"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 13th , a baby boy was born, the youngest of 3 sons. He would be known to the world as Kishore Kumar Ganguly. Just 41 days later, on September 28th and only a few hundred miles 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. Today, this little girl completed 82 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 of 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 just be 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 was1942. Almost 3 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 were already in place. Of the 6 or 7 star female singers – only 2 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 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 India….
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. What happened was very different. By 1948, a full 6 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) sunk 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 song in Haider’s “Padmini”, recommended that Lata sing in his next film. The hero of that film, Dilip Kumar, by then already a super star, 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!), this only spurred Lata 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”, 5 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. And 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 of Indians 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 was a household name. Or shall we say she should have been but reality was very different. The then practice in the recording industry 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 the name of the film’s heroine.)
For Lata, this was the turning point and the beginning of a battle that lasted almost the next 2 decades. That the singer remained nameless rankled anyway, but she also realized 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 lost her 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 awarded 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 recognized 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. And this should have been where Lata should have put down the gauntlet, happy that she had got what was her due. 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 unrecognized. 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 Mohd. 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 realizing 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 moneymaking 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 again for S. D. Burman in the song “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, the firsts and the “only” ”, like the diamonds in a queen's too many to enumerate and measurable now only by weight, not by number. That generations of singers regard her singing as that final peak of musical excellence that they must reach. That 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 6 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 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 grateful thanks to Sanjeev Kohli)