", 1955, C. Ramchndra/ Rajinder Kishen)

Aapki nazron ne samjha ("Anpadh",1962, Madan Mohan/ Raja Mehdi Ali Khan)

Sawan ka mahina ("Milan", 1976, Laxmikant-Pyarelal/ Anand Bakshi)

Kabhie kabhi mere dil mein ("Kabhi Kabhie", 1976, Khayyam/ Sahir Ludhianvi)

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