A paean to India's melody queen
By M J Akbar
The 80th birthday of Lata Mangeshkar, surely the greatest popular singer of our lifetime and beyond, invites an irresistible question: which song is the best of her six-decade oeuvre? We are spoilt for choice, of course: she has 30,000 on offer, which makes it about four a day, not counting holidays. Phenomena do not get more phenomenal than that.
Her usual is so much better than the best around her. She lifted ordinary into memorable, and was superb when the musical score was minimalist. She excelled with Naushad, who distilled the purity of a raga with an aesthete's light touch, never better than 'Khuda meherbaan ho tumhara, dharakte dil ka payaam le lo/Tumhari duniya se jaa rahen hain, utho hamara salaam le lo'. The second line is not there to remind you of lyrics but to recall the music.
Compare Shankar-Jaikishan when Lata sang for them, and when they were with anyone else. They made fools of themselves when they fought with Lata and switched to Sharda, and were soon piling violins into the background to ameliorate the foreground. Suman Kalyanpur, the would-be alter ego, could hold a note, but was simply not in the same class.
My great regret is that Lata and Rafi did not sing together for three years because of royalty disputes. Individually they were masters; together they were magical. Witness the eternal song from Kaali Topi Laal Roomal: 'Laagi chute na ab to sanam, chahe jaaye jiya teri kasam'. Rafi deserved a Bharat Ratna too, even if he died at 55 and denied us decades of thrall. Hemant Kumar, of Hemantada to Kolkatawallahs, was absolutely right to refuse a Padma Shri. That genius could never be an also-ran. The silken bonds of the Lata-Hemant number from House No 44, 'Neend na mujhko aaye, dil mera ghabraaye' could capture you forever.
As for the big question: preference cannot be locked into the straitjacket of mathematical formula. Since the personal is creeping into public space through this column, there will be those who sniff and others who snigger. But, as any politician says on the eve of an election, ''Please saar listen please, with folded hands.''
The finest Lata solo, on my admittedly prejudiced list, is that sublime harmony of voice, word and music so delicate that you can hear it only through Lata's vocals, 'Ja ja re jaa baalamwa, Sautan ke sangh raat bitaayi kahe karat ab jhooti batiyaan'. See what heights Shankar-Jaikishan ascended when they got themselves out of the way. The verse, lifted by near-absence of instruments, is an exquisite blend of mischief hovering above pain and captures, with love, the ethos of an age. Sentiment steps outside boring adoration, and smiles at its own excess. A lover's complaint that never descends into the self-abasement of a moan. English cannot hope to convey the meaning of 'sautan', so we shall merely describe her as a woman's competitor for her lover's affections. He has just returned after spending nights with the other, and Lata's hurt voice keeps pushing him away, but never pushing him too far, for he belongs to her.
There are a hundred ways in which to rebuke a man for telling lies. Have you ever heard anything quite like 'Kaisa harjai, daiya!'? Hindi flowers in the spring of dialect. We might run our governments in English and write our balance sheets in Roman, but we sing, cry, laugh and love in Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Kashmiri, Tamil or any of the innumerable mother tongues with which our nation is blessed. The tongue of a mother could never write a proper balance sheet for it is too heavily overloaded with assets. How in heavens to do you translate 'daiya!'? Note, incidentally, the dexterity with which the short line is worked into seamless melody.
Lata sang the largest number of film songs for the first of the moderns, Laxmikant-Pyarelal. The partnership provided unforgettable music to eminently forgettable films like Inteqaam (the difficult 'Aaaa jaane jaan'). The Lata who could mesmerize you in Vyjanthimala's Madhumati ('Main to kab se khadi is paar...'), hypnotize you in Sadhana's Woh Kaun Thi ('Naina barsey rim jhim rim jhim') and perhaps tranquilize you in Bina Rai's Anarkali ('Yeh zindagi usiki hai, jo kisi ka ho gaya') could also energize you with Gen Next Mumtaz in 'Bindiya chamkegi, churi chamkegi...' This, too, is the song of a new epoch, as much of a breakthrough as 'Aayega aayega, aayega aanewala' in Madhubala's Mahal. In the 1970s, Lata skins the soppiness out of sentiment and tells her lover that she may or may not be around when he arrives with his baraat, and if he loses any sleep over this, tough luck.
Love is so much sweeter when sprinkled with sauce.