There may not be a moment when somebody, somewhere, is not listening to a song sung by Lata Mangeshkar. It has been so for the last seven decades or so.
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No singer has captured the imagination of an entire nation like she did.
Music fans may be divided when it comes to choosing their favourite male singers – some might swear by Mohammed Rafi, others by Kishore Kumar, and some others by K.J. Yesudas or S.P. Balasubrahmanyam– but the majority of them may pick Lata as the female voice they most want to listen to. Not without reason.
Her voice was heavenly, her range wide and her expressions always so right. And she was incapable of singing out of tune.
Little wonder, the leading heroines of the day insisted in their contracts that the songs picturised on them would be rendered by Lata. She was nearly always the first choice for the composer even otherwise.
Here is rewinding to some of the unforgettable songs by India’s favourite voice:
Lag jaa gale...(Woh Kaun Thi?)
There cannot be too many more popular Indian songs than this one. Because there cannot be too many better songs.
This haunting melody for the 1964 film was composed by Madan Mohan, the genius whose muse Lata was. It is so beautiful, you will never want to stop listening to it . Many singers have attempted covers of this classic but failed to capture the soul of the song the way Lata did.
Raja Mehdi Ali Khan’s lyrics – meaning: Come, hug me one more time/ This lovely night may not come again – also played a part in making the song immortal.
Mohe panghat pe...(Mughal-E-Azam)
K. Asif’s magnum opus had just about everything. A splendid script, an excellent cast led by Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, beautiful costumes and art design, graceful choreography... A film like that deserved an outstanding musical score, too. Naushad provided that.
Pyaar kiya to darna kyaa... may be the most popular Lata song from the album, but this one is probably the pick for its sweet innocence and the way Lat lent her emotions.
Director Kamal Amrohi’s epic tribute to his wife Meena Kumari is still celebrated for the gifted actress’s superb performance in her last film and an out-of-the-world musical score put jointly together by Ghulam Mohammed and Naushad. The entire album was dipping with honey, with several timeless melodies, like Inhi logon ne... , Thaade rahiyo.. ., Chal dildaar chalo. ..., and Mausam hai aashiqaana. .., but this one probably pips them all.
Ae dil e naadaan...(Razia Sultan)
Khayyam may have made Asha Bhosle sing most of the songs in his magnum opus Umrao Jaan , but for this achingly beautiful song, he turned to the eldest of the talented Mangeshkar sisters. Lata‘s soulful rendition made it one of the best songs of the 1980’s.
O sajna barkha bahaar...(Parakh)
Perhaps Salil Choudhary’s best song for Lata (though it may not be as popular as the Madhumati song, Aaja re pardesi. ..). It is from the 1960 Bimal Roy film, the story of which was also written by the music director. The song remains one of the finest composed in raga Khamaj.
This was one of her earliest hits and still one of the best, seven decades after it was recorded. A 20-year-old Lata gave glimpses of how she could hold a nation spellbound with her voice. A brilliant composition by Khemchand Prakash and beautifully visualised – especially for a 1949 film – by Kamal Amrohi.
Satyam shivam sundaram...(Satyam Shivam Sundaram)
Still the song the aspiring Lata Mangeshkars opt for to impress the audience . They all get applause – and some of them overnight fame, too – when they attempt what is certainly not an easy song to render.
A masterly composition, in raga Darbari Kanada , by Laxmikant Pyarelal for a film which is said to have been inspired by Lata‘s voice. Director Raj Kapoor, apparently, even wanted her to act in the role, which was eventually made famous by Zeenat Aman.
Raina beeti jaaye...(Amar Prem)
R.D. Burman’s unforgettable score for the Shakti Samanta film contained two of Kishore Kumar’s finest songs –- Chingaari koibhadke... and Kuch to log kehenge... This song by Lata doesn’t pale in comparison at all.
This exquisite composition, in ragas Todi and Khamaj , brings out the best of Lata. Right from her alaap , she hooks you and forces you to come back to the song again and again.
Ehsaan tera hoga...(Junglee)
Many of Lata‘s most popular melodies may have been composed by the likes of Madan Mohan, S.D. Burman and Naushad, but the hugely talented duo of Shankar-Jaikishen also has also given her several gems, such as this one for the 1961 film Junglee. It is one of those songs that are rendered separately by Lata and Mohammed Rafi. Such double delights include Mere mehboob tujhe... (Mere Mehboob) , Mein kamsin hoon... (Aayee Milan Ki Bela) , Teri aankhon ke sivaa... (Chirag) , Tum mujhe yun... (Pagla Kahin Ka) and Ajee rooth kar kahaan... (Arzoo).
Ae mere watan ke logon...
For a country where music mostly means film music, this patriotic song moved a nation like no film song could. Recorded as a tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought against China in the 1962 war, it was written by poet Pradeep and tuned by C. Ramachandra.
It was no rousing song, but a poignant one – penned so evocatively by Pradeep – that spoke about the sacrifices of the soldier. Lata‘s performance, at the National Stadium in New Delhi on the Republic Day in 1963, in the presence of President S. Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had the audience in tears.
There are, of courses, hundreds of songs by Lata that we never will get tire of, such as Yeh zindagi usi ki hai...(Anarkali) , Woh chup rahe to...(Jahan Ara) , Nainon mein badra...(Mera Saya) , Hawa mein udta...(Barsaat) , Nagma oh sher ki... (Ghazal) , Suno sajnaa...(Aaye Din Bahaar Ke) , Rasik balmaa...(Chori Chori) , A aaj phir jeene ki...(Guide) , Baahon mein chale aao...(Anamika) , Aaap ki nazron ne samjhaa...(Anapdh) , Bahaaron mera...(Aakhri Khat) , Ye dil aur unki...(Prem Parbat) , Ruk jaa raat... (Dil Ek Mandir) , Bindiyaa chamkegi... (Do Raaste) , Allah tero naam... (Hum Dono) , Mora gora ang... (Bandini) , Tum na jaane is jagah... (Sazaa) , Megha chhaye aadhi raat... (Sharmeelee) , (Naina barse... (Who Kaun Thi) , Piya tose naina... (Guide) , Ajeeb daastaan hai... (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai) , Hum ne dekhi hai.. (Khamoshi) , Dheere dheere machal... (Anupama) , Chupke chupke chal re... (Chupke Chupke) , Hothon mein aisi baat... (Jewek Theif)...
(A version of this feature was first published on September 28, 2019, Lata Mangeshkar’s 90th birthday)