She fought a lone battle for her fraternity
She is very close to us. She is like a mother, and is a wonderful person. This is a relationship I cherish so much that I don't want to talk about it. I wonder why people are mentioning it.
Lataji was my father's rakhi sister. When we were young, we never realised what a great personality she was. She was just an aunt.
But we grew up and became more familiar with music and its intricacies. In fact, that was a problem when we were small children. We didn't realise the worth of our father as a composer. We were young and listened to young music. And my father was known for his old songs.
My father and Lataji were very close. In fact, when he came into films, she didn't sing for him in his first film. There was a communication problem then.
She had met him earlier when his father, that is my grandfather, was the owner of Filmistan Studios. They were making a film called Shaheed and she sung a song in it. There was a small part in the song, which had a brother and sister singing. He had sung the brother’s version, though the song wasn't kept in the film finally.
She remembers and reminds us about it and tells us that the brother and sister relationship stuck through the years.
When my father got married, he went and showed Lataji the picture of his bride-to-be. She said the bride was very nice and he got married. She was very much present at the wedding too.
And their career grew together though she was much senior to him in the industry. She started out in ’42 and her first film as a singer was in ’46 whereas my father became a composer in ’49.
Over the years, their relationship grew. People acknowledged that the kind of work they did together was the finest in the popular Hindi film music genre. There are people who say she sang best for him, though that might be a matter of personal opinion.
Even she gets surprised that she might have done so sometimes. Maybe he composed songs which suited her best -- that brought out something in her. I think she sang more soulfully for him.
She was close to my mother as well. She called her bhabhi and they were confidantes. I lost my father in '75, when I was 16.
Lataji became closer to my mother after my father died and when I lost my mother in ’80, she became closer to us -- the children. This normally doesn't happen. Especially in this industry. You generally tend to lose contact with people in such situations. Unless it is a work-based relationship.
I had a wonderful experience when I joined the music industry. In my own personal capacity. I was too young to imbibe from my father since he died when I was really young. I couldn't go into the creative field of music at that time though the urge was there, but the confidence wasn't. I did an MBA, so I thought that the best one could do was manage music.
In ’79, I joined Polydor, which was the second major music company those days. And I had complete carte blanche to develop non-film music there. I was given the task of finding new talent in non-film music.
Also in ’75-76, some of the legendary names passed away. My father, then S D Burman, Vasant Desai and Mukesh. Also, there was a lot of disco music coming in, not to mention the action films being made, which changed the genre of music.
Music started taking a backseat and Hindi film music stopped selling, except for a few songs.You really can't remember any hit songs from that time which sustained beyond the film. Therefore, it was an uphill task to keep the romance in the songs.
So I decided to develop ghazals as a form of music. Jagjit Singh helped me with that. I went to Lataji those days, but had lost contact with her because I had gone to Calcutta for my MBA. Also, when my father passed away, I wondered if I could fall back on some good relationships, which would also be a part of my career. I decided against it because I wanted to make it on my own. So I never went to any of the artistes that I knew when my parents were alive.
Lataji was a contracted artiste with HMV which meant she couldn't sing for other music companies, even for non-film music. So she couldn't record for us then. Polydor was going to distribute Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.
It didn't have any songs, but Polydor felt that an album would help. So, we thought, 'why not come out with an album of Gandhi’s favourite bhajans? This was not a part of the film at all, but we thought we could release it to coincide with the film. Naturally, Polydor was keen that Lataji sang for this since she was known for her devotional repertoire.
I went to her for the first time then. Not because I wanted her to do an album for me, but there was an occasion. We held the screening of the film for her, because she didn't know much about the film. She was inspired by it and made two albums with us. One was Gandhi Bhajans and one was Ram Ratan Dhan Paayo which became the highest-selling album then.
I was very shy, very nervous. Because she was too much of a legend. But now it is not so because of my professional relationship too. After that I recorded two live concerts, one of which was a memorable one with her and Kishore Kumar.
After that, I did a lot of albums with her. We did a bhajan album with her and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and then I did another one called Sajda with her and Jagjit Singh. And I did one of the highest-selling albums in history called Shraddhanjali. Where she paid tribute to great singers like Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, K L Saigal and so on.
We started getting close this way again and now we are closer. She was always fond of the Madan Mohan family, but now maybe it has gone beyond that. Now, it extends to my wife and son as well.
Lataji is turning 70 and this is a landmark. I am not being biased because I do think I am very neutral in my opinion. So when I say she is the greatest singer in the world, it is because she is. There may be some people who say we are doing her a favour by talking about her, but the fact is that we are elevated to a status by doing so.
Working with her made me realise what a perfectionist she is. As children, we were not allowed to attend recordings because we had school. But we would fake illnesses and convince our father to take us to these recordings sometimes.
My father would tell me that Lataji would never go wrong with her notes. Every other singer did go wrong sometimes, but she was perfect. I am not exaggerating, I am telling the truth.
Today she is 70, and age does take its toll on people. None of us can be the same all the time. So at 70, if you can sound the way she does, it's a miracle. Today it's fashionable to say she doesn't sound so good anymore, she cannot. But the trouble is we are always comparing her with her. The fact is she still sounds better than many singers today.
In India, we always try to bring down somebody. So we are always trying to find a flaw. This happened with Mohammed Rafi. When Kishore Kumar came on the scene, Rafi had to take a backseat for four or five years. He started feeling insecure and lost his confidence completely when Aradhana was released. Kishore Kumar really hit big time with this film.
There was also a song from Pyar Ka Mausam -- Tum bin jaaoon kahan, which was sung by both singers. But Kishore Kumar's version became a big hit. This affected Rafisaab tremendously. It took a great effort to bring him back.
My father played a major role in that. Rishi Kapoor got a voice in Bobby with Shailendra Singh. But when my father got Laila Majnu, he insisted that Rishi's songs would be sung by Rafi and no one else.
The point I am making is that everybody goes through these phases and it is difficult to hold on to the glory. But Lataji has remained on top -- by virtue of a long life that God has granted her and because of the fact that she is still in demand.
She has been at the top right from the beginning. Nobody can remain that way for 54 years. We don't realise what a legend she is and we are trying to either underplay or bring her down by criticising her. Also, we give recognition to people only after they are gone.
Of course, Lata Mangeshkar has got her recognition. But what I am saying is that at 70, we need to nurture her, we need to give her more health, so she can sing a little more till the time she calls it a day.
I personally continue to work with her on various music projects. Last year, we went to the US and Canada for concerts and I helped manage the tour for her. I realised that when she stands and sings to a crowd of 20,000, the respect the audience has for her is tremendous.
When she is announced on stage, the entire audience gives her a standing ovation for at least five minutes. Nobody tells them to do it. Over there, they respect her more than we do here. They don't get to see her more often. Of course, it's very tiring. Going from city to city and singing …she may not do these concerts now.
In her shows, there are no gimmicks. She just stands there, puts on her spectacles and reads from her collection of 25 songs. Last year, we had a show for in Bombay and it was telecast on Sony. It has been the largest grossing telecast and launched Sony as a channel.
There are so many things I get to hear from her. She fell ill during the early '60s. In fact, she always had a sinus problem, which very few people know of. It bothers her every morning.
There was a period when for six months, she had a severe infection and the first song she sang after that was for Hemant Kumar's Bees Saal Baad. The song was Kahi deep jale kahi dil. She wanted to cancel her song that day. But in those days, a song had to be recorded on a particular day, unlike today when the singer could do it whenever s/he felt better.
So the pressure was on Lataji to record it that day. She tells me that on that day at the Famous Studio, a lot of music directors went quietly to see whether she could still sing. Because their careers were dependent on her.
Lataji really arrived when she sang for some major films in ’48, which were released in ’49. They became the biggest musical sellers of all time. They were Barsaat, Badi Behen, Mahal, Ek Thi Ladki ...
It became a big problem for other singers. Because the kind of voices we were used to those days were heavy, throaty, loud voices. The style of film-making was loud too. The change in films happened with Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Raj Kapoor. Suddenly, there was a lot of subtlety in films then. Many people say that Lata Mangeshkar was partly responsible for this change because she had a softer voice.
Lataji was rejected initially when she came to the industry. S Mukherjee, who was a big producer and a partner with my grandfather, had said she would never succeed because her voice is too thin.
At that time, people didn't see the future with a microphone. People sound different when they sing into the microphone. Rafi's voice too, was soft. He would talk in whispers. But he sang the Yahoo kind of songs too.
Lataji completely overshadowed every other singer those days. Gradually, it was only her. Much later, Ashaji also joined. But Ashaji didn't sing much for heroines till after the '70s. Till then, she sang only for those films where they couldn't afford Lataji, or Lataji was not singing for that particular music director.
Like she never sang for O P Nayyar because she had a fight with him in his first film. So he had to fall back on an option. I am not denying anybody else's contribution, just telling you the history that existed then.
Lataji also fought with S D Burman for a few years. During that period, Ashaji sang for him -- in Sujatha, Lajwanti. Then came Bandini where Ashaji sang two songs, but for Mora gora rang layi le, he had to go back to Lataji.
And they patched up. My point is that Lata Mangeshkar became the voice of the Indian heroine. The heroines used to dress like her so that they suit her voice. Jaya Bachchan once told me this -- that she would dress like her because of the kind of singing she used to do. She went to the studios to see Lataji record and would use those nuances in her performance in Abhimaan.
So Lataji became the kind of voice India wanted. It's true even today, when she is singing far less out of choice than anything else. But the kind of voices we have today is so akin to her voice. Except for a few, who sound different, they all want to sound like Lataji.
So her contribution has been beyond just being so successful. When she started, till ’48, records never mentioned the names of singers. Mahal's record had Aayega aane wala as sung by Kamini, which was Madhubala's name in the film. Nobody would know who the singer was.
Then there came a time when the song became such a big hit that people wanted to know who the actual singer was.
Then Lataji started insisting that her name should be mentioned on the records. She even fought for her rights. The people who benefited from that are the generations to follow.
Another story is that about the Filmfare Awards. Till ’58, they had only one music award -- for the music director. There was no award for the singer or lyricist.
Lataji tells me this story. In ’57, Chori Chori won the best music award and the song was Rasik balma. So Jaikishen went to meet her -- he was very close to her -- and told her since they had won the award, she should come and sing the song on stage.
She refused saying since she had not won the award, she would not sing. Jaikishen insisted that she should. She refused again, saying he should get the instruments and just play the music. He was, after all, the music director. She wasn't doing this just for herself, but other singers as well.
She believed if the singer didn't sing the song, then it wouldn't be so popular. She was right. I remember there was a fight with my father as well. But he was more practical and agreed that without the singer, the song wouldn't be so popular.
Even today, with my experience in the music industry, I can say if I choose 10 of her biggest hits and mention they are all written by Majrooh Sultanpuri, it would sell around 10,000 copies. The same 10 songs, if I say, were composed by Madan Mohan, it would sell may be, 25,000 copies. But if if I put Lataji's photograph on the album and say she has sung the songs, the sales would instantly shoot up to 200,000.
Since I am very close to her, she sometimes tells me, 'I don't know whether I deserved all this.' She is humble enough to admit this. My father found her voice pristine and she was able to do things that other singers couldn't. Lataji was a trained singer unlike others who were mostly star singers in those days.
The music directors got imaginative because she could take the song to the highest note easily. Today we say her songs are so high-pitched. But among the 30,000, we would probably find a thousand sounding like that. She too grumbles she told these composers not to do it this way since it strained her voice. But they would say since she is singing, they would try and give her notes they couldn't give other singers. And the credit would go to the composer that he made her do that!
Sometimes her ability to sing like this became a negative thing for her. She gave expression to her songs. She has sung more light songs than you would care to remember. She has sung Aa jaane jaa which Helen admits has been her best cabaret number. But when we talk about her best, we talk about melancholy songs.
In fact, somebody once asked me if she bullied others. She was known to tell the composers that if they used other singers then she wouldn't sing for them. I told them what would she do? Would she come and shoot you? Was she running the underworld? And if she refused to sing for you, then whose loss was it? The whole generation of music directors -- were they all crazy?
R D Burman, who was married to Asha Bhosle, gave his best songs to Lata Mangeshkar and admits it. We are not comparing the two here. What we are talking here is her success. Apart from her talent and perseverance, she fought a lone battle for her fraternity, which the others inherited her. She never talks about it because she is humble. We don't see that side of her.
She used to go in a train every day to audition for various music composers who would reject her. Today, it is not so difficult.
Lataji says her father told her mother that she is going to be a miracle. He knew a little about astrology. He died before she started singing. She became the breadwinner of the family at the age of 11. She acted in films till she was 15. Even small roles as extras, because she had to feed her younger siblings.
Lataji did all the hard work. Somewhere, God blessed her. So it's her talent, hard work, blessings from God and her parents that worked for her. She has transcended all age barriers by singing even today.
She is definitely the last of the living legends.
Music industry executive Sanjeev Kohli, the son of the late Madan Mohan, spoke to Sharmila Taliculam.
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