That she was the ‘nightingale of India’ is well known, but not much is known about her rapport with Carnatic musicians. The first interaction was probably courtesy the gramophone. A biographical sketch of Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu in one of the early issues of Sruti magazine talks about how the legendary violinist was in praise of Lata Mangeshkar’s fidelity to pitch and purity of note. He would ask his disciples to listen to her records and emulate these traits. He was not alone in this observation. According to Carnatic music aficionado K.S.S Rajan, the late Voleti Venkateswarulu too was an ardent admirer.
With some Carnatic musicians, Lata shared a close bond, starting with K.B. Sundarambal. The two had several common threads in their life stories — losing their father at a young age and boldly taking on the family’s responsibility. Both were always clad in white.
In Pa. Chozhanadan’s biography of K.B. Sundarambal (Kodumudi Kokilam KB Sundarambal Varalaru, Rishabham Pathippagam, 2002), there is a lovely photograph of the two together.
The story behind the photograph, as narrated by Chozhanadan, is that Lata having arrived in Madras shortly after the release of Gemini’sAvvaiyar, was taken to see the film. She was stunned by KBS’ vocal prowess and when they met, she ran her fingers down the latter’s throat saying she wanted to feel the cords that had sung such songs. She then desired to have a photo taken with KBS and it was fulfilled by Vaidy, a photographer from Carnatic Studio at Mount Road/Patullos Road corner.
After returning to Bombay, Lata sent a letter to S.S. Vasan of Gemini Studios, under whose banner and direction the film was made. In it, she writes that she considers the film a fitting outcome of Vasan’s love for music and devotion to god. She also speaks of how her eyes welled up when she watched KBS sing and act as Avvai. “When great artistes sing, we get to see their devotion to the art and the extent of their years of practice. If I had been Ganesha, I would forever be singing the praises of this devotee. I have no other words to express my respect for Smt. K.B. Sundarambal.” (Translated by me from Chozhanadan’s book in Tamil.)
M.S. Subbulakshmi was yet another singer whom Lata venerated. She used to say that she rarely missed a concert of hers when she performed in Bombay. There are several photographs of the two together — from the early ones, where a clearly star-struck Lata is calling at Kalki Gardens to the later ones, where the two are in animated conversation. Most music-lovers would have wished to be a fly on the wall and listen to what the two nightingales discussed.
In 1994, the Deenanath Mangeshkar award, instituted by Lata in memory of her father, was conferred on MS. In a recent interview, the latter’s grandson, V. Srinivasan, has spoken of how MS could not go to Bombay to receive the award and so Lata flew into Madras to present it.
In 1986, Lata Mangeshkar was the chief guest at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha to commemorate violin maestro Lalgudi G Jayaraman’s 50th solo performance, where both MS and M.L.Vasanthakumari were present.
“In the 1960s, Lataji became a great admirer of my father’s music after she heard his LP record of Tyagaraja’s ‘Nadasudharambilanu’ (Arabhi/Rupakam). She attended his performances in Bombay and also felicitated him on one such occasion.
She invited my father and his sister, Srimathi Brahmanandam, to perform together. He also visited her house at her invitation. Once when my father, my sister Vijayalakshmi, and I were in London to perform at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Lataji came and stayed till the end,” recalls Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan.
Last year, at Music Academy’s virtual conference, scholar and writer Lalitharam gave a presentation on nagaswaram maestro Karukuruchi Arunachalam. He spoke of Lata’s admiration for the artiste.
On one occasion, when she attended his concert in Bombay, he played impromptu her song, ‘Yeh zindagi usi ki hai’ from the film Anarkali (1953). Lalitharam also shared the YouTube link of the recording.
Lastly, did Lata ever sing in the Carnatic style? There are at least three instances — all equally delightful. The first is Salil Chowdhury’s tribute to Muthuswami Dikshitar and his ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ (Hamsadhvani/Adi) through his song ‘Ja tose nahin boloon Kanhaiya’, sung by Lata and Manna Dey, with lyrics by Shailendra, in the 1956 film, Parivar. In the film Pardesi, a 1957 Indo-Soviet collaboration, Lata sang the Hindi version of Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar’s Shankarabharanam/Adi Tillana to which Padmini danced. Music director Anil Biswas adapted it with lyrics by Ali Sardar Jafri and Prem Dhawan. According to scholar Ritha Rajan, even the 1957 Suvarna Sundari ragamalika, ‘Kuhu kuhu bole koyaliya’ set in Sohni (Hamsanandi), Bahar, Jaunpuri and Yaman (Kalyani) by Adi Narayana Rao (lyrics by Bharat Vyas) is heavily in the Carnatic mode, especially its suite of swaras. There may be more.
There was clearly much give and take and a lot of mutual admiration between Lata and the Carnatic world.
The Chennai-based author