A few years ago, Shreya Ghoshal was singing a Bengali number (her mother-tongue is Bengali). Lata Mangeshkar was also in the audience. After the programme, Ghoshal approached the legend to seek her blessings. Lata blessed her and said, ‘Aapne Bangla gaana bahut acchha gaya, lekin aapko abhi apni Bangla pe kaafi kaam karna hai’ (You sang the Bangla number well, but you still need to hone your skills in the language). Just imagine! A Maharashtrian stalwart nudging a native singer to improve her spoken Bengali!
Living legend Lata Mangeshkar is a perfectionist to the core. Reams have been written on Lata’s voice in rendering innumerable Hindi songs but only the very keen listeners are aware of the fact that Lata has sung in all Indian vernaculars and Bangla has been the language closest to her heart alongside her mother-tongue Marathi and Hindi. Lata is gifted with linguistic adaptability.
Hindi and Marathi are flat languages from the perspective of phonetics. But Bengali has an orotund circularity (like rasgulla). But she learnt and imbibed that like a native speaker and rendered songs in a circular language like a past master.
Ever thankful, Lata gave the credit to Hemant Kumar and Manna Day for polishing her Bangla. Hours of listening to LP records of Bangla songs helped her learn the nuances of the language.
Listen to her Rahein na rahein hum mahka karenge... (Mamta). When Lata learnt that the song was to be picturised on the legendary Bengali actress Suchitra Sen, she studied her style of dialogue-delivery and realised that being a Bengali, Sen’s Hindi was not top-drawer.
Lata deliberately sang it with an extremely subtle Bangla tilt and lisp. Like Rafi, Lata would also observe the heroines to modulate her voice like them. Late Sadhna would vouch for this quality of Lata.
The same rigorous devotion helped her learn Urdu when her Yusuf bhai (Dilip Kumar, later her rakhi-brother) tauntingly told Naushad Ali, ‘Daal-chawal khane wali ladki Urdu bol paayegi kya?’ (Will a girl, weaned on daal-rice, enunciate Urdu words?).
Dilip Kumar happily ate the humble pie when Lata began to converse with him in Urdu! She practised it for hours and spent time with ustaads of Urdu (Mian Kaamran Ali and Mahashar Warsi). Her few detractors may say that she hardly got full-fledged opportunities to showcase her command of Urdu while singing but her light filmi ghazals belie the claim of her critics.
The way she pronounces ghair (Not gair), ghalat, ghussa (all with ghain letter of Persian/ Arabic), none can dare say that her mother-tongue is other than Urdu.
And when it comes to filmi ghazals, Lata in fact, lent respectability to this genre. Before that, filmi ghazals were never recognised by the purists who derogatorily called it ghazal ki autan (concubine/lesser wife of a ghazal).
But Lata, under the efficient and affectionate guidance of Madan Mohan Kohli, Khyyam and Ravi, transformed the ingrained negative perception regarding the ghazals in films. Who can forget her immortal ghazal Rasm-e-ulfat ko nibhaayein toh nibhaayein kaise... (Dil Ki Rahen) or that original full-fledged ghazal from Dastak (1970): Hum hain mata-e-koocha-o-baazar ki tarah...
Lata learnt the art of pausing in ghazals from Kamaal Amrohi and Madan Mohan. Though she has a delicate and dulcet voice (often deemed to be a trifle unsuitable for ghazals, needing daanedar or corrugated voice), she expiated that by a very sombre and sophisticated rendition.
Do you know, Lata watched a semi horror movie prior to the recording of her most famous song among Indian women: Lag ja gale se phir (Woh Kaun Thi, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan/Music: Madan Mohan, 1964, Directed by-Raj Khosla). She wanted to create an eeriness through this song.
Though Lata has virtually stopped singing, her riyaaz is still uninterrupted. Fond of Urdu poetry, she loves Qateel Shifai and Ahmad Faraz’s Urdu poetry. Mehdi Hasan is still her favourite singer. By dint of sheer perseverance and talent, Lata reached the meridian of abiding fame.
Do you know, in the early ’60s, Lata lost her voice for a few days? Someone apparently tried to poison her just like master Madan was poisoned. We are fortunate that she got back her estranged voice. May you have many more birthdays, Lataji.
(September 28 is the 90th birthday of Lata Mangeshkar)