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Flight of the golden oriole

Lata Mangeshkar might have become a part of the lives of three generations of listeners, but success did not come to her overnight. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN looks back at a marathon innings.


Admirers spanning generations...

`A MAHARASHTRIAN to sing for my heroine?' The matinee idol was aghast. "They smell of rice and lentils!" Little did Dilip Kumar imagine then that the girl he dismissed for the dal-bhat ki boo would become the mainstay of the Indian film industry for half a century, and the voice of Bollywood. He did not foresee that financiers and distributors would find her name a guarantor of success, or that filmmakers would visualise scenes with her music in mind. Nor that music directors would go into a tizzy when the lady cancelled recording sessions on days when nose and throat refused to get clear even after she bit into her trusted accompanist — the Kolhapuri chilli.

Lata Mangeshkar was no overnight success. The untimely death of indulgent father Dinanath Mangeshkar, a star of Marathi musicals, left his wife and five children in penury. First-born Lata had to support the family. But how could the frail, homely, shrill-voiced stripling with the hallmark twin plaits, find a place in a world dominated by lush Noorjahan and Suraiya, the reverberant Zohrabai and Shamshad Begum? Initially, Lata could not make it in Marathi cinema, and faced rejections in the Hindi circuit.

Music director Ghulam Haider identified the golden oriole in the brown sparrow but found no one to trust his judgement. Dilip Kumar, the great romantic hero, we saw, wrinkled his nose at her background. Lata met the challenge by getting tutored to speak impeccable Urdu, and astounded her critic by her faultless diction as early as 1949 (in "Andaz") with "Uthaye ja unke sitam". Who can forget later gems like "Bekas pe karam" ("Mughale Azam") or "Hum Intezar karenge" ("Bahu Begum"). The Raj Kapoor winner, 1940s "Barsaat" sealed her triumph. From "Awaara" to "Satyam Shivam Sundaram", Lata's voice was to influence Kapoor as much as his heroines.

Great men patched up their differences with her when a major assignment demanded Lata. Raj Kapoor capitulated after initial demurring when Lata demanded that royalty be paid to playback singers. It was her protest that forced the inclusion of the category of playback singers in the annual Filmfare awards. She could be implacable — as when she refused to sing for Shankar, or with Mohammed Rafi.

Lata's songs not only contributed significantly to the success of films, but also acquired an independent existence of their own. In many cases the films flopped, but the songs became hits. Nargis and Sadhana played the women who sang "Rasik balma" and "O sajna", but even fans of those stars think only of Lata listening to those evergreens through the decades. With notable exceptions like "Mere mehboob" and "Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi", Lata's has always been the better version of songs sung by her as well as her male counterpart. More recently, even as younger singers record money-spinning remixes of her songs, the Lata originals continue to fetch gold.

Classical vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's remark about Lata has become a cliche, "Kambakht, kabhi besuri na hoti" (the imp is never off key). Her early training in Hindustani music ensured her longevity and discipline. But though she recorded the Bhagavad Gita, Gnaneshwari and Mira bhajans (their music set by brother Hridayanath Mangeshkar) Lata never seriously took up classical music, probably aware of the unsuitability of her voice for that genre.

An example of this reluctance was her refusal to take part in a spontaneous outpouring of bhajan, sloka, thumri and kriti by some classical musicians at a dinner get together in New Delhi, as a fellow artiste guest disclosed. Why? Was Lata awed by classical music? After all, when she instituted an award in her father's name, the recipients were the Jasrajs and Subbulakshmis.

But in the studio, before the mike, under the baton of India's greatest film music directors, she was unrivalled. Though younger voices have taken over, hasn't the Mangeshkar monopoly lasted through decades? Certainly, nobody else was considered indispensable by so many music directors from Husnlal Bhagatram and C. Ramchandra, to Naushad and Salil Chowdhury, Shankar/Jaikishen and Laxmikant/Pyarelal, Roshan, S.D. Burman and Rahul Dev Burman. Jaidev and Khayyam left their delicate touch in "Allah tero naam" and "Kabhi kabhi" admitting Lata's mystique. When Pandit Ravi Shankar scored for "Meera" without Lata, he could not capture the lilt of a "Kaise din beete" ("Anuradha"). Could Madan Mohan have created a "Baiyan na dharo" without her?

Many tried to replace Lata in her prime, but not even sister Asha Bhonsle could do it, with a range and tonal variety acknowledged as wider than her Didi's. O.P. Nayyar succeeded without Lata, but she outlasted him in the field. Those who tried to imitate her remained poor seconds. And those who were different — like Runa Laila and Vani Jairam — simply could not trespass into Mangeshkar territory. The songs Lata did not want to sing, and those too "sirenish" for her image, went to Asha. Only age forced her to make way for youth.

Lata's own favourite musician? Mukesh was her beloved bhai, and she has spoken admiringly of K.L. Saigal, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Noorjahan et al, as also of Ustad Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bismillah Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Allauddin Khan, M.S. Subbulakshmi. "Why don't they call me the Umme Kulsum of India?" was her tribute to the great Egyptian star.

Lata's songs from blockbusters like "Madhumati" ("Aja re pardesi") or "The Guide" ("Aaj phir jeene ki") have their charisma. But more recently, as the last line of the climactic "Haye re woh din kyon na aye" faded out at a morning show of the 1960s classic "Anuradha", bad print and all, the sparse hall echoed to wonderstruck applause. A reminder that Lata Mangeshkar has become part of the lives of three generations of listeners — not for her technique, or her matchless vocal timbre, but for the feeling she evokes in their hearts with every piercing note.

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