As long as I can remember, I’ve been listening to Lata Mangeshkar’s songs. As a child, when I didn’t take music as a serious discipline and considered it a fun pastime, her voice sounded soft and balmy — most children love that — accompanied by a sense of rhythm that enables you to realise that nothing significant in life is devoid of rhythm (love, struggle, playfulness etc). When I grew up, and as I developed a modicum of understanding of the art of music, I was totally mesmerised by her voice — the voice that could effortlessly express a plethora of emotions.
She sang romantic songs with the spunk of a free-spirited school-going girl, crooned sad tunes with the kind of melancholic broodiness that one associates with Keats’s poetry and belted out peppy tracks with happy-go-lucky abandon. But these are attributes that any connoisseur of music can talk about. What was it that made Lata so special, a vocalist in a league of her own?
Karachi’s bus commuters in the 1980s and to a good part of the ‘90s would remember that a majority of the vehicles had stereo systems that played Indian and Pakistani film songs, mostly the former, making the commuting a less cumbersome experience.
Without an iota of doubt, it was Lata’s songs, to a great extent along with Mohammad Rafi’s, which outran those sung by other great playback singers such as Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle (her younger sister) and Mukesh. It was Lata’s flawless, unwavering pitching coupled with unsullied, mellifluous voice that put her audience into a trance. She had this uncanny knack of being in sur even when she wasn’t feeling a hundred per cent. She would never leave the last note of a mukhda (the opening verse) or asthai (the middle verse) a quarter short or lingering at the end. She would always be in sur, utterly immersed in the composition.
There are countless examples to prove this point since Lata has thousands of songs to her credit, in multiple languages at that. But a case in point could be ‘Nadiya kinarey’ from the movie Abhimaan or ‘Raina beeti jaye’ from Amar Prem composed by the incomparable S D Burman who made Lata lend her voice to some memorable soundtracks.
However, the two songs that Karachiites who travelled by bus number 5C or the famous omnibus W-11 heard on repeat and would also be often blaring from their homes after dusk were ‘Zihal-i-miskeen’, a duet with Shabbir Kumar, and ‘Ik piyar ka naghma hai’ — both compositions of Laxmikant-Piyarelal from the films Ghulami and Shor, respectively. They are memorable tunes made immortal by her exception singing.
Like a genuine artist who knew what music meant for the whole world, Lata had no qualms in admiring her contemporaries (Noor Jehan, for example) or seniors (K L Saigol etc). Her profuse, oft-quoted praise for Mehdi Hasan sahib is no secret.
But in 2016, Lata made an unknown Karachiite hog the spotlight. Someone put up a video clip of a man from Karachi called Master Aslam on social media singing ‘Yaad piya ki a’aey’— the iconic thumri. Lata, who was a Facebook user (her staff must have managed it), put that bit on her Facebook page, inquiring who that talented man was (guni kalakaar). Her gesture catapulted Master Aslam to national fame. Imagine, an artist of such a stature acknowledging the art of an unrecognised individual! How often does that happen in our part of the world? Lata was a vocalist to whom no epithet can do justice nor any article can fully encapsulate the extraordinary ability she had of owning the songs written and composed for her by others. It’s her unadulterated voice, masterful singing and her instinctive understanding of how consonants and vowels should be used to extract the maximum feeling out of them that will keep helping listeners of music in all parts of the world to find beauty around them and pull through trying times.
Originally published in Dawn, February 7th, 2022