By Partha Sarathi Gupta

I grew up at a time when music wafted through air, not through the spectrum of either the second, third or fourth generations, or in other words, 2G, 3G, or 4G, but through conical loudspeakers connected to Fiesta record-players, in the pins of which were hinged, jet black discs infused with magical voice boxes of legends. A Muslim neighbourhood of South Calcutta – Kidderpore – where I was raised, became the site of my first foray into Bollywood music and Lata Mangeshkar. I remember telling my mother that I shall grow up to marry Lata Mangeshkar, having always fantasised her as beautiful young lady closely resembling the Bollywood heroines of the early 80s. It was a mystery how she looked then, as her image was conjured up only through fancy, vacillating between diverse poster-heroines of the times. These were pre-satellite days, when we eagerly waited for the Wednesday late-evening Bollywood music fiesta on the Doordarshan – the one and only Chitrahaar – commencing at 8.05 pm sharp – our only gateway to the tinsel town. The voice of Lata ji was, to the child growing up in those days, a summons to all our foolish blood, arousing unknown and inexplicable sensations. The first time she caught my attention was when I was in the first standard. As I was ruminating on my window sill, sounds of a violin orchestra waltzed down from a loudspeaker dedicated to a local wedding celebration, culminating in the blooming of an ethereal voice singing aloud "Daffli Waaley, Daffli Bajaah!" And that was my first crush with that voice. In retrospect, I now back-calculate the year to be sometime in 1981 or 1982. Little did I know then that I shall live to be blessed with her voice through all the trials and tribulations of life. Life has been a blessing listening to her over the years. What compels my wonder – Im sure, there are many like me – is her magical ability to sound like women ranging from the age of our great grandmothers in their days of prime, to the divas of today. She sang for Nimmi ji in Raj Kapoors Barsaat (1949), the timeless Hawa Mein Uddta Jaaye, and then for Nutan in her first film Hamari Beti (1950) where she sang along with Geeta Dutt. She rendered her vocals for umpteen debutants since then, from Nanda, Saira Banu. Babita, Hema Malini, Rakhi, Yogeeta Bali, Zeenat Aman, Moushumi Chatterjee, Dimple Kapadia, Tina Munim, Poonam Dhillon, Jaya Prada, Rati Agnihotri, Amrita Singh, Meenakshi Seshadri, Vijeyeta Pandit, Neelam, Farha, Mandakini and Raveena Tandon, to name only a few debutants voicing Lataji’s vocals. A detailed list would include many more names.

It is recorded in the annals of Bollywood history that the great showman of Bollywood, Raj Kapoor, once fell apart with Lata ji on a royalty question instigated by the in-house music director of the R.K Studios, Shankar Jaikishen, and had ignored her for the playback of Mera Naam Joker, the RK magnum opus of 1971. That was after the huge box office success of Sangam in 1964. Raju Bharatan in his book A Journey Down Melody Lane (2010) observes that despite some hugely popular Mukesh tracks as Jaaney Kahaan Gaye Wo Din, Kahta Hai Joker, and Manna Deys classic Eey Bhai, Zara Dekh Ke Chalo, and a Filmfare Award for Best Director and Best Music Director, the film according to Raj Kapoors own published admission, lost a whopping 56 lakhs, astronomical by all economic standards in 1971. Mr Kapoor, it is rumoured, had even mortaged his bungalow to make that magnum opus. And then came the crash. The fall of the fortunes of the R.K Studios was such that Raj Kapoor was forced to re-invent himself with a teenage love story, starring debutante Dimple Kapadia playing Bobby (1973). Now he had no option but to approach Lata, who, by then past 47, would ultimately lend her age-less vocals to a teenager. Time stopped since then in the caverns of her vocal cords. It is strange that Lata became the first playback choice for music directors only after her 30s when Bollywood needed a dew-fresh vocalist for a vulnerable Saira Banu for her debu film Junglee (1961) for songs such as "Kaashmir Ki Kali Hoon Mein" and the classic "Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujh Par," despite having lent her magical voice to heroines since 1949. But now since the 1970s, as she aged, many more debutant actresses found vocal life in her cords. One wonders how she, by the time she was in her early sixties, was lending vocals to Bhagyashree, for Maine Pyar Kiya, who was almost of her daughter's age then, had she one! And then, miracles rolled on. Did Raj Kapoor himself conceive of a miracle that was about to be repeated in the 1990s when Lata ji would once again lend her vocals in "Mein Huun Khush Rang Henna" for his new discovery, sought all the way from Pakistan, Zeba Bakhtiyar? There have been moments when producers have expressed their silent reservations on the suitability of her voice in her late 40s to new actresses. Each time she defied scepticism with her magical ability to sound fresh. 

Once, she even pleaded for a matrimonial alliance through her playback for TinaMunim in "Souten", crooning, " Shaayad meri shaadi ka khayal, dil mein asya hai, / Isii liye mammi ne meri tumhein chaaye pe bulaaya hai". As times changed, sounds too changed, and with the changing nature of acoustics, technology took over the reins of the old-world recording studios. Lata ji, blessed with her inimitable and indomitable cords, continued to croon to fast beats for the debutante Raveena Tandon in Pathhar Ke Phool in the song "Kabhi Tu Chaliya Lagta Hai" and "Tum Ko Hi Dekh Te Hi Pyar Hua" with Salman Khan and Raveena skating around the streets of Bombay. With the arrival of A. R. Rahman, the DNA of Hindi film music underwent a mutation. Lata ji by then had rationed her assignments. This however did not stop Rahman from dreaming about his heroine crooning to the vocals of Lata ji. He did what he thought. Lata ji was signed to sing for Preity Zinta for her debut film with Shahrukh Khan, a Mani Ratnam film titled Dil Se. And dil se she hummed "Jiya Jaley," smouldering the hearts of her listeners once again. If Preity Zinta could pull it off, could Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukherjee be left behind, not to mention Kajol, who already had rendered a towel-dance with the vocals of the Nightingale in "Mere Khwabo Mein Jo Aaye"! from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. Soon Aishwariya Rai followed suit in the song "Hum Ko Humi Se Chura Lo" in Mohabbatey. It is interesting to note how Lata Mangeshkar has sung for three generations of actors ranging from Kajol of today, to Tanuja Samarth, her mother and maternal aunt Nutan, under the able watch of her grandmother Shobhana Samarth, who was both actor and producer in those days. She sang both for Karisma Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor and their mother Babita, with equal finesse and youthful vigour. Biographers may add other examples to the magical list.

Stories about Lata Mangeshkar shall continue to enchant fans through ages, but each one of us who has lived and hummed her tunes in the confines of our washrooms, at work at our desks and workstations, in moments of happiness and crisis, will agree that we have an individual chemistry with the Nightingale, in the form of a special song which one may have first encountered at a special moment, the ripples of which continue to caress, titillate or even sometimes touch a raw nerve somewhere. One may detect a quality in her songs that may well be explained in the light of Marcel Prousts Remembrance of Things Past, a fascinating study of moments and their impact. However, with each passing year, a sinew of my heart skips a beat to acknowledge with deep concern, the debilitating senescence evident in the magical voice of the Nightingale, having defied age for decades. A wishful nostalgia for an ever youthful Lataji has been making us crave for more of her since Jiya Jaley Jaan Jaley (from Dil Se) and Madhosh Dil Ki Dhadkan Chup Si Yeh Tanhaai (from Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai) . With each passing melody, she has befuddled the intelligence of many of us, sometimes making us obsessed with anxiety-ridden denials of the cracks in her vocal renditions, for instance, in one of her very late renditions for Yash Chopras "Veer-Zara" in the song "Hum To Bhai Jaise Hai, Waise Rahenge", a song in which the late director might have had, in his desperation to make Lata ji sound like a heroine in her twenties, coaxed her to playback for Preity Zinta once again.  On her last birthday, I, an ardent admirer of Lataji, stood back like the renowned poet Kamala Das, having "realized with pain/ that she was as old as she/ looked but soon/ put that thought away." Those were lines from a poem Kamala Das composed on her mother's sixty-sixth year. On each of Lataji's birthdays, fans had continued to “keep that thought away,” till the fear came frighteningly alive on the fateful morning of 6th February 2022. Now, only the treasures of the Nightingale’s memories remain.