Date of Birth
28 September 1929, Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India
The Nightingale of Bollywood
Lata Mangeshkar was born in Indore on September 8, 1929, and became, quite simply, the most popular playback singer in Bollywood’s history. She has sung for over 50 years for actresses from Nargis to Preity Zinta, as well as having recorded albums of all kinds (ghazals, pop, etc). Until the 1991 edition, when her entry disappeared, the Guinness Book of World Records listed her as the most-recorded artist in the world with not less than 30,000 solo, duet,and chorus-backed songs recorded in 20 Indian languages between 1948 and 1987. Today that number might have reached 40,000!
She was born the daughter of Dinanath Mangeshkar, the owner of a theater company and a reputed classical singer in his own right. He started giving Lata singing lessons from the age of five, and she also studied with renowned singers Aman Ali Khan Sahib and Amanat Khan. Even at a young age she displayed a God-given musical gift and could master vocal exercises the first time.
Ironically, for someone of her stature, she made her entry into Bollywood at the wrong time – around the 1940s, when bass singers with heavily nasal voices, such as Noor Jehan and Shamshad Begum were in style. She was rejected from many projects because it was believed that her voice was too high-pitched and thin. The circumstances of her entry into the industry were no less inauspicious – her father died in 1942, the responsibility of earning income to support her family fell upon her, and between 1942 and 1948 she acted in as many as eight films in Hindi and Marathi to take care of economic hardships. She made her debut as a playback singer in the Marathi film Kiti Hasaal (1942) but, ironically, the song was edited out!
However, in 1948, she got her big break with Ghulam Haider in the film Majboor (1948), and 1949 saw the release of four of her films: Mahal (1949), Dulari (1949), Barsaat (1949), and Andaz (1949); all four of them became runaway hits, with their songs reaching to heights of what was until then unseen popularity. Her unusually high-pitched singing rendered the trend of heavily nasal voices of the day totally obsolete and, within a year, she had changed the face of playback singing forever. The only two lower-pitched singers to survive her treble onslaught to a certain extent were Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum.
Her singing style was initially reminiscent of Noor Jehan, but she soon overcame that and evolved her own distinctive style. Her sister, Asha Bhosle, too, came up in the late 1950s and the two of them were the queens of Indian playback singing right through to the 1990s. Her voice had a special versatile quality, which meant that finally music composers could stretch their creative experiments to the fullest. Although all her songs were immediate hits under any composer, it was the composers C. Ramchandra and Madan Mohan who made her sound her sweetest and challenged her voice like no other music director.
The 1960s and 1970s saw her go from strength to strength, even as there were accusations that she was monopolizing the playback-singing industry. However, in the 1980s, she cut down her workload to concentrate on her shows abroad. Today, Lata sings infrequently despite a sudden resurgence in her popularity, but even today some of Hindi Cinema’s biggest hits, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), and Veer-Zaara (2004) feature her legendary voice.
No matter which female playback singer breaks through in any generation, she cannot replace the timeless voice of Lata Mangeshkar. She is an icon beyond icons….
Sister of Asha Bhosle
Daughter of Dinanath Mangeshkar
A legendary playback singer in Indian movies, she has recorded over 30,000 songs in 14 Indian languages, making her the most recorded voice in history.
Was awarded the Bharatha Rathna, the highest civilian honor by the Government of India.
Mentioned in the song “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop. (The title refers to her sister, Asha Bhosle, who is also mentioned in the song.).
About singing for Veer-Zaara (2004): “Madan Mohan was like my brother. Yashji’s like my brother. I felt I had gone back in time.”
About her love of diamonds: “I’ve been fond of diamonds from childhood. As a child, my father used to design jewelry. But we couldn’t afford them. He had a keen eye for jewelry and was fond of wearing precious stones. We kids were equally fascinated by jewels. But until I became a professional playback singer, I refused to wear jewelry. I had decided I’d wear only diamonds.”
About the number of her songs being remixed in music videos: “I don’t like it. I don’t like remix albums as a concept. On top of that, these girls dancing in itsy-bitsy clothes suggestively! From childhood we’ve been told that a woman’s dignity is in the way she conducts herself in public. The less you reveal, the more attractive you appear. I must say that the songs that I considered vulgar in those days seem like bhajans [devotional music] compared with what’s being sung these days! Yes, I’ve sung naughty songs, but “Kaanta Lagaa,” for instance, had another context when I sang it. I feel sorry for the girl who was seen in the music video of “Kaanta Lagaa.” I’ve heard she’s from a decent family. Why wasn’t she stopped by her family? Ambition? If she did it with their consent, then God help them. I struggled hard to get where I am – that’s why I am still here.”
About music composition: “It doesn’t suit me. Although I’ve done it in the past, now I don’t feel like it. I don’t think I’ve the patience.”
About the December 2004 tsunami: “This sort of calamity shakes our faith in every law of nature. Little children, women, and entire families have perished. We must help…yes we must.”
Legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar, who had refused to sing “Mujhe buddha mil gaya” for Raj Kapoor’s “Sangam” as she considered it vulgar, laments the lack of originality in new singers.
“The upcoming girls and boys who dance to vulgar tunes and words and sing them, what is their identity?” asked Lata in an interview with IANS here.
Lata, who was two years old when sound came to Indian cinema and just 12 when she began singing for movies, asked: “If people are looking for genuine talent, why are they singing our songs and compositions? Don’t they have anything new to offer?”
To the usual reasoning of “public demand”, she retorted: “If they are giving what the public wants, why aren’t their songs lasting for more than two months? Don’t blame the public for your trash creativity.”
Born as Hema Hardikar, Lata, now 77, has been the unbroken string spanning several decades of Bollywood music and continues to lend her voice to actresses young enough to be her great-granddaughters.
“Even as children, our interest was never much in film music. We were more into classical and folk music. It was purely because we had to earn a living that I opted for film singing,” Lata said in the interview that ran for over 20 minutes.
“My family was already into moviemaking. So film singing became a natural and obvious choice for a career.”
Indeed, the phenomenon of Lata Mangeshkar is purely happy fate.
Destiny may have led this nightingale elsewhere if her father Dinanath Mangeshkar had not died when she was just 13, or if she was not the eldest in the family, who took it upon herself to earn the daily bread.
Interestingly, according to Lata, her father forbade the listening to or singing of film songs, except those of K.L. Saigal.
Lata’s voice first created a stir when she won the Khazanchi Trophy in 1941 in Pune for singing composer Ghulam Haider’s songs originally sung by Noorjehan.
“In those days, Saigal sahab’s voice used to turn our knees to jelly,” Lata reminisced. “Of course, there were so many other artistes, including great ones like K.C. Dey (uncle of legendary singer Manna Dey), Zohrabai and Noorjehan.”
“Badi Maa” (1945) saw Lata and her sister Asha Bhosle acting alongside Noorjehan, with Lata singing for both – herself and Asha – in it.
“That was a time when I also used to act in movies – again only to earn a living. It was only after the end of the 1940s that I took up singing fulltime,” a nostalgic Lata reminisced.
Her first film song was for the Marathi movie “Kiti Hasaal” (1942). In Hindi it was for “Aap Ki Seva Mein” (1947) in which she sang compositions by Datta Davjekar.
However, her first impact came with “Majboor” (1948) in which she sang her first duet with Mukesh – “Ab darne ki kya baat”, which had a faint resemblance to “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast” (Mohra, 1994).
Legend has it that Ghulam Haider locked horns with his employer Filmistan after a song recorded in Lata’s voice for “Shaheed” (1948) was deleted and worked with a vengeance on “Majboor” for Bombay Talkies.
However, Lata made Bollywood music history by haunting Indian audiences with her “Ayega anewala” composed by Khemchand Prakash for Kamal Amrohi’s “Mahal” (1949).
Ironically the film’s credits named the singer as “Kamini”, the character played by the ethereal Madhubala who sings the song, Lata wiped out any competition overnight after “Mahal”.
After reigning supreme for more than five decades and being honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 2001, Lata has slowed down but keeps tabs on contemporary quality.
Expressing irritation with the current crop of film songs and composers, she said: “Earlier even if the film was a bad one, the film’s music used to see to it that it was a hit.
“Even people used to like variety in emotions – sad, romantic, comedy, patriotic. Show me one example of even one good sad song in recent times.”
How do you define the journey?
I feel God has sent me to earth to sing. I started singing when I was five, but I don’t think I’ve worked as hard as many other people.
Why do you say you that?
After 1947 when I started playback singing, the work never stopped. Before that it wasn’t easy. I used to travel by train from Grant Road to Malad and then save money by walking instead of taking a tonga to the recording studios. I thereby saved 50 paise to Re 1 which I used to buy vegetables for my family. I was the sole bread-earner after our father passed away.
That must have been really tough on an adolescent girl.
I missed out on my childhood. I had to work hard, but I was immediately given a place in playback. One of the earliest composers to support me was Master Ghulam Haider. When he was told that my voice wouldn’t suit the heroine in a Dilip Kumar saab starrer Shaheed, he gave me songs in Majboor. Then other composers like Anil Biswasji, Khemchand Prakashji and Naushad saab came forward to sign me. From 1947 onwards there was no looking back.
There has never been a rough patch in your 65-year-long career?
I’m blessed. Nowadays I’ve almost stopped singing film songs but I enjoy singing and I continue to do the work I’m comfortable with like the recent Hamuman Chalisa and my forthcoming project with my brother. When I look back I see nothing I’d like to change.
What about your infamous rift with Mohd Rafi?
I’ll tell you what happened. We had a Musicians’ Association in the 1960s . Mukesh bhaiyya, Talaj Mehmood saab had started a campaign for artistes to get royalty so that they would have a comfortable old age. Main to leti thi royalty but I also wanted other artistes to get it. Rafi saab was instigated into opposing my campaign. In a meeting among musicians he said, ‘We get money for what we sing from producers and that’s the end of what we get.’ When he was asked his opinion Rafi saab turned to Mukesh bhaiyya and said, ‘I guess this Maharani here will say whatever has to be said.’
He meant you?
Yes. I said, ‘Of course I am a Maharani. But why are you calling me that?’ He said in front of everyone at the meeting that he won’t sing with me. I turned around and said, ‘Yeh kasht aap kyon kar rahe hain? Main hi nahin gaaongi aapke saath.’ I stormed out of the meeting and called up every music director to inform them that I would thereafter not sing with Rafi saab. We didn’t sing together for almost three years.
What about the alleged differences between you and your sister Asha Bhosle?
We’re sisters. The fights were because of her husband who was against me.
Composers gave all the heroines’ songs to you and all the supporting actresses’ songs to Ashaji …
Not always. What about so many films where only Asha sang all the songs? In fact OP Nayyarji worked only with her. Even some of Burman dada’s scores had only Asha’s vocals.
That’s because you and SD Burman had a fight.
I didn’t sing for him for 14 years. Someone had caused mischief. Burman dada said, “I won’t have Lata sing my songs.’ I said, ‘I won’t sing for you.’ Asha sang all the songs for Burman dada during that period, even for Waheeda Rehman who insisted on me singing for her. Then one day out of the blue, Burman dada phoned me and said he wanted me to sing Mora gora rang lai le and Jogi jab se aaya tu aaya mere dware in Bandini. It was his son RD who brought us together. I remember Burman dada specifically told me that Mora gora rang was written by a promising new poet, Gulzar.
Who was your favourite composer?
I liked singing for Salilda (Salil Chowdhury) because his compositions were very challenging. I also loved singing for Sajjad Husain saab, then definitely SD Burman dada and RD. But in my opinion the biggest achievement was by Shankar-Jaikishan. With Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat they changed the way we looked at playback singing.
At one time you were accused of indulging in a melodious monopoly?
Once I was even asked if I tampered with the equipment during other singers’ recordings. Bataiye main kyon aisa karun? I never bothered with what other singers were doing. When Runa Laila came to India for the first time, I went to her first recording and everybody said I was just indulging in dikhawa, that in fact I had gone to see how she sang. Runa Laila met me with lots of affection. Later she too was poisoned against me. Even some male singers accused me of trying to stop them from singing.
Which heroines did you enjoy singing for?
Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan. I’d modulate my voice according to their personality.
Among today’s actresses for whom do you enjoy singing for?
I like Rani Mukerji and Kajol but I miss the camaraderie that I shared with the earlier heroines. I miss that mahaul. I really miss Kishore Kumar, also Rafi saab, Mukesh bhaiyya, Shankar-Jaikishan and Madan bhaiyya who fought with me when I couldn’t be with him for raksha bandhan. That sense of apnapan is gone.
Any unfulfilled dreams?
I wish I had given more time to learning classical singing. Lekin jo hua woh bahut hi achcha hua. What I want is that future generations of Mangeshkars keep my father’s legacy alive. My niece Radha and nephew Baijanth are singing well. I wish they make a name for themselves.
Do you miss having your own children ?
Not at all. My siblings’ children are mine.