A very senior music-recordist friend of mine in Pune narrated this story, which is not apocryphal. He assisted in recording many Hindi songs of yore during his long career. Once he came out of the recording room with Mohammad Rafi, who had just recorded a song for Aakashdeep (1965). The number was: Mujhe dard-e-dil ka pata na tha, mujhe aap kisliye mil gaye… Lata was there sitting with Majrooh Sultanpuri and composer Chitragupt Shrivastav (composers Anand-Milind’s father). Lata said, ‘Badhai ho, Rafi sahab. Aapne behatareen naghme ko behatareen dhang se gaaya‘ (Congrats. You sang a fabulous song in an equally fabulous manner).
An ever-smiling Rafi said, “Shukriya, magar aapko isse behtar naghma mila aur aapne use bakhoobi gaaya (Thanks, but you got an even better number which you sang so beautifully).” With these words, the taciturn legend left the studio. And the song in question was that divinely beautiful Dil ka diya jala ke gaya ye kaun meri tanhai mein, picturised on Nimmi. They say that comparisons are odious. I too believe that one mustn’t get into such hair-splitting comparisons. But my personal preference from this film is Lata’s Dil ka Diya that pips even the matchless Rafi at the post for his sublimely beautiful Mujhe dard-e-dil ka pata na tha. The song is just perfect on all counts, whether it was music, lyrics or rendition. By the way, also listen to Dil ka Diya‘s instrumental version played on a Hawaiian guitar by Gautam Dasgupta. It’s available on YouTube.
Such was Lata’s mastery over emotions. I’m using ‘was’ in the sense that she has almost stopped singing as today’s cacophony grates on her ears and musical sensibilities. She calls it shorish-e-kaaynaat (the noise of the universe). When it comes to counting Lata’s immortal numbers, the list is interminable. Har zarra apni jagah pe aaftaab hai (every particle is the sun in its own right). So, it’s virtually a case of embarrassment of riches. One’s spoilt for choice. When you listen to her sad number Hai re woh din kyon na aaye (Film: Anuradha, Lyrics: Shailendra, Music: Pt. Ravi Shankar, 1960), you’re emplaned to a gossamer realm.
Picturised on the gorgeously dignified Leela Naidu (poet Dom Moraes’ muse), the song assumes greater significance. The way she pronounces ‘din‘ in this song, it leaves the listeners spellbound. Can you forget Ajeeb daastaan hai ye, kahaan shuroo kahaan khatam? It was one of Meena Kumari’s favourite songs. Lata poured her heart into this number and immortalised it. Like her Lag ja gale se phir…‘ (Woh Kaun thi, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan/ Madan Mohan, 1964), this song is very popular among women. Here, I’m bypassing Lag ja gale se…because it reached cult status long ago and women of all hues have sung it so many times (and often so badly) that it’s become somewhat of a cliche. One more Lata song that’s simply loved by women is Dheere-dheere machal ae dil-e-beqaraar… (Anupama, Hemant Kumar/ Lyrics: Kaifi Azmi, 1966).
Filmed on Surekha Pandit and an always impeccably dressed Tarun Bose, one still loves to hum this song. Surekha played this song on piano and I once saw a breathtakingly beautiful Iranian lady play it perfectly on a piano at Jazz-Society, Bombay (sorry, no Mumbai for me). That Persian-speaking lady told me that she learnt how to speak Hindi after listening to Lata’s masterpiece. Such is Lata’s overwhelming impact on her listeners! Or her two nearly identical but differently presented numbers Na jiya laage na (Anand, Salil Chaudhury/Lyrics: Yogesh Gaud, 1971) and Tere bina jiya jaaye na (Film: Ghar, 1978) prove her immense versatility. You perhaps know, when Lata entered the Hindi film industry, many music directors found her voice to be a tad too thin.
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The great singer Ghulam Mustafa Durrani, whom even Rafi imitated during his early singing days, called Lata maheen aawaaz wali naatwaan ladki (a frail lass with a thin voice). Durrani (a member of the famed Durrani tribe) was a Pathan whose ancestors came from Afghanistan. But the composer Ghulam Haider was sure of Lata’s future greatness. It was his abiding faith in Lata’s singing abilities that other composers began to pay attention to a slip of a girl, later to become a legend. A bit uncertain of her own singing prowess and the quality of voice, Lata began to imitate Noorjehan, the reigning queen of singing at that time but soon reverted to her original voice.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, I asked Runa Laila about her perceptions of Lata as a singer because Runa spent a couple of years in Bombay and sang a few Hindi songs like Ek se badhkar ek… and got an opportunity to observe her childhood-idol Lata from close quarters. She told me that just by looking at Lata, one assumes that she’s a great singer. There’s something about her that beggars description. One obviously gets awe-struck. Just listen to any of her interviews at random, that graceful humbleness (inksaari in Urdu) is integral to her persona. That she sabotaged the career of many female singers is also an allegation that holds no water.
Qateel Shifai (incidentally, Lata’s favourite Urdu poets are Qateel and Faraz from Pakistan) silences all those detractors with his apposite couplet: Meri roshni ki taab koi laa na saka/ sitare bujh gaye toh mera qusoor kya?– No one could dare stand my blinding effulgence/ If stars lost their brightness, what was my fault? The same critics ‘opined’ that Lata couldn’t sing ghazals.
Lata silenced them with her ghazals like ‘Unko ye shikayat hai ke hum kuchh nahin kahte…’ or ‘Hum hain mata-e-koocha-o-baazaar ki tarah…….’ Apropos, based on raag Malgunji and Taal Dadra, Madan Mohan composed this ghazal, penned by his friend Rajinder Krishn for Adalat (1958). Picturised on Nargis, Lata sang all three solo ghazals of Adalat in a manner that listeners are still speechless after more than six decades. Madan Mohan had Lata on his mind to sing the ghazals. Lata also excelled in duets. Just listen to her number with Rafi: Ye dil tum bin kahin lagta nahin (Film: Izzat, Sahir Ludhianavi/Laxmikant-Pyarelal, 1968). This is one song in which the full-throttled tenderness (an oxymoronic term in vocal parlance) of Lata’s voice emerged so beautifully and musically. Politician and former CM of Tamil Nadu, the late Jayalalithaa also acted in this movie and it was her favourite song. Or her duet with Manna Dey in film Raat Aur Din (1967): Dil ki girah khol do chup na baitho koi geet gaao. Listeners are mesmerised by the natural tandem-quickness (known as NTQ among vocalists) in Lata’s voice.
Listen to Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa toh nahin with Kishore Kumar (Film-Aandhi, Gulzar, R D Burman, 1975). Gulzar’s unusual and offbeat poetry was masterfully voiced and vocally orchestrated by Lata and Kishore. All these rare attributes make Lata a singer par excellence.
Sumit Paul is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and religions.