Talk of Indian playback singing and the one name that strikes you instantly is that of Lata Mangeshkar. She was active in all walks of Indian popular and light classical music having sung thousands of film songs, ghazals and devotional songs among others. She is by far the supreme voice of popular Indian music, an Indian Institution onto herself.
Lata Mangeshkar was born on September 28, 1929 in Indore, the eldest of five children. Dinanath Mangeshkar, her father, owned a theatrical company, Balwant Sangeet Natak Mandal, and was a reputed classical singer himself. He gave her singing lessons from around the age of five. She also later studied with Aman Ali Khan Sahib from about 1945 to 1947 till he left for Pakistan and later on with Amanat Ali till the latter’s death in 1951. Her God-given musical gifts meant that she could master the vocal exercises effortlessly on first pass and from early on she was recognized as being highly gifted musically. However when her father died in penury in 1942 as talkie cinema replaced drama as the primary form of entertainment, the onus of being the breadwinner of the family fell on Lata. Between 1942 and 1948, thanks to Master Vinayak who stepped in to help the family out, she acted in as many as 8 films in Hindi and Marathi to take care of the family’s economic problems. She also made her debut as a playback singer in the Marathi film Kiti Hasal (1942) but sadly for her, the song was edited out of the film!
It is commonly thought that the first Hindi film in which Lata gave playback was Aap Ki Sewa Main (1947) where her singing went unnoticed. But it is also said that she did sing a couple of songs earlier in Master Vinayak’s Bari Ma (1945), where she also acted in a small role alongside then reigning diva, singing star Noor Jehan. When Lata entered the Film Industry, heavier Punjabi voices like Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai Ambalewali ruled the Industry. Ironically Lata was even rejected for Shaheed (1948) by producer S Mukerji, who complained that her voice was too thin! However Ghulam Haider, unable to use her in Shaheed and who warned Mukerji that one day the world would fall at the feet of this thin-voiced girl, gave Lata her breakthrough song with Dil Mera Toda from Majboor (1948).
Haider also recommended Lata to fellow music director Vinod who gave her a chance to sing in the Meena Shorey-Karan Dewan-Kuldip Kaur Punjabi film Chaman (1948), directed by Roop K Shorey. Her songs in Chaman, the first Punjabi film made in post-independent India, like Galiyan Che Firdey Dhola Nikke Nikke Baal Wey and Chan Kithe Guzare-e-Raat Wey were highly appreciated. That year she also had her first hit song Chanda Re Ja from the Dev Anand-Kamini Kaushal starrer Ziddi (1948) under the baton of music director Khemchand Prakash. Another important film for her that year was Anokha Pyar where she sang for Anil Biswas. It was Anilda who taught Lata and other singers the techniques of breath control while singing and putting emphasis on syllables that came on the beat of the song.
1949-50 saw the release of four films – Andaz, Dulari, Barsaat and Mahal – with Lata as the prime female playback singer in each of them. The songs of all four films were runaway hits, be it Jiya Beqarar Hai (Barsaat), Uthaye Ja Unke Situm (Andaz), Ae Dil Tuje Qasam Hai (Dulari) and particularly Aayega Aanewala composed by Khemchand Prakash from the last mentioned. Lata Mangeshkar had arrived and how! Another extremely popular song of Lata’s that was hummed across the country was Lara Lappa Lara Lappa from Ek Thi Larki (1949) re-uniting her with Meena Shorey, Roop K Shorey and Vinod. Such was the popularity of the song that till her dying day Meena Shorey, on whom the song was picturised, was known as the ‘Lara Lappa girl!’ Initially, Lata’s singing did appear inspired by Noor Jehan, particularly in the two sad songs of Andaz, Tod Diya Dil Mera and Uthaye Ja Unke Situm, but thankfully for her, she established her own vocal style rather early on.
By 1950 the Lata wave had changed the face of music in the Hindi film Industry. Her high-pitched singing rendered obsolete the heavy basy nasal voices of the day. Only Geeta Dutt and to a certain extent Shamshad Begum survived the Lata onslaught. Her younger sister, Asha Bhosle, too broke thorugh in the late 1950s and from then on, the two sisters were the undisputed queens of Indian playback singing right through to the 1990s. Lata’s exceptional voice and superior training motivated composers to creating complex musical numbers keeping her in mind. Seeking perfection in every aspect of her singing, a slight remark by actor Dilip Kumar making fun of her Maharashtrian accent saw her sharpen her Urdu by hiring a tutor! Needless to say, her Urdu today is absolutely flawless. And not just Urdu. Listeners in practically every language that Lata has sung be it Bengali or Tamil vouch for her perfect diction and pronunciation of even the most complex of words in those languages.
Though Lata sang countless memorable songs under the baton of all the top composers like Naushad, SD Burman, , Hemant Kumar, Roshan, Jaidev, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Shanker-Jaikishen, Salil Chowdhury, Ravi, Vasant Desai, Hansraj Behl, Kalyanji Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, RD Burman barring OP Nayyar and with all the top playback artistes of the day, special mention must be made of her work for C Ramchandra who made her sound arguably her sweetest and Madan Mohan who challenged her voice like no other music director. That is not to say the others did not compose brilliant songs for Lata. They did. Yet, there is something special and different about the Lata who sang for C Ramchandra in Samadhi (1950), Albela (1951), Sagai (1951), Saqi (1952), Anarkali (1953) and Yasmin (1955). One still recalls the melodic gems from these films like Gore Gore O Banke Chhore, Dheere Se Aaja and Mohabbat Aisi Dharkan Hai. It is said the two were involved and even co-produced a film together, Jhamela (1953), which sadly flopped at the box-office.
Anarkali, in particular, deserves a special mention. The film looks at the mythical and legendary love of prince Salim (Pradeep Kumar), the son of Emperor Akbar with the court dancer Anarkali (Bina Rai), a commoner. The music of the film by C Ramachandra with lyrics by Rajinder Krishan is without doubt the MAJOR standout highlight of the film. The music in Anarkali represents some of the finest work in C Ramchandra’s career and sees some of the best singing that Lata Mangeshkar did in her entire career. While every song is an unquestioned masterpiece, the number that still rises above the others and stands out in both its versions and was also by far the most popular song of the film in both its versions is Yeh Zindagi Usiki Hai. This is closely followed by O Aasmanwale Shikwa Hai Zindagi Ka. Later on, composer Naushad, lyricist Shakeel Badayuni and singer Lata would immortalise the doomed courtesan Anarkali once gain in K Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960) with some fantastic songs like Bekas Pe Karam and Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya.
But perhaps the best ever song composed by C Ramchandra for Lata, if one has to choose, would have to be the non-film patriotic song, Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon, sung after the disastrous Indo-Chinese War of 1962. The song moved India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to tears. It is said that since C Ramchandra and Lata had fallen out in 1957-8 and she had not sung for him since then, he had already rehearsed the song with Asha Bhosle. But he was only too glad to let Lata sing it when she made up with him and agreed to sing the song. Even today, the song rouses patriotic feelings perhaps like no other song and one cannot help but be emotionally moved by Lata’s amazing rendering.
With Madan Mohan, Lata sang some of the most complex of songs and some of the greatest ghazals composed for Hindi films. One can never forget melodic gems like Qadar Jane Na (Bhai Bhai (1956)), Yun Hasraton ke Daag (Adalat (1958)), Woh Bhooli Dastan (Sanjog (1961)), Aapki Nazaron Ne Samjha (Anpadh (1962)), Jab Humne Sunayi Apni Dastan Aap Kyon Roye (Woh Kaun Thi (1964)), Nainon Mein Badra Chhaye (Mera Saaya (1966)) and Hum Hain Mata-e-Kooch-o-Bazaar ki Tarah (Dastak (1970)).
The 1960s and 70s saw Lata go from strength to strength even as there were strong and it is said justifiable accusations of her monopolising the field and not letting newer singers come up. Her phenomenal success made her one of the most powerful women in the film industry and she had her share of controversies. She opposed Mohammed Rafi in the 1960s and stopped singing with him over the issue of royalty to playback artistes. The two did not sing with each other for about two years. Sources close to Rafi maintain that Lata had to patch up her differences with him when composers refused to drop him from duets and chose other singers like Suman Kalyanpur to accompany him for singing the female part of these songs. Lata, on the other hand, always said that it was Mohammed Rafi who wrote and apologised to her, a fact refuted vehemently by Mohammed Rafi’s son, Shahid. Simi Garewal, while doing the initial research for a documentary on Lata, mentioned in an interview to Rediff that she gave up the idea of making the film due to the singer’s huge ego and difficult behaviour. In certain cases, Lata had her way. She had refused to sing for SD Burman in the period from 1957-60 and he, along with OP Nayyar, groomed Asha Bhosle as his main singer during this period only to return to Lata once their feud was over. Bandini (1963) and Guide (1965) more than amply proved just how valuable she was to Dada Burman’s compositions. Unhappy with the lyrics of Ang Se Ang Laga Balma, she refused to sing for Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970) and after the film flopped, he had no choice but to go back to her to sing for Dimple Kapadia in Bobby (1973).
From the 1980s, Lata cut down on her workload to concentrate on her shows abroad. Nevertheless, some of the biggest hits of the 1990s like Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995), Dil To Paagal Hai (1997) and Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) were sung by her. From Nargis to Madhubala, Sadhana to Hema Malini, Sridevi to Madhuri Dixit, she’s sung for them all.
A Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner for her contribution to Indian Cinema in 1990, Lata is also the recepient of India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (2001). Besides these, she has also been bestowed with the Padma Bhushan (1969), the Padma Vibhushan (1999), 3 National Film Awards, and 12 Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Awards. She has also won four Filmfare Best Female Playback Awards. In 1969, she made the unusual gesture of giving up the Filmfare Best Female Playback Award, in order to promote fresh talent. She was later awarded the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. In 1984, the State Government of Madhya Pradesh instituted the Lata Mangeshkar Award in honor of Lata Mangeshkar. The State Government of Maharashtra also instituted a Lata Mangeshkar Award in 1992.
Lata Mangeshkar has also produced films like Lekin (1990) and even composed music for the Marathi film Ram Ram Pahune (1950) under her own name. Later on, as ‘Anandghan’ she composed music for some Marathi films like Mohityanchi Manjula (1963), Maratha Tituka Melvava (1964), Sadhi Manasa (1965) and Tambadi Mati (1969). In these films, she showed her vast knowledge of melody and in particular, Marathi folk music. The films have some outstanding songs and Lata would go on to win the Maharashtra State Government’s Best Music Director and Best Playback Singer awards for the film Sadhi Manasa.
Lata Manesgkar was hospitalised in early 2022 following her infection with Covid 19. She died of post Covid complications in Mumbai on 6th of February, 2022. With her demise, she is one of those rare personalities for whom the epithet ‘end of a era’ genuinely holds good. After all, she is that unique artist who was able to realise her search for excellence. As Amitabh Bachchan once said, she is the only artist in the history of Indian cinema who did not see a downside once at the top.