Diminutive, Indore-born Lata was literally nurtured in music. Her father Dinanath Mangeshkar ran a theatre company and later did music concerts. So, a two-year-old Lata would sit by her father’s side while he did his daily ‘riyaaz’.
By the time she was five, she would warble abhangs and other songs from her father’s repertory of classical and traditional songs. Lata was the eldest of the five Mangeshkar siblings — Asha, Meena, Usha and Hridaynath. Incidentally all would grow up and make a name for themselves.
Unfortunately, after some professional disasters, Dinanath died leaving the family destitute in 1942.
All the responsibility fell on 13-year-old Lata. She had appeared in bit roles till then but now she needed more work. Family friend Master Vinayak (father of actress Nanda) came forward to help. He helped the young Lata get her a break in friend Vasant Joglekar’s film Kittie Ha Saal in 1942. She started working in Master Vinayak’s company, Navyug Chitrapat.
In 1945, this company moved to Mumbai and the young Lata followed too. While the initial days were of tremendous struggle, Lata started learning classical music under Ustad Aman Ali Khan of the Bhindi Bazaar Gharana.
In 1946, she got her first Hindi film in Vasant Joglekar’s ‘Aap Ki Seva Mein’ (1945). She kept on doing an odd song or the other until Master Ghulam Haider (better known as the composer of Kamal Amrohi’s ‘Pakeezah’) became her mentor and got her a job in Bombay Talkies and her first hit was in ‘Majboor’ in 1948 where Ghulam Haider gave the music.
Haider also got her to improve her Urdu diction.
In 1948, she got her big breakthrough in ‘Ziddi’ from Bombay Talkies, starring Dev Anand and Kamini Kaushal, with music by S.D. Burman (Kishore Kumar, too, got his break in this film). ‘Ziddi’ was followed by ‘Buzdil’, both in 1948. and in 1949, the superhit ‘Aayega Aanewala’ in ‘Mahal’.
This Kamal Amrohi film had music by Khemchand Prakash. Lata’s rise to the top thereafter was swift.
She soon became the default choice as the playback singer for most leading ladies and composers. Once Bade Ghulam Ali Khan said about her “Kambakth kabhi sur nahin chhodti” — damn, she never drops a note.
From the Fifties to the Eighties, Lata delivered hundreds of hit songs under various composers.
She was the first choice of filmmakers such as Mehboob Khan, V. Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, the Anand brothers, (Chetan, Dev and Vijay), Raj Khosla, Yash Chopra, Amiya Chakravarty and L.V. Prasad.
Let us not forget this was the golden age of Hindi film music with composers such as Anil Biswas, Naushad, S.D. Burman, Khemchand Prakash, C. Ramchandra. Shanker-Jaikishen, Roshan, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, Salil Chowdhury, Vasant Desai, Hemant Kumar, Ravi, Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and later Rajesh Roshan, Bappi Lahiri and Anu Malik.
Poets such as Sahir, Shailendra, Majrooh, Shakeel, Kaifi, Indeevar and Anand Bakshi were also among some of the most talked-about individuals.
Among the singers, we had Suraiya, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhosle, Shamshad Begum and Suman Kalyanpur, among women, and Mohamad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, Talat Mehmood and Manna Dey. Lata Mangeshkar was the voice most heard and liked in India.
Lata Mangeshkar never married, though there were whispers about her liaisons with C. Ramachandra, Raj Kapoor, Jaikishen, and an extended close friendship with cricketer-prince Raj Singh Dungarpur.
Such was her respect that such innuendo never impacted her image. She would come to the studio dressed in exquisite white sarees with a prominent bindi carrying a thermos of warm water. Rarely would she ask for a cup of tea.
She did not socialise much and spent most of her time with her family, doting on her mother and nieces and nephews. Cricket and photography were her favourite hobbies, and she could whip up a mean dinner if required
She would talk about her travels or indulge in some mild gossip about other film folk, but usually she would come to rehearse the song and go to the mike and in a couple of takes the song would be okayed and she would leave.
She always exchanged a few words with some of the senior musicians whom she knew for decades.
She was not political in the overt sense of the word but was a nationalist. She was proud to be Indian and was not willing to accept needless criticism of the nation or its rulers.
She was aware of what was happening in the world. She was also familiar with global music trends. While she respected classical performers and singers, she was not intimidated by anyone.
She doted on her family, special the kids of her siblings. There are several stories going around since the 1950s about how the Mangeshkar sisters obstructed the entry of new comers. This is patently wrong.
They were loyal to some composers and felt betrayed if a song created for them was handed over to another singer on account of their unviability on a particular day.
In fact, there are many young singers who were encouraged by Lata and Asha. She was willing to take a stand when required. She was the first singer after K.L. Saigal who insisted on a share of royalty for each of her songs.
When Rafi compromised, she stopped singing duets with him for a number of years. Similarly, she took offence to a comment made by O.P. Nayyar about her voice quality.
She never sang for him ever. She never sang a single song of the talented composer. Similarly, once she had some creative differences with S.D. Burman and they did not work together for five years.
What is it that makes Lata Mangeshkar stand out among not only her contemporaries, but also singers from earlier and later years? One, her voice, which is a natural gift — soft, dulcet and very malleable. The second is her ability to feel the words she sang.
She could sing a romantic song with as much ease as she sung a ghazal, a bhajan or a lullaby. I can say with confidence that she was the only singer who would improve upon the original composition of the music director. She could embellish the song with the right ‘murki’, ‘harkat’ or a mere emphasis on a particular word. Her enunciation was impeccable.
It is a wrong notion that she rehearsed a lot. In the 1950s, it was a tradition for the singers to go to a music director’s music room for rehearsal. Somehow this practice faded away by the 1970s.
Lata could give a perfect take after a mere 15-minute rehearsal. Whenever she really need to work on a particular composition, she would call the composer and ask him to come home for a rehearsal.
To sing faultlessly for almost eight decades is an unparalleled achievement. There were perhaps a dozen composers and half a dozen lyricists and, a few filmmakers with whom Lata had a special relationship, but her professionalism was there for every singer, writer, composer, arranger or orchestra with whom she worked.
When an artiste’s repertoire runs into thousands, it is very difficult to pick a handful of her songs.
By Amit Khanna