Lata Mangeshkar: The Nightingale with a Divine Sur

Lata Mangeshkar, the “indisputable and indispensable queen of India’s playback singers” left for heavenly abode on Sunday, February 6, 2022 at the age of 92.

As the news of Lata Mangeshkar flashed on television screens, I at once remembered Gulzar’s lyrics that she had sung, “meri awaaz hi meri pehachan” (My voice is my identity), and felt, “Yes, her mortal body is no more, which is destined to happen one day, but her voice—the voice that I have been listening to since my childhood despite my father’s dictum that movies and cinema songs are distasteful and good students should shun them—is immortal”.

Although watching movies was almost taboo in our house, nobody could stop me from listening to cinema songs. For, in those days, publicity about the release of a movie was carried out on the streets by an announcer sitting in a rickshaw with a lodspeaker on the top blaring film songs, and in between, announcing details about the film. This facilitated my listening to various songs even while sitting at home.

It was on one such occasion while walking back from school in the evening that I first heard the song, Jiya bekaraar hai chhaai bahaar hai / Aja more baalama tera intajaar hai, and got hooked to it. On another such occasion, I heard another song that started with a haunting alaap followed by …. Raaja ki ayegi baaraat, rangili hogi raat, magan main naachungi, and mesmerizing mandolin strokes.

In those days even in the religious festivities, cinema records are played in the pandals before the commencement of the actual program. Once, at such a function, I heard a couple of songs of Lataji from ‘Nagin’ which were very popular then: that bewitching Man dole mera tan dole /… Ye kaun bajaaye baasuriyaan , Mera dil ye pukare aaja, mere gam ke sahaare aaja… and Jadugar sainyya chhodo mori bainyya.

Another frequently heard song those days in such functions was, Aye maalik tere bande hum, sung by Lata Mangeshkar for the film ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’. That was how my journey with Lata Mangeshkar’s songs started way back from my Taluka High School days. It got further intensified as I entered college and started reading magazines like Filmfare, Cine Advance, Screen, etc.

In those early days of the journey, I enjoyed listening to a song of her from the film ‘Anarkali’. It begins with a gorgeous aalaap: Yeh zindagii usii kii hai jo kisii ka ho gayaa (This life belongs to only to whomever lets their soul to someone) / pyaar hii mei kho gayaa (one who gets lost in love) … And ends with a haunting finale: ‘Alviidaah (Adieu), alviidaah, alviidaah, alviidaah…. I read in one of those magazines that listening to this song, perhaps, to her bidding adieu in such a sweet high note four times, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan is said to have remarked, “Kambakth kabhi besuri nahin hoti” (the wretched girl never goes out of tune). This song, based on raag Bhimpalasi, oozes with yearning and Lataji enunciated the lyrics so effortlessly with a blend of requisite emotive force to the accompaniment of mesmerizing sitar strokes and soothing flute music in the intervening spaces.

Another song that I liked to listen to wherever I happened to get a chance was: Rasik balama haee dil kyon lagaaya (O my beloved, why did I give my heart). I didn’t know the meaning of a single word of it except ‘rog’, if it meant the same as in Telugu. Yet, the song stuck to me eternally—I could feel the pine of Nargis in the way Lataji enunciated those words… This song from the film ‘Chori Chori’ (1956) was set to music by Shankar-Jaikishan duo based on raag Shuddh Kalyaan, a raag said to be more suited for men’s voice. It was sung by Lataji with all the ‘mardani’ manliness in vilambit laya, slow speed accompanied by sitar. The haunting beauty of Lataji’s voice, particularly the ease with which she straightaway reaches the highest note avoiding the usual practice of gliding from one note to the other while enunciating the words, Neha laga ke hari (falling in love, I am defeated); Dastihai ujali raina (glow of the day bites like a serpant), and then the way she drops down for the words, tadpun main gam ki maari; kaa se kahoo main baina is amazing.

Interestingly, she sang another song composed by Burmanda based on the same Shuddh Kalyaan raag in the film ‘Paying Guest’—Chaand fir nikala magar tum na aye (Moon has come out again, but you haven’t) / Jala fir mera dil karun kya main haay (Heart is smouldering again, what am I to do), which is pretty similar to this, for both have the same bandish besides being sad but lovely. Yet, they both have a unique identity and melody of their own. In fact, Lataji once said that these songs are two of the best songs of her career.

Every song of Lataji sang under SJ duo, particularly for Raj Kapoor’s films, oozes emotion. Take for instance the song, Yeh sham ki tanhaiyan (This solitude of the evening) from ‘Aah’ (1953): the way the tonality shifts, the timbral and decibel control of hers, and the way the lyrics are voiced makes it simply enchanting making the listener feel the ache of the singer on the screen.

So is the case with the song, Aajao tadapte hain arman (Do come, yearnings tormenting) / Ab raat guzarne wali hai (The night is about to pass off) from the film ‘Awaara’ (1951): she gives life to every word in the lyrics with her voice imbued with the required quantum of emotion plus by that tantalizing drop at the end of a musical turn, curve, statement, and all these features can be distinctly noticed all through the song. See, even after the line Ye raat ki dulhan chal di kidhar, chal di kidhar (Where is this night’s bride heading) ends, her voice remains just for that extra microsecond adding magic to the meaning of the lyrics. The refrain of this song is the way she enunciates the words Ab raat guzarne wali hai in a dissolving tone as the song nears its end, which makes every listener feel the romantic ache of the singer on the screen as though it is his/her own. Indeed, the pain hangs with the listener for quite some time to come as a distant cloud.

There are two other songs that pop up in my mind from my childhood nostalgia: Ajaa re paradesi and Ghadi ghadi mora dil dhadke… from ‘Madhumati’ that I heard from a passing rickshaw announcing a new release in the town. Lataji got her first Filmfare Award in 1959 for that haunting melody, Ajaa re paradesi … main toh kabse khadi iss paar…(Come down, O Foreigner, I am waiting for over an eon on this shore) composed by Salil Chowdhury based on raag Baageshri, a beautiful raag of Hindustani tradition. Lataji sang it in her soprano voice that casts its spell on every listener. Its magic spell mesmerized Indians, generation after generation. No wonder, Lataji considers it among her 10 best songs ever.

Before joining college for PUC, I had the pleasure of going with my brother and sister-in-law to watch the movie ‘Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai’ at Saraswati Picture Palace. That gave me a chance to enjoy that beautiful song of Lataji on the screen: O basanti pawan pagal/Na ja re na ja roko koi—a plaintive urge for the lover, Raju not to go that echoed in the ravines and rocks abutting Narmada is still fresh in memory. The heart-touching lyrics of Shailendra were sung by Lataji depicting a pure longing or viraha in a Gambhirya style in raag Basant Mukhari that made it more exhilarating.

After joining college, I became quite choosy and selective while listening to Hindi songs. Driven by a new-found interest in legendry music director, Naushad, I used to listen to his songs in the late evenings sitting in the far end of the college pavilion. As I think of him, first song that comes to mind is that defiant courtesan’s, Pyar kiya to darna kya? (Why fear to be in love) which was composed in raag Durga by Naushad to portray the pain-filled love that Anarkali is passing through (‘Mughalz e Azam’). Lataji sang it in a very melancholic style but infused it with the requisite power and vigor to convey the potency of the lyrics. The defiance and the bravery in love are well reflected in her tone when she voices the stanza, Aaj kahenge dil kaa fasaanaa (Today I will narrate the story of my heart) / Jaan bhii le le chaahe zamaanaa (Even if the world takes my life).

The real gem of a song from this movie is Bekas pe karam kiijiye, sarkar-e-madina (Show compassion on the needy one O Lord of Madina) / Gardish mein hai taqadeer bhanvar mein hai safeena (My fate revolves in a vicious cycle, my boat is stranded in a whirlpool)an Islamic Naat composed based on raag Kedar which is known for its complex melodic phrases and evocation of the shanta rasa in the hearts of the listeners. Lataji’s incredible rendition of the Urdu lyrics that are soaked in tranquil piety with heartfelt emotion true to the raag Kedar leaves the listeners in utter sadness—as the song ends, indefinable calmness envelopes.

There were many evenings in which sitting on the pavilion steps I heard some of the best songs of Hindi films of the ’60s. One that immediately strikes to mind is that masterpiece from the stable of Maestro Roshan, listening which, Kabhi to milegi kahi to milegi baharon ki manzil rahi (Sometime, somewhere, you will meet, O traveler) from ‘Aarti’ (1962), I used to dream of sitaron ki manzil (destiny of stars), even feel reassured: door to hai par, door nahi hai (it’s far, but not that far). The soft alaap at the beginning and the reassuring tone of Lataji and particularly that soft optimistic humming in the first interlude made it not only one of her timeless songs but also a gem of Roshan’s music.

On many late evenings, sitting in the playground, I enjoyed listening to that haunting melody from ‘Bees Saal Baad’ (1962): Kahin deep jale kahin dil—its instrumental arrangements, captivating voice of Lataji, and the ebb and flow of the lovely composition of Hemantada simply enthralled listeners. In 1963, Lataji got her 2nd Filmfare Award for this song. Incidentally, during that year’s Hostel Day celebrations, a final year student bagged the best singer prize of the year by singing this very song.

Sitting in the far end of the pavilion, how many Wednesdays my roommate and I waited for Ameen Sayani of Binaca Geetmala to play that masterpiece of Ravi: Tumhin mere mandir tumhin meri puja, tumhin devata ho (You are my temple, you are my prayer, you are my God) from ‘Khandan’. The melody of the song is so influencing that in its trans we never realized the cringe-worthiness of its lyrics. But we were simply taken to the distant world as Lataji hums that lullaby in the third stanza, bahut raat biitii chalo mai sulaaa duun / pavan chhede sargam main lorii sunaa duu.n, … ….mmmm. My God what an ethereal lullaby!

It was during my stay at the hostel as a PG student of Kalyani University that I enjoyed the opportunity to sit alone in front of the radio in the common Hall and listen to Hindi songs to my heart’s content. It was here that I first heard the song that she sang for the first time under the baton of Naushad Ali: ‘Uthhaae ja un ke sitam aur jie ja (Put up with his atrocities and live on)/ Yun hi muskuraae ja, ansu pie ja’ (keep smiling, swallowing your tears) penned by Majrooh Sultanpuri for the film Andaz (1949). It was set to a tune based on the Raag Kedar with all the antaras in a different style. Perhaps, being overinfluenced by her friend, superstar singer, Noor Jahan, 0r, as directed by Naushad, Lata sang it imitating the voice of Noor Jahan, and of course, it became quite popular more because of her better voice, perhaps.

It was in this very hall that I enjoyed listening to some of Madan Mohan’s songs. During her long career, Lataji gave vocal expression to the musical art and craft of such great music directors like Anil Biswas, C Ramachandra, Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, SD Burman, Roshan, Khayyam, etc., but her combination with Madan Mohan remained unique. For, the songs that came out of their combination turned sweetest and are universally liked.

Take for instance the song, Lag jaa gale from the film ‘Woh Kaun Thi?’ (1964). Listen, how beautifully she gives musical life to every syllable of the song, Lag jaa gale ki phir yah hasiin raat ho na ho (Embrace me, for whether this beautiful night will ever come again) Shayad phir is janam men mulaaqaat ho na ho (Perhaps, in this life, we may never meet again)—its meaning is felt by the listener well before it is completed. The beautiful simplicity of the lyrics of Raja Mehdi Ali Khan was well crafted into a sublime melody by Madan Mohan based on raag Pahadi and Lataji sang it in her heavenly voice at its best right from the humming at the beginning till the end wrapping in an aura of yearning to entice, plead, beckon, and mesmerize the lover duly accompanied by the gentle sound of violins threading different stanzas of the song together, that placed the song for all these years on a high pedestal.

Madan Mohan gave the best musical expression to pain, the pain of the unrequited love, and this comes in full bloom in the songs of ‘Adalat’ (1958). Listen to the song, Yun hasraton ke daag mohabbat mein dho liye (Washed the stains of desire in the flow of love) and as the song reaches the stanza, Ghar se chale the ham to khushii ki talash mein (Started from home in search of happiness) / Gham raah mein khade the vahii saath ho liye (Sadness that stood on the way became the companion), one can’t but marvel at the way Lataji voices them, which makes karuna rasa swell up in the heart of the listener.

The next is the song, Jaana tha humse door bahaane bana liye (had to go from me, so made an excuse) that was composed with minimum orchestration in raag Sivaranjani and sung by Lataji the stretched-out notes of Madan Mohan in her soprano voice with so much ease, which was followed by violin phrases that depict the melancholic mood and flow of emotions so beautifully—all cumulatively making it an exceptional song. Listening to her melancholic alaap followed by the stanza dil ko mile jo daag jigar ko mile jo dard (the stain that smeared the heart, the threat meted out to the confidence) / un daulaton se hamane khazaane banaa liye (with those assets I made a treasure)…we simply remain silent as though frozen even after her voice died down.

The ultimate song of the movie is Un ko ye shikaayat hai ke ham kuchh nahiin kahte (He has this complaint that I don’t say anything ) / Apnii to ye aadat hai ki ham kuchh nahiin kahte (But it’s my nature that I do not say anything)which was composed by Madan Mohan in raag Malgunji with minimal orchestration to let the beauty of Rajendra Krishan’s lyrics manifest fully. The everlasting magic of this exquisite ghazal starts with two soft sitar bridges followed by Lataji’s gentle alaap accompanied at the end by a faintly audible santoor, … then the words Unko yeh shika-a-a-a-yat hai ki hum … kuch nahin kehte, roll out soaked in anguish making the listener feel as though the words are wrenching out of her heart. Then at the first interlude, sarangi, that immutable instrument of a Kotha makes a cool entry, perhaps to create a melancholic atmosphere for Lataji to voice the words, Mazboor bahut karta hai yeh dil toh zubaan ko (My heart compels my tongue many times to speak …) … kuch aisi hi halat hai ke hum kutch nahin kehte….(But my state is such that I am unable to say anything). Then in the second interlude, the sitar leads the way while sarangi plays an underdog role. As the song nears the end, it is worth watching how Lataji slows down while uttering the stretched-out words kutch nahi keh…tey, which sounds almost like a dirge while raising the octave while voicing the words, shikaay…aat hai. The effect is: they hang out in the mind of listeners as a distant cloud for quite some time.

I now would like to take you to another gem of a ghazal—Aap ki nazaron ne samjhaa pyaar ki qaabil mujhe (Your glances deemed me worthy of love)from the film, ‘Anpadh’ (1962) that came out under the combination of these two, which, Naushad supposedly told Madan Mohan that he would trade all of his compositions for this one song! Such was its beauty. Lataji made it look easy but remember the lines in the song are too long and to sing them, that too, in stretched notes is breathtaking, which she only could accomplish. This beauty you relish more as Lataji airs the stanza Padgayii dil par mere aap ki parchhaaiiyaa (Your shadows have cast upon my heart) / Har taraf bajane lagiin saikdon shahnaaiiyaan (Hundreds of shahnaaiis are playing in celebration all around), for it indeed gets the listener transported to an altogether new realm.

That said, it must be admitted that Madan Mohan is equally adept at giving a romantic expression to a song. As the prelude of sitar’s lovely routine terminates, the sweet voice of Lataji airs the lyrics albeit faintly, for it comes from a far off… naino mein badaraa chhaye (clouds fill the eyes)…then as gorgeous Sadhana, the scene-stealer with her near naturalness comes in front of the camera, we hear Lataji crooning in her full throat, Bijalee see chamake haaye (Lighthening flashes,) / Ayese mein balam mohe (In this instant, my lover), and now get ready to relish the sensuous modulation that she gives to the word, ‘garawaaa’ of the next line—garawaa lagaa le (hug me to your bosom) that is simply enticing. The most sweet part of the song is Lataji’s humming aa aa.. aa aa aa… aa aa aa in the second interlude. This song penned by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan—acclaimed as the best expression ever given in a Hindi song to raag Bhimpalasi—won Madan Mohan the “Sur Singar” award for the best classical song for the year 1966.

On one Sunday afternoon sitting alone in the common hall, I heard the song from the film ‘Parakh’ (1960)—O sajnaa barkha bahaar aayii. Salil Chowdhry composed it based on raag Asud Kalavati, while some others consider it as based on Khamaj, a romantic raaga. I heard both, the Bengali and Hindi versions. The song, has a beautiful lead—the sounds of the rain hitting the flowing water on the road, sounds of dripping water from the leaves and the eaves, sounds of toads and frogs in the night, claps of thundering—something so natural that we encounter in a village setting when it rains, and then comes that sweet voice of Lataji softly cooing … O sajnaa followed by the mesmerizing strokes of sitar duly accompanied by tabala beats …Then comes that free-flowing voice of Lataji like an unbridled brook, loaded with the fragrance of a freshly bloomed flower… O sajnaa barkha bahaar aayii (Oh, my beloved, the rain-filled season has arrived) / Ras kii puhaar laayii, ankhiyon me pyaar laayii (It has brought sprinkling droplets of nectar, brought love to these eyes)…. The second antara is the outstanding piece of the song, for it is sung differently from the previous antara—a unique feature of Salilda’s composition—it suddenly falls from high notes to low notes. Delicate runs and bridges in the lines aisii rimjhim men O sajan pyaase mere nayan (in this light shower of rain, O my beloved, my eyes long for you) / tere hii khvaab men kho gaye (they were lost in a dream of you) transports the listener to a distant world—all drenched in rasa. Then followed by the interlude, Lataji’s voice rises to a crescendo as she airs the next antara, “saanvalli salonii…” Here one must notice how on that high note, Lataji utters the word, ‘ghataa’: it’s simply amazing—creates an undefinable effect on the listener. Lataji, delineating the purity and perfection, innocence and intensity, dignity and divinity of love tastefully through her fine expressiveness and erudition, made this song stand out as a rare piece.

Come ’70s, I was placed at Rudru Research Station and got slowly weaned away from film music. Of course, I was not totally cut off. For instance, Burmanda’s film, ‘Abhimaan’ was one such which made me sit with the radio/stereophonic record player listening to the whole album. In it Lataji had three solos—Ab to hai tumse, Nadiya kinare and Piya bina piya bina—and three duets—Loote koi man ka nagar with Manhar Udhas, Tere mere milan ki yeh raina with Kishore Kumar, and Teri bindiya re with Mohammed Rafi, and all are pretty good.

Of these, the most heart-wrenching song is: Piya bina piya bina piya bina basiya (Without my love, the flute)/ Baaje na baaje na baje na piya bina (Does not bring forth music) … Right from the alaap, the fluidity of her singing best syncs with the music. She brings lyrics—Piya aise ruthe kee hontho se mere sangeet ruutha (My lover is so angry that music has fled my lips), Kabhi jab mai gau lage mere mann kaa har geet jhuutha (When I do sing, it feels as though every tune is false), Aise bichhade o aise bichhade more rasiya (So distant my love is from me)—to life in a manner that reinforced the magic of the words, making it one of her best songs.

Then came Rahul Dev Burman with his best performance in ‘Amar Prem’. As Lataji begins the song with a melancholic alaap, it causes Anand Babu to stop in his tracks and listen to the pain of the singer piercing through the voice of Lataji—Raina Beeti Jaye (Night is passing), Shyam na aye (Shyam has not come yet). Fusing two raagas, Todi and Khamaj, RD composed this tune in which Anand Bakshi’s lyrics blend so seamlessly that cumulatively, all this creates a magical feel. As Lataji reaches a high octave while singing Biraha ki maari prem diwani (Blow of the separation makes the lover crazy) / Tan man pyaasa, ankhiyon men paani (Heart and body are thirsty, tears in the eyes), her voice, as clear as glass, elevates the grief of the singer to a higher plane that leaves a listener spellbound.

Then in that era of declining melodies, there came that beautiful melody of Jaidev at his best: Ye dil aur unki nigahon ke saaye. The beginning of the song is mind blowing—santoor, flute and Lataji’s romantic humming, the way they sync with each other so well that you at once get transported into a romantic trance fit enough to swing with Lataji’s mesmerizing voice that airs, Ye dil aur unki nigahon ke saaye (This heart is under his constant gaze) / Mujhe gher lete hain baahon ke saaye (Envelopes me in the feel of his arms). The real beauty of this song is second Antara—as Lataji voices the lyrics at once in a rised tone Lipatate ye pedon se baadal ghanere the magic of flute serenades the listener and then as Lataji utters the words, Bahot thande thande hain raahon ke saaye in such a way that you feel as though refreshed in the nipping effect of that romance with the nature….Jaidev’s serene music together with Lataji’s sweet voice gives life to Jan Nisar Akhtar’s poetry…

Lataji had continued singing well into her 80s. This has seen her lending voice even to young actors of this gen—Tujhe dekha to ye jana sanam / Pyar hota hai deewana sanam—with the same young voice with which she sang for yesteryear heroines. Listening to it, we realize that she was aged but not her voice.

Although Lataji sang innumerable duets with Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, etc., which were great hits, I want to close this narration with my most favorite duet song of her with Manna Dey, Pyaar hua ikraar huahai (‘am in love, I confess it) / Pyar se phir kyoon darr ta hai dil (Why then is that heart so afraid of love?) in which in the last Antara, Lataji, , dropping herself from a surging flow to slow pace, in fact in a kind of soft-trembling tone utters dead slowly: Main na rahoongi, tum na rahoge (I won’t be there, nor would you be) / Phir bhi rahengi nishaaniyaan ((Yet, there remains signs of us) that makes listeners’ heart quiver…

Lataji left us leaving her nishaaniyaan—that “ageless, pure, vibrantly alive, untrammelled in its range and flexibility, hauntingly expressive voice” which has “a certain ethereal quality”—and they will continue to regale the subcontinent for generations to come. It would be an endless journey!


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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