Pandit Jasraj, in one of his interviews, said that it was not what Lata Mangeshkar sang but it was how she sang that made all the difference. True enough. The incomparable Lata Mangeshkar, the legendary singer, turned 81 on 28th September 2010 and is still going strong. I call her God’s own child. She has recently recorded an English song for an international production house and a Hindi one for a Bollywood film. Though highly selective of what she sings now, yet surprisingly decided to lend her voice to a Western number! But she has always been like that!! Throwing surprises when least expected by her impeccable performances and renditions - be it a cabaret, a raunchy folk song, a romantic croon or a hauntingly sad number – she has always mesmerized the agog listeners. I remember those days when one of her songs would be released on air, be it Hindi or Bengali, we would be left spell bound and analyze threadbare what made it so distinctly different from the rest. Was it the voice quality or throw, the modulation, the swar lagaav i.e. the precision with which the notes were touched upon or the measured expressions? It is extremely difficult to fathom the magic of Lata Mangeshkar and I suppose that is what makes her a legend.
She sang at a time for heroines who belonged to the era of demurely coy femme fatale subscribing to Victorian ethics. Lataji’s “nightingale” sweetness perfectly fitted the image. It is said that the lyricists had to be very careful while penning songs for her as the lady just refused to compromise with decency and finesse. Understandably so, since she belonged to an era when ladies hardly crossed over the threshold to opt for a career that too in music. The songs were composed by music directors, par excellence, who had solid knowledge of the finer nuances of classical, semi-classical, folk and all other types of music unlike the “hep” tribe to which today’s Anu Maliks belong who do not even know that Pt. Bhimsen Joshi belongs to the Kirana Gharana and “Nimbuda Nimbuda……” is basically a Rajasthani folk song punched into a recent, popular film number. In short, a number of factors are responsible for elevating a song into a classic creation – the lyrics, the composition, the style of singing, orchestration, singer him/herself, picturization and choreography if it is a film song etc. etc. But on many occasions, several music directors of yester year have confessed that Lata Mangeshkar added an extra dimension to their songs however beautifully composed.
To illustrate this aura of Lata Mangeshkar, I present five songs sung by her, though it is very difficult to put down in words an abstraction, an intangible “something” which can only be “felt” and not deciphered. The illustrations are random and do not follow any chronological or other order. As all her songs are unique gems, I picked up those which came first to my mind. I have also, in my limited way, tried to enumerate the reason why these songs are masterpieces. However my rationale is my own and should not be taken as a professional’s generalization since I am no musicologist. It is an audacity to even speak of legends let alone review their work without sufficient knowledge. However, this is my way of paying a tribute to a lady whom I have admired from my childhood, not only the way she sings but also the way she conducts herself:
(1) The first song that comes to my mind is “Bas ek chup si lagi hai, nahin udaas nahin” (Film Sannata, 1969). The song was composed by Hemant Kumar and sung both by Hemantda and Lataji separately (male and female versions). Generally, songs of those days were accompanied by heavy orchestration (at least 100 piece) which was considered necessary to fill up the gaps between the sthaayee (opening stanza) and antara (consecutive stanzas) of a song and also to cover up the flaws, if any, of singing. However, the song Hemantda sang was only accompanied by tabla and harmonium while Lataji’s version had very subdued orchestration, which speaks volumes about the flawless singing of both the artistes. It is also noteworthy that in olden times songs were recorded live at one go with the musicians after innumerable rehearsals unlike today’s track system where the singer just fills in the lines in the pre-recorded orchestra track. The latter allows a lot of leverage to the singer who can dub the songs in parts perfecting each line through a number of takes and retakes. The lyrics by the inimitable Gulzaar Sahib also add to the charisma of the song.
(2) “Aa Jaane Jaa.” is the only cabaret sung by Lataji (Film Inteqaam, ). The music is by Laxmikant Pyarelal. In one of her interviews, Lataji said that it was strenuous to sing a Laxmi-Pyare composition as it required a lot of force to rendition the jazzy numbers. This song has been picturized on Helen in a “Beauty and the Beast” dance sequence. Those who have heard the song, and I am sure there are countless of them, will vouchsafe that the haunting echoes linger on for quite sometime even after the song is over. Lataji added a new parlance to cabaret when she sang this song in her own impeccable style and I think this is the only time she encroached her younger sister, Ashaji’s domain, cabaret and fast numbers were/are whose forte.
(3) “Neela aasman so
(4) The song that immediately comes to mind after the aforementioned third song is “Aaye dile-nadaan” (Film Razia Sultan, ), composed by Khayyam. The song is picturized on Hema Malini i.e. Razia, traveling through the desert on camel’s back. The song epitomizes desperation and isolation of a lonely woman who rose to power but lost in love. The song again has a haunting, brooding tenor and shades of Oriental strains (reminds one of Arabian music), perhaps, because of the historical backdrop of the story. Jaan Nisar Akhtar Sahib’s lyrics go hand in hand with Lataji’s rendition which concise the vastness of the desert in a three minute song!!
(5) “Paani paani re khare paani re” is a Vishal Bhardwaj composition (Film Machis, ) and lyrics again by Gulzaar. The song has minimum orchestra and flows like a stream. The beauty of the rendition lies in the voice modulation and expression. The line “Paani nainon mein bhar jaa, neendein khali kar jaa” and the whisper soft stress on the word “khali” expresses exactly the emptiness of life without the proximity of near and dear ones. The song is picturized on Tabu who joins her extremist fiancé far away in the barren terrains of the hills, leaving her home and village. Only a Lata Mangeshkar can bring about this distinction of expressing the whole gamut of a mood by modulation of one word in an entire song! This quality of right intonation of a single word to depict the essential mood of a song reminds me yet again of another Madan Mohan composition from the film Dastak. Sung by another genius of the same era, Mohammad Rafi Sahib, the song “Tumse kahoon ik baat paron se halki” has the characteristic repetition of the word halki in increasingly softer tones emphasizing a wisp of a touch lighter than a feather!!
Lata Mangeshkar’s magic cannot be encapsulated in one review. So, there is going to be a sequel very soon!!!