Two 16-year old girls unfurled a new dawn of the golden age of Indian films in 1949. One was Lata Mangeshkar and the other Madhubala. It was "Mahal" (The Mansion), India's first reincarnation thriller film based on a ghost story that catapulted Madhubala, the actress, and Lata Mangeshkar, the playback singer, into the stratosphere of stardom.
The song "Aayega Aanewala" sung by Lata and lipped by Madhubala in the film shook the Indian music world and made the song lovers wobble in disbelief. How could a human voice narrating an unrequited love be so electrifying, so penetrating, so mind-numbing? Lata was an unknown name. When the song was first aired on All India Radio, its phone lines were flooded with callers inquiring the singer's name. Lata has since become a household name.
Back then, no one could imagine that this Lata who had to walk long distances in search of work and often had to suppress her hunger by cups of tea would one day turn out to be a legend, a "Bharat Ratna" and the 'Nightingale of India'.
On an NDTV Programme "The Unstoppable Indians" broadcast in 2008 that I watched, Varsha Chawda, an elegant interviewer, while introducing Lata Mangeshkar, asked her a personal question saying "Your voice is a miracle of nature. But behind the miracle there had to be a huge amount of practice, discipline and tough training. If you assign weightage, how much of natural talent and how much of training will you attribute your success to?" Lata in Hindi replied, a little hesitantly: "Natural talent 75 per cent and the rest, practice and hard work".
I personally don't agree with Lata's calculations on the attributes. Behind her 75 per cent success were, I firmly believe, her hard work, training, tenacity and her struggling adulthood. 25 per cent could be her luck or a fluke of nature.
A Libra by zodiac chart, Lata was born on September 28, 1929. The Zodiac Constellation on her birthday was spread on an area of 538 square degrees and its visible latitudes were +65° to -90°. There were no first magnitude stars visible and the stars were not aligned in any brilliant pattern that could portend an earthling born on that day to be gifted with natural talent. And, then, it was a Saturday. She was born at an ominously gloomy time that witnessed the start of an unprecedented global economic collapse. A person born on this day, according to astrology, is supposed to achieve things, whatever, through hard work, perseverance and firm will power.
Lata was not a nature-gifted talent. She rather locked her horns with the nature and disproved the dictums of the stars by becoming a superstar herself outshining all the stars of the stardom.
Hardships are sometimes blessings in disguise. Those are the intangible fuels that stoke one's latent talents. Any pain, whether it is a pain in love or a pain in business, drives humans to succeed. Reflecting on own pains and tragedies adds a flavour to a singer's melodious voice or to a poet's literary soul. Adversity in her early life probably helped propel Lata forward. If it were not for her tough lots in her childhood, she perhaps would not be where she is.
Lata Mangeshkar was born into a family of performers. Her father ran a theatre company and the Mangeshkar sisters grew up in awe of music. By pursuing singing, all the sisters wanted to carry forward their father's rich legacy. They were classically trained.
Lata's life is like a fiction, an absorbing story of a girl born in a small town in Madhya Pradesh of India. At five years of age, she was a theatre singer and artiste. When she was only thirteen, her father passed away. She travelled to Mumbai, the city of dreams, not to dream to become a star but to find work so that she could earn bread for her mother and five younger siblings.
Finding no works Lata tried her luck in music. Soon she realised that the music lessons she had learnt back in Madhya Pradesh were not enough to eke out a living for a family of six members.
In Mumbai, she fortunately came across two classical music teachers, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Pandit Tulsidas Sharma. Lata worked very hard to follow their lessons. But she had a big problem - her voice was thin and high-pitched, not in vogue for those times when the trend was husky and deep-voiced like that of Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai.
A music composer Ghulam Haider heard her songs and was immensely impressed by her music potential. He sent her to a producer who completely rejected her saying her voice would not work at all as it was too delicate. Furious at the producer's rejection, Ghulam Haider asked Lata to accompany him immediately to a studio where a film was being shot. The name of the film was "Majboor' and Mr. Haider was its music composer.
Since that fateful day in Mumbai, Lata Mangeshkar went on and on to become one of the most famous playback singers and the magical aura, tuneful purity and timeless quality of her voice took a firm hold of the Indian imagination.
Lata Mangeshkar was eventually conferred in 2001, the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour. She has recorded much more songs than anyone else in the world and yet, despite her stellar successes and extraordinary fame and fortune, she is one of the most reclusive of Indian icons, a deeply private person who has mostly shied away from glitz and glamour.
Lata has influenced millions of one generation after another in the Indian subcontinent. She is a woman who has had no formal schooling whatsoever, but who has sung more than 27,000 songs in many Indian languages.
Lata Mangeshkar's trade secret behind her astral rise was not her magical voice alone. She knew what words and stories fitted her delicate yet sprightly tone that could spark a sense of mystery, depth and love that a listener would treasure for ever.
A good deal of Lata's success could be attributed to the great lyricists, music directors, instrumentalists, and even sound engineers of her own choice. And she was very finicky about which song she would choose to sing for what story and which ones to reject, at times vexing many a director. Lata would then pour her total soul into her cherry-picked composition.
A brilliant singer embraces the importance of what he or she should share with the rest of us. The song listeners look for a full-blooded engagement with the singer. They want the singer to shake them up, move them, show them something new and transport them to a different world. Lata was one such mover and a transporter.
Endowed with a magical voice, Lata had the necessary grooming that enabled her to sing in 'sur' 'loy' and 'taal' with the wide range to cover the demands of singing variety of songs set at different scales. There is hardly any song sung by her where the pronunciations have faltered.
Her songs have articulated all our emotions and told all our life stories. Lata fans are so crazy and sometimes are so carried away by emotion that some of them call her "Maataji" and some compare her with their favourite goddess.
Many singers touch your heart, only a few alight right on the balcony of your heart. Those are the few singers who are buried deep inside your chest. Lata Mangeshkar, 89 today, is one of them. Happy birthday to Lata Mangeshkar!
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