Lata Mangeshkar’s milestone melodies

Did the queen of melody also find some songs challenging? What are her favourite ones and why?

A young Lata Mangeshkar recording a song
A young Lata Mangeshkar recording a song

Subhash K Jha

From the thousands of songs that Lata Mangeshkar has rendered to immortality there are some that she personally sees as career-defining game changers.

1. Dil mera toda... (Majboor, 1948): It was because of this hit song that Lataji’s journey as the singing supremo started. During an interview 30 years ago with me, Lataji had credited the Majboor composer Master Ghulam Haider with the kick-off credit for her career. Lataji had said, “When I came to Mumbai I worked for Master Vinayak. In 1947 Master Vinayak passed away. Ten days after his death a photographer who worked in his company took me to a music director Harishchandra Vade. There a junior-artiste supplier, a Pathan, heard me sing. He recommended me to Master Ghulam Haider who had just come from Pakistan.

"I really respected him for his music in Khazanchi, Shahid, Khandaan, etc. I went to meet him. This was 1947 and I was merely 18. I remember he was recording. He kept me waiting till evening. He finally called me to sing at around 5 pm. I sang one of his songs from the film Humayun. Then he asked me to sing one more song. I sang a Noorjehan number. Then he wanted to record my voice.

“During those days songs were recorded on film. There was no tape. He asked me who my guru was. When I told him it was Amanat Ali Khan sahab he said they were friends. Then Ghulam Haider played my voice to the very successful producer Shashadhar Mukherjee who said, ‘Yeh awaaz nahin chalegi, yeh awaaz bahot patli hai' (this voice won’t work, it’s too tinny). Shashadharji needed a playback voice for actress Kamini Kaushal. And he felt my voice didn’t match hers.

Master Ghulam Haider was livid. He ordered me to accompany him to the Bombay Talkies studio in Malad where Majboor was being shot. He was the music composer. He didn’t say anything to me. He just made me rehearse a song. Later when we recorded he said, ‘People will forget everyone including Noorjehan when they hear you.’

“The first song he recorded with me was a duet with Mukesh Bhaiyya, ‘Angrezi chhora chala gaya...’. This was my first major break. I recorded 3-4 songs for Majboor. Composer Khemchand Prakash heard them and signed me for Ziddi. That’s how my musical journey began. The credit for giving me my first major break goes to Master Ghulam Haider.

2. Ae dilruba... (Rustam Sohrab, 1963): This masterpiece ranks very high on Lataji’s own list of challenging songs. “It has an Arabesque lilt very unusual for those times in Hindi film songs. And it followed no conventional format. Sajjad Hussain sahab who composed this was one of the earliest composing stalwarts to show faith in my voice. I remember some of the ruling composer of the 1940s had dismissed voice as too thin.

"Sajjad saab was the second man after my father who predicted my future as a singer. I didn’t get to sing too many songs for him. But ‘Ae dilruba...’ remains a favourite. Sajjad Hussain composed what you call complex songs. Actually, I loved Sajjad Hussain’s music because like Naushad sahab and Madan bhaiyya, he insisted on poetic lyrics. These composers understood and appreciated Urdu. Like my brother, Sajjad sahab used to get angry about any trace of imperfection. He would compose nothing but classical music. He played the mandolin superbly.

3. Oh Sajna barkha bahaar aye… (Parakh, 1960): The rain song in which the Sitar sounds like a playful flirtatious companion to Lataji’s voice drizzling down droplets of nectar from heaven. Lataji admits that of all the inhumanly challenging compositions that she sang for Salil Chowdhury, ‘O sajna barkha bahaar…’ ranks as the most influential.

“I’ve sung many songs about the rain. But none as beloved as ‘O sajna...’. The Sitar is the real star of this song, not me.”

There is a myth that the Sitar in O sajna was played by Pt. Ravi Shankar. Wrong! The Sitar was played by another genius, Jayram Acharya. Speaking about the challenges that Salil Chowdhury tossed at Lataji she had said, “No one could compose songs like Salilda. His tunes were layered and textured and very difficult to sing. I loved the challenge of singing Salilada’s ‘Raaton ke saaye ghane...’ in Annadata and ‘Rajnigandha phool tumhare...’ in Rajnigandha.”

Folklore has it that once during a particularly difficult recording of a song composed by Salil Chowdhury, Lataji had passed out. She laughs, “It’s a fact. I did faint while singing one of his songs. Salilda’s tunes were a special challenge for me.”

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 30 Jan 2022, 9:15 AM